GWENT'S FORGOTTEN PAST: Monks, Methodists and a turbulent priest

First published in News by

Unusual customs and Catholic persecutions, BECKY CARR looks into the history of religion in Gwent.

FRENCH monks colonised Tintern Abbey in the early 12th century and sent their first colony to Kingswood in Gloucestershire.

During the abbey’s early years from 1148 to 1157, Abbot Henry, a highly-spiritual man, took control of the community.

In his youth, he had been known as a robber but later repented and took the Cistercian habit.

Cistercians are members of a Roman Catholic monastic order founded in 1098. They were named after the first establishment at Cîteaux in Burgundy.

The order came about when a group of Benedictine monks from the abbey of Molesme became dissatisfied with the abbey and pledged to live a solitary life under the guidance of Rule of St Benedict.

In 1189, the Early of Pembroke William Marshal became Lord of Chepstow and Patron of Tintern.

He was also Lord of Leinster in Ireland and during a harsh storm at sea, he promised God that he would establish a new monastery if he was saved.

Tintern Abbey therefore sent out its second and final colony to Ireland and established the abbey of Tintern Parva, meaning Little Tintern,

By the 13th century, the monks at Tintern Abbey were tending more than 3,000 sheep on the surrounding farmland.

Around 20 monks and 50 lay- brothers would have been housed in the abbey and more than 3,000 acres of arable land surrounded them on both sides of the River Wye.

In 1245, the Bigod family inherited the Lordship of Chepstow. Roger Bigod III took an interest in the abbey and gifted his Norfolk manor to the abbey in 1301.

By the16th century, the manor was a quarter of the abbey’s income.

Roger Bigod began to build the abbey church in 1269 and was later considered to be the abbey’s founder despite monks already occupying the site for 130 years.

Tintern was one of the few Welsh abbeys that escaped damage by the wars of Edward II due to its remoteness.

Edward II was said to have stayed at the abbey in 1326 when fleeing the army of Roger Mortimer.

By the early 15th century, the abbey was experiencing financial difficulties but donations from pilgrims, visiting the ‘miraculous’ St Mary the Virgin statue, helped to offer some relief.

In 1535, the first Act of Suppression dissolved the house, which was granted to the Earl of Worcester, Henry Somerset.

l John Wesley, the co-founder of the Methodist Church, described the citizens of Newport as the “most insensible, ill-behaved people” he had ever seen while on a mission in Wales.

Welsey passed through the city in 1739 during a tour of the country which he documented in his diary.

He preached in Westgate Square and noted on October 19 that during his sermon an old man cursed and swore “almost incessantly and towards the conclusion took up a great stone, which he many times attempted to throw. But that he could not do. Such the champions! Such the arms against field-preaching!”

On returning to Newport in 1775, Wesley preached again to a larger, more serious congregation and after he wrote: “I believe it is five and thirty years since I preached here before to a people who were then as wild as boars. How amazingly the scene has changed.”

l The birth of non-conformity in Wales is being celebrated this year with the 375th anniversary of the Tabernacle United Reformed Church in Llanvaches.

The church was founded in 1639 by William Wroth, who was told to preach the Gospel in a dream.

A few years after he was inducted as a rector, a relative of his went to London to defend himself in a lawsuit and was acquitted.

The family arranged a grand homecoming party but the day he was due home, they heard he had died.

Wroth later had a dream that he had fallen into a river and was drowning. On the bank of the river he saw a young man with a sky-coloured cap or a crown on his head.

The man asked him: “What will you do to save your life?” Wroth replied: “I will do anything to save my life”. The man replied: “Make restitution, go preach the Gospel.”

After waking up, he vowed not to adhere to the established church doctrine if it interfered with his Christian conviction.

He had a number of confrontations with the Archbishop of Canterbury and due to his refusal to accept commands, he appeared before the High Commission in London in 1635, but no final judgement was reached.

After his conversion, Wroth began to attract large numbers of people from south and mid Wales, Herefordshire, Somerset and Bristol and began to refer to the gathering as the Llanvaches Gathering.

For the next 50 years the congregation worshipped in each other’s home or in the outbuildings of farms in the area.

In 1689 the first chapel was built in Carrow Hill as no landowner in the parish of Llanvaches would lease them a plot to build a church.

One hundred years later the gathering was reduced to one lady who was told that the minister would stop coming to Carrow Hill if membership did not increase.

During the following few weeks she approached the villagers and farmers in the area and by 1798 they purchased the leasehold of a plot in the parish of Llanvaches and the present Tabernacle was opened in 1802.

In 2011, the Reverend Shem Morgan published a definitive history of the first non-conformist church in Wales.

l Saint David Lewis was born in Abergavenny in 1616. He was the son of a Catholic mother, Margaret Pritchard, and a Protestant father, Morgan Lewis.

David was brought up as a Protestant but his other eight siblings were bizarrely bought up Catholic.

As a young man, David spent some time in Paris and while he was living there he converted to Catholicism.

After the deaths of his parents in 1638, David took a place at the English College in Rome and was ordained in 1642.

After becoming a Jesuit, Friar Lewis was sent on an English mission before briefly being recalled to Rome and then returning to Wales.

He was twice Superior of the Jesuit College of St Francis Xavier at the Cwm, on the England-Wales boarder.

The Cwm consisted of houses with several entrances and hidden passages between the walls.

The cellars were also accessible from both in and outside the houses and a tunnel ran out into neighbouring woods.

During the anti-Catholic frenzy generated by the Popish Plot, Catholics in general and Catholic priests in particular, were in even greater danger than usual.

The Government knew of the Cwm by about 1660 but it was not until 1678 that an investigation was ordered by the Bishop of Hereford.

By the time of the raid, the priests had evacuated.

On November 17, 1678, Friar Lewis was preparing to celebrate Mass when he was imprisoned in Monmouth Gaol. He was kept there until January 1679 and was executed on August 27, 1679 for the crime of being a Catholic priest and saying Mass.

Pope Paul VI canonised St David Lewis in 1970.

l An unusual custom involving tying strips of rag to a tree in Trellech which began in Medieval times has somehow managed to survived to the present day.

The tree is next to Trellech’s holy well, known as St Anne’s or The Virtuous Well, and used to be a place of pilgrimage.

It was believed that the water in the well had healing powers.

An inscription on a sundial in the church, dated 1689, indicated that Lady Magdalene Probert was responsible for the custom but it was a significant site for centuries before.

Pilgrims to holy wells would tie strips of cloth to nearby trees or throw bent pins into the water.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the water was considered particularly beneficial in the treatment of eye problems and for treating ‘complaints peculiar to women’.

It was also used as a wishing well. Girls wanting to know how long they would have to wait to be married would throw in a pebble and every bubble that rose to the surface counted as one month.

Comments (2)

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7:58pm Thu 28 Aug 14

Katie Re-Registered says...

Thanks for this, it's really fascinating stuff - must have been quite a challenge to cover such a long period of history in one article.

In medieval times, I believe there was also a friary in the area that's now Spytty Park which was used as a hospital. Spytty is actually a corruption of the Welsh for hospital 'Ysbyty' - apologies if I've spelt that wrong.
Thanks for this, it's really fascinating stuff - must have been quite a challenge to cover such a long period of history in one article. In medieval times, I believe there was also a friary in the area that's now Spytty Park which was used as a hospital. Spytty is actually a corruption of the Welsh for hospital 'Ysbyty' - apologies if I've spelt that wrong. Katie Re-Registered
  • Score: 1

11:24am Fri 29 Aug 14

Calon_Lan says...

With the rich history of Gwent and the Marches there is certainly enough material to keep a regular column going, many people would find it interesting.
Just a few points on the above though, if eight of St David Lewis's siblings were brought up as Catholics surely your report should read "bizarrely he was brought up a protestant"?
Secondly, sometimes a spell check can throw up some awkward prose, it can never take the place of a good proof read. The partition between England and Wales is the 'border', However, a 'boarder' is someone who 'boards' i.e. resides at a hostel or school. Thirdly and most importantly, St David Lewis was never a friar, he was a Priest. A friar is generally a member of one of the four mendicant orders - Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans or Carmelites. St David was a Jesuit and therefore a cleric regular and not a friar or a mendicant.
With the rich history of Gwent and the Marches there is certainly enough material to keep a regular column going, many people would find it interesting. Just a few points on the above though, if eight of St David Lewis's siblings were brought up as Catholics surely your report should read "bizarrely he was brought up a protestant"? Secondly, sometimes a spell check can throw up some awkward prose, it can never take the place of a good proof read. The partition between England and Wales is the 'border', However, a 'boarder' is someone who 'boards' i.e. resides at a hostel or school. Thirdly and most importantly, St David Lewis was never a friar, he was a Priest. A friar is generally a member of one of the four mendicant orders - Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans or Carmelites. St David was a Jesuit and therefore a cleric regular and not a friar or a mendicant. Calon_Lan
  • Score: 2

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