26 September, 2015

Llanthony Priory

Llanthony Priory is a ruined twelfth-century priory in the Black Mountains of south-east Wales.

Llanthony Priory tower and nave
Llanthony Priory. The remains of the crossing tower with the north arcade of the nave and two arches of the south arcade. The south transept is to the right of the tower. The small pointed arch on the right of the south transept leads to the slype, a covered passageway between the south transept and the chapter house

Llanthony Priory lies in the Vale of Ewyas, a classical glaciated valley with steep sides and a flat valley floor. At the head of the valley, to the north, Gospel Pass leads over to the town of Hay-on-Wye. 

The valley changes direction at Llanthony, so the impression at the priory site is of being surrounded by hills. This gives the site a sense of being enclosed, separated from the rest of the world. Early Christian monastic foundations seem to have liked spaces that were clearly delineated, such as islands and ex-Roman forts, and the Llanthony Priory site has a distinct feeling of an island valley amongst the hills.

Map link: Llanthony Priory 

Llanthony was an Augustinian priory, founded in the early twelfth century by a Norman knight named William de Lacy. Tradition says that one day when out hunting he took shelter in a ruined chapel dedicated to St David, and then founded a priory on the same site. The ruins of the priory church visible today belong to a grandiose rebuilding project conducted by the de Lacy family in the period 1180-1230.

The priory was in decline by the beginning of the sixteenth century, and after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII it was left to decay.  The prior’s house on the west side of the cloister was converted into a private house and is now the Priory Hotel.  The welcoming bar in the undercroft was probably once the prior’s cellar – highly appropriate that it still retains something approximating to its original use – and is a great place to stop for a beer on a long bike ride (sustenance is in order before tackling the climb over Gospel Pass).

The Priory Hotel and the remains of the nave
The Priory Hotel and the remains of the nave

The north arcade of the nave still has a complete set of standing arches

Looking across the site of the cloisters (which would have occupied the open lawn in the foreground) to the nave, with the ruins of the crossing tower on the right and the Black Mountains in the background

The south and west walls of the crossing tower still stand to some height

The crossing tower from the east end, with the nave beyond

Looking along the nave to the remains of the crossing tower, with the remains of the south transept on the right

The arches of the nave arcade are pointed arches in the Gothic style. But the row of smaller windows above the arch in the tower are round arches in the Norman style.

Close-up of the upper windows in the crossing tower

The south transept also has round arches standing

Round arch in the south transept

Mixed styles are very common in British medieval churches, because architectural fashions could change in the decades that it took to build a large church, and building designs were frequently altered during construction. Presumably the builders of Llanthony Priory church started at the east end with the traditional Norman round arch style, and then decided to adopt the fashionable new pointed Gothic arch as the church building progressed west.

The place name, Llanthony, looks at first sight as though the church should be dedicated to St Anthony, with the Welsh ‘llan’ (church) and the saint’s name.  However, the parish church on the site is dedicated to St David, the patron saint of Wales, and the priory church was dedicated to St John.  So where does St Anthony come into it?

The answer is that he doesn’t. The Welsh name is Llanddewi Nant Honddu, ‘the church of St David in the valley of the [river] Honddu’, a completely accurate descriptive name describing the dedication of the parish church (and the original chapel) and its location.  The ‘Nant Honddu’ seems to have been transformed into ‘Anthony’, perhaps through being misheard by non-Welsh-speakers who made sense of it as best they could.