History of St Mary’s Priory Church, Monmouth

A church has been on this site since 1101AD when it formed part of a Benedictine Priory founded by Withenoc – Lord of Monmouth c.1075 – c.1082. The mother church was located in St Florent just outside Saumur in France. After the disestablishment of the monasteries during the reign of King Henry VIII, the church went into decay – Monmouth Priory was dissolved in 1536.

The church was later restored by the Georgians, under the guidance of Smith of Warwick in 1773 and further by the Victorians, under the architect George Edmund Street in 1882 at a cost of £6172.00. The spire rises to 60m. and is the work of Nathaniel Wilkinson of Worcester.

The oldest surviving part of the original church is the Norman respond set into the tower which itself is 14th century.

Today’s church is a Victorian remodelling of a Georgian church which cost just over £6000 – the original designs cost £22,000 which could not be raised.  The interior dates from 1882 and was designed to accommodate 1000 people.  Both chapels were later additions.  Many pews have now been removed and replaced by chairs..    The pipe organ to the left of the chancel was rebuilt in 1992 and further dated in 1997 by Nicholson and co.

The Lady Chapel

The Lady Chapel contains an ‘English Altar’ with four riddel posts each with an unusual brass base and wrought iron capital supporting a newly gilded angel. The screen features the remarkable ironwork and woodwork of Letheren and Martin. H.H.Martin made the Speaker’s Chair in the House of Commons and the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

The Lady Chapel contains the Reserved Sacrament and is used every day for morning and evening prayer.

 The High Altar and Reredos


The high altar is backed by a reredos in the form of a picture which features the ‘Adoration of the Magi’.  It was painted by Watney Wilson RA and dated 1888.  Very little is known about the artist.

The Rood
The Rood (Anglo-Saxon word for CROSS) dominates the entrance to the Chancel in the church. On the rood, Mary and John are shown at the foot of the cross. This is in accordance with what we are told in the Gospel according to St. John.  (John 19:25,26).

The rood was originally plain wood but was painted in the early 70’s to fit into the colour scheme of the church dictated by the rich but deep colours of the stained glass windows.

The rood screen used to separate the Chancel from the Nave but was partly removed and relocated towards the back of the church to form a Narthex.

The Windows

Most of the stained glass is from the studios of Charles Eamer Kempe, a notable Victorian stain glass artist whose glass is to be found in some of the finest cathedrals in Great Britain.

The windows carry his trademark of three wheatsheaves or one wheatsheaf.  The most notable window is located in the tower at the West end of the church.  It is called the ‘Four Rivers Window’ and has Baptism as it’s theme – the four rivers are named in the window as Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates.  The reticulated tracery dates from c.1340 whilst the window is dated 1883.

The royal connection with Monmouth is further seen in the ‘Four Edwards Window’ on the South wall.  It features Edward VII who was a good friend of our local Lord Llangattock of the Hendre. The other three kings are Edward the Confessor, Edward I – the creator of Parliament and Edward the Black Prince.

The windows in the lady Chapel have as their subject The Passion. The window on the East wall depicts Christ on the Cross, flanked by St.Mary and St John. Tapestries hang behind each figure. Below the cross are seen the descent from the Cross, the Entombment and the Descent into Hell. One scene shows the devil crushed underneath the doors of Hell as Christ bursts in.

The window on the South wall features events preceding the Crucifixion. The top light shows Pilate presenting Christ to the Jews and Jesus with the sleeping disciples whilst the bottom lights show Christ carrying his cross and the soldiers mocking Jesus.

Boer War window at St Mary’s Church
Showing Henry V, the Medieval Monnow Bridge and Monmouth Borough Seal. 

Geoffrey’s Window

The Priory buildings are located across the green from the church and feature ‘Geoffrey’s Window’. This fine oriel window has the carved 15th century figures of a Knight, an Angel and a Miller supporting the bay.

Geoffrey of Monmouth is renowned for his book on the ‘History of the British Kings’ in which there are references to King Lear and the exploits of King Arthur.

The Icon

The word Icon is a Greek word meaning ‘image’. The icon that you see is that of ‘The mother of God of the Sign’. The Greek letters stand for ‘Mother of God’ -‘He who is’ – and ‘Jesus Christ’. The Church in Wales has an official Iconographer -The Revd. Brian Bessant who prayed through the painting of this Icon. One of the many prayers that can be said as you look upon this Icon is:

Lord God,
As I stand before this icon
Help me to understand that it is not so much I who is
Looking at you, rather, through this icon, Lord, it is
You who are looking at me.

Icons have new meanings to every onlooker. Perhaps Mary is saying: ‘ look! – take from me the very essence of my humanity and godliness – Jesus Christ.’
What do you think?

The Font

The Font of carved Portland stone and green Genoa marble was installed in the present position in 1982.

The Bells

There is a peal of eight bells which were recast by Abraham Rudhall in 1706 and renovated and rehung in 1982. A new oak and glass panelled screen fronts the new entrance to the tower and is the only memorial to the crew of H.M.S. Monmouth, which was lost with all 687 hands in 1914 off the coast of Chile.

The precise origins of the bells are unknown but prior to 1678 there were 5 bells. The sixth bell was cast on Jan.19th. 1678 by John Pennington, a local bell maker. At least two of the bells were removed and recast on the 23rd. June 1685 by Rudhall’s Bell Foundry in Gloucester. All the bells were rehung by Evan Evans of Chepstow in 1704 at a cost of £3.00. The existing ring of eight were recast in 1706 by Abraham Rudhall at a cost of £60. Oil for the new bells was 10 d a half pint in 1706.

In 1883 the bell frame was replaced at a cost of £200 by a new timber frame inscribed ‘George Day & Son, Church Bell Hangers, Eye, Suffolk, 1883’. All eight bells were overhauled in 1953 by Gillett & Johnson of Croydon. The bells fell silent in 1972 for repairs to the steeple which was seen to sway when the bells were rung. A new bell frame was installed in 1982 and the bells retuned by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry at a cost of £22,000. The bells are now pealed from a platform above the new entrance to the church.

The first recorded peal of five thousand and forty changes was mentioned in Pugh’s Hereford Journal on Wednesday 21st. December 1791. Local tradition has it that at least one of the bells was presented to the church by Henry V who took issue with having bells rung as he left Calais.