A Visit to Ewenny Priory

Ewenny Priory, c.1775!


To visit Ewenny Priory, we can take the Southerndown bus as far as the village and, on the way there, we should get a good view of the Priory across the Ewenny Valley with the woods and hills behind it and the river and marshes in front.

On getting off the bus and walking up the lane towards the Priory, we should first come to what appears to be the battlemented wall of a castle and this impression would be confirmed by the main gateway with its great tower, the grooves for the portcullis and the openings in the floor of the guardroom above from which boiling pitch or lead could be poured down on any would-be attackers. Ewenny was both priory and castle in one-one of the best, if not the best, example of a fortified monastery in the British Isles. If it were possible to look down on the monastery from above, we should find that the defences formed a rough parallelogram with the North (i.e., the lane side) and the South sides as the longer ones, and that the Church probably formed part of the original defence system on the north side. The circuit of the walls was c.600 yards and the area enclosed nearly 5 acres.

The defences were strongest on the North side which, in addition, was protected by the River Ewenny and, beyond that, the marshes (in fact, streams surround the defence on three sides and there was possibly, in medieval times, a moat on the fourth side). It is thus fairly easy to conjecture that the builders feared most the attacks if the Welsh to the North – for, behind the monastery, was the Vale (Y Fro) and this was in friendly (i.e. Norman) hands. When the Normans penetrated into Glamorgan  at the end of the 11th Century, they soon over-ran the fertile lowlands of the Vale and kept control of it by building strong points at all strategic points. Ewenny was one of these and fitted into the defence system of the Ogmore Valley- the other three strong points being Ogmore Castle near the confluence of the Ewenny and Ogmore Rivers, the seat of lordship of Ogmore given to William de Londres; Newcastle guarding an important ford across the river and, at first in the hands of the Lord of Glamorgan himself, Robert Fitzhamon; and, lastly, Coity Castle whose first Norman lord was Pagan (or Payn) de Turberville. If we were to climb to the top of the tower by the main Ewenny gateway, we should have a wonderful view of all the country guarded by these strong points and of the hills (Y Blaenau) form which the Welsh would swoop down to burn and plunder these lands. A beacon would be lit on top of this tower to give warning of any such attack and would be clearly seen by the watchers in Ogmore, Newcastle and Coity. Mr. H. J. Randall has suggested that possibly Ewenny acted as a supply base to these three castles.

If we were to continue further along the lane from the main gateway, we should come to the churchyard and the North entrance to the Church itself.  Because the ruined North transept was pulled down nearly 150 years ago, we cannot see from the churchyard the cruciform shape of the Church – this is only possible from the S.E., i.e., from the private grounds of the mansion. Like all monastery churches, however, Ewenny was originally built in the shape of a cross, the longer – western – limb being the nave, the shorter – eastern – limb forming the presbytery and the cross-piece containing the North and South transepts with the choir between them in the central point. The square tower was above the choir.

If we enter the Church through the Tudor North Porch, we pass into the western end of the nave and, if we were to stand facing the altar, we should notice immediately the contrast between the Norman style of the greater part of the Church and the Tudor style of the North aisle on our left with its wide Tudor windows. We cannot help noticing the massive Norman pillars with their solid square bases and their plain capitals and the almost unadorned round Norman arches. We wonder, too, why the windows on our right (i.e. on the South side of the Church) are so small and so high up and then we remember that, when this Church was built in the early 12th century, the roof of the North Walk of the cloister reached to just below the windows on the outside. Originally, there would have been similar small windows on the North side on our left too, partly because craftsmen had largely lost the art of glassmaking since the departure of the Romans at the beginning of the 5th century and partly because large windows were not desired on the side open to hostile attack by the Welsh. The large Tudor style windows and the North aisle itself were built after the accession of the Tudors when there was peace and friendship between English and Welsh. The solid West Front behind us was built just over 100 years ago but the remains of the original Norman West Front and doorway can be seen by going outside. In turning round to look at the West Front, we see the very old font.

If we were to go up the middle aisle towards the altar, we should see that behind the altar is a solid stone wall (8 ½ feet high) with a carved wooden beam on top of it and we realise at once that there were two churches under the same roof in Ewenny. So far we have been only in the parish church – the part used for centuries by people of the surrounding countryside– but, if we were to turn to our left by the Altar, we should go through the modern vestry built on part of the site of the original North transept into the monastic church. (In doing this, we should see some of the original tiles from the floor of the North transept. Some of these bear arms of the Abbey of St. Peter’s at Gloucester – “the cross – keys of St. Peter and the sword of St. Paul”).  This part of the Church i.e., the transepts with the choir between them and the presbytery would have been used only by the monks and we can see, while standing in the choir, what a strong stone wall there was separating them from the ordinary people of the parish on the other side.

If we were to enter the presbytery, we should see that it is vaulted and that the floor has modern replicas of the original tiles. It has a pre-Reformation altar, i.e., one with the five crosses symbolising the five wounds of Christ and, in the North wall, i.e., on our left as we face the Altar, is a hagioscope, i.e., an opening in the wall to let anyone in the side chapels see the High Altar in the presbytery. Thus the Sacristan (the monk who looked after the monastic building) would be able to see, without going into the presbytery, that the candles were burning on the Altar and the priest would know when to ring the Sanctus bell during Mass.

How was it that these black – robed Benedictine monks had been sent to Ewenny by the Abbey of St. Peter’s of Gloucester? Well, if we move out of the Presbytery and along the choir to the South transept, we come to a tombstone on which is s Norman French inscription which can be translated as follows: -
“Here lies Morice de Londres, the Founder,
God reward him for his service. Amen.”

Maurice de Londres did actually give Ewenny to the Abbey of Gloucester in 1141 but the Church must have been built some time before this and so it is probable that the Church was built, on the site of a previous Welsh church, on the orders of the first Norman Lord of Ogmore, William de Londres, and presented, with other lands, by his son, Maurice, to the Benedictine Abbey of St. Peter’s of Gloucester in 1141, the number of monks being fixed at not less than 13.

We know little of the history of the Priory at this time as its records have been lost but Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald the Welshman) tells us that he passed by “the little cell of Ewenith” in 1188 on his way from Llandaff to Margam as he accompanied Archbishop Baldwin on his tour through Wales to preach the Third Crusade. We also know that Edward 1st spent the night of 13th December, 1284, here on his way from Margam to Cardiff. Otherwise it is left to our imagination to people this Church with black robed, tonsured monks – perhaps to stand in the shadows and watch them some stumbling into the midnight service through the little door in the S.W. corner of the South transept, each monk, cold and sleepy, catching hold of the monk in front of him and then taking his rightful place for the service. We watch one monk take a lantern and flash it into the faces of the other monks to make sure all are awake and we can see one monk hastily stifling a yawn – for yawning is not allowed in the Church. When the service is over, they file away through the same little door, up the cold stone stairs and through the little doorway in the turret which leads to their dormitory and so each one goes to his bed in one of the little cubicles which opened off the central gangway down the dormitory and so to sleep until the next service at 5 a.m. (There were eight of these services during the 24 hours as the main duty of the monks was the worship of God.)

There are other tombstones in the South transept besides that of Maurice “the founder” – there is that of his son, William de Londres and also that of Hawise de Londres, through whom the lordship of Ogmore passed from the de Londres family to the Duchy of Lancaster and so eventually to the Crown. There is another, too, of more doubtful origin but it is possibly the tombstone of Gilbert de Turberville, Lord of Coity and one the early benefactors of the Priory, who desired to be buried in Ewenny.

Thus the Priory continued until, when Henry VIII made himself Head of the Church in England and Wales by the Act of Supremacy, 1534, there were only two monks left besides the Prior and these three, on 11th September, 1534, signed a declaration accepting Henry as their rightful Head instead of the Pope. Three years later when the Abbey of Gloucester surrendered to the King, Ewenny was leased to Sir Edward Carne of Nash for 99 years on condition that he provided a priest for the parish church, kept the Church and other buildings in repair and paid £20 10s. 0d. a year to the former Prior of the cell. We do not know what happened to this Prior and his two monks but, in 1546, when Sir Edward Carne bought the Priory and all its lands for £727 6s. 4d., there was no mention of them and no conditions were laid down as to what Carne should do with the Church or the lands. The parishioners were, however, allowed to go on using their part of the Church and they bought the one bell in the tower above the choir for their own use. This was replaced by a new bell in the 19th century.

If we were to look or a memorial to this Sir Edward Carne in the South transept, we should fail to find it for his tombstone is far away – in Rome! He was, in spite of the favour shown him by Henry VIII and Edward VI and his purchase of the Ewenny lands, a Catholic at heart and Queen Mary Tudor appointed him as English Ambassador to the Holy See. When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 and established a moderately Protestant Church in England, Sir Edward Carne seems to have been afraid to come back to Wales in case he would have to give up his lands if he remained a Catholic as he wished, and so he begged the Pope to refuse to let him leave Rome. This the Pope did and Elizabeth, in order to free him as she thought, took up the matter with King Phillip II of Spain. When Phillip used his influence with the Pope to try to secure Carne’s release, the true facts of the situation had to be explained to him and he then gave evasive replies to Elizabeth. So Carne remained in Rome until his death in 1561, but his descendants kept his lands at Ewenny and lived in the Tudor mansion which was built where the monastic buildings had stood and that is why we to-day cannot go out into the cloisters through the door in the west wall of the South transept and actually see the remains of the Chapter House, the Refectory, the Kitchen, the Warming Room, etc. All these must have been pulled down and their stone used to build the new house, but this is not the mansion which we can see to – day. The old Tudor mansion fell into disrepair at the end of the 18th century and was largely rebuilt at the beginning of the 19th century. The monastic church too (not the parish church) had fallen into disrepair, mostly through disuse, and we have a picture of it at this time showing pigs in it and chickens being fed. There is also evidence that it was used as a cowshed!

Some memorial tablets to the descendants of Sir Edward Carne may be seen in the South transept, notably an altar tomb of an Edward Carne who died in 1650 and of his great-grandson, John Carne, a young boy of 15 who died in 1700 and was the last of the male Carnes so that, on the death of his sisters, Ewenny passed to the Turbervilles in which family it has remained until the 20th century.

P.L. Bennett, Writing for The Festival of Britain Guide of Bridgend, 1951!

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