Llanthony sits in the secluded but beautiful Vale of Ewyas on the eastern edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park. Walking amongst the ruins and surrounding landscape, with little bits of knowledge of the site you can create a clear image of this religious landscape. Here in this beautiful landscape is a preserved medieval landscape, bringing you closer to people and the priory which once dominated this valley.
A Landscape of Religion
The site’s religious association is thought to have begun in the early medieval period with the foundation of a chapel to St David, but possibly dating as far back as the 6th century. The early religious association is indicated in the name of Llanthony, Llan is placename term referring to a boundary marker called a Llan, which defined the edges of early medieval monastic settlements. Legend has it that St David once lived here in a cell, the location just as it is today, relatively remote, away from major population centres. Today next to Lanthony priory is the church of St David, which constructed in the 12th century, is today continuing the sites religious function, a continuation which may be almost 1500 years.
This is a landscape of religious significance, we can see why the Augustinian priory was established here, building on a tradition of religion which is associated with past significance of St David himself, Wales’s patron saint and a person who is worthy of pilgrimage (to St Davids). By linking their priory to this landscape and St David the Canons were establishing their position as an important religious institution with illustrious origins. This distinguished origin to the site can be claimed through their founder’s religious experience (William de Lacy) when sheltering in the chapel of St David from a storm, resulting in the foundation of the priory, through this the argument could be made that St David was their founder, communicating through William de Lacy. Gerald of Wales knew this and accordingly noted it in his book “The Journey through Wales” “A situation truly calculated for religion, and more adapted to canonical discipline, than all the monasteries of the British isle” (1).
For the people who lived in the area this landscape would have already been an important religious landscape and as a result of the chapel and the known foundation of this chapel by St David. With the establishment of the priory this story took a new dimension for these people, with the origin of this foundation known to be as a result of a religious experience, building on the idea of this site being of religious significance.
The Priory we see Today
The priory established by Hugh had a fiery start, the first phase was a church dedicated to St John the Baptist, but was reorganised as a priory in 1118 and endowed with land by Hugh de Lacy. The priory attracted royal patronage and hosted many visitors, by 1135 there were 40 canons, however the warfare of the Anglo-Welsh wars led to the destruction of this priory and forced the Canonsto retreat to Gloucester, with peace and funding from the de Lacy family Canons returned and thus begun the priory we see today built between 1180 and 1230 (2).
Beyond the immediate landscape of the priory is the Vale of Ewyas, a long steep-sided valley known for its secluded nature and as anyone who has been to Llanthony knows, it is a slow drive to reach the priory. Gerald of Wales described the valley as being “no more than three arrow-shots in width” (1) for many religious establishments this was ideal, away from population centres and able to dedicate their lives to worship and God as Augustinian Canons. They sought to be involved in the surrounding landscape and local communities through setting good examples of farming, worship, medical care and education. The landscape is remote and creates a degree of privacy and seclusion but as has been seen, this landscape would not seem so remote when acting as a landscape of war, this valley was a routeway into Wales and sat in contested marcher lands which remained vulnerable to conflict between the Welsh and the Anglo-Normans, especially during the 11th and 12th century as the priory experienced.
A Landscape of Journeys
This landscape was also a landscape of journey and witnessed the journeys of the one greatest writers of medieval Wales, famous for his shared Norman-Welsh heritage and the final journey of a king to his unfortunate end. These were Gerald of Wales and Edward II. As people move through this landscape they make this landscape ever more human, each person building up the layers of human activity and experience creating new narratives and memories.
Gerald of Wales experienced this landscape as he travelled through the valley on the onset of his journey across Wales preaching support for the 3rd crusade. On his way Gerald described the valley and priory in detail. Gerald’s experience of the landscape would had been influenced by many factors from the conservations with the likes of Archbishop Baldwin and his own intimate knowledge he posed of the priory from its historical foundation to the more recent history, its positon in the Welsh marches and not to mention the physical landscape itself. Edward II’s journey on the other hand was under duress, he was in affect deposed, the landscape for him may well have created a different experience to that of Gerald, that of fear for his life or perhaps religious thoughts as a result of his stay being on Palm Sunday. It is worth noting that Edward was on his way to what would be his final stop, Berkley castle, where many believed he was murdered.
There may had been many shared factors that influenced their experiences, people working in the fields, the people of the priory, even the most everyday things from being hungry to the weather. Wind and rain can defiantly alter are experiences and especially our happiness!
We today continue interacting with the landscape by traveling through it, maybe along the valley bottom or along the top on the Offa’s Dyke path. Maybe by bike, car or foot. Every time we travel through this landscape we add to this human phenomena, a landscape created by us and continuing to develop as a result of us, building ever deeper roots creating a rich tapestry of archaeology and history.
Sources used in text
1. Gerald of Wales, 2004, The Journey Through Wales and the Description of Wales, Penguin, London
2. Thomas J, 2009, Llamthony Priory, in, The Castles of Wales, (internet source http://www.castlewales.com/llantho.html )
3. Photos Author