The site through the ages
An archaeological investigation had revealed some “tesserae”- fragments of and important mosaic floor. This indicated that a high status Roman building had been on the site, perhaps the place where the legion’s standard were housed.
6th - 7th Centuries
Above the Roman layers was evidence of occupation in the 6th or 7th centuries when St Cadoc, one of the earliest celtic saints was active in this region. St Cadoc, often associated with Roman settlements (as at Caerleon), was responsible for setting up the first church in Monmouth about this time- quite possibly on this site.
11th - 12th Centuries
The Priory was founded by Withenoc (Gwethenoc) in 1080. Importantly, he was a Breton appointed by the Normans. The Priory was dedicated in 1101. There were clear Breton influences in the area and it is probably this background that led to the compilation of an important manuscript, “The Lives of the Welsh Saints” by the monks, now housed in The British Libraray. Such learned writing was a feature of the Priory for the next 60 years or so.
There were also many archaeological finds to show that the Priory was a hive of activity in the 11th and 12th centuries. Plenty of fossilised animal and fish bones along with pottery fragments indicated that the monks were enjoying “the good life”.
At this time, the land in front of the Priory sloped steeply and directly down to the River Monnow. On the left, the castle with FitzOsbern’s new stone tower would have been visible on slightly higher ground.
13th - 15th Centuries
Moving on to the 13th and 14th centuries, we read that the monks held extensive lands and buildings and the Priory dominated the life of the community. In the 14th century, when the Black Death caused great upheaval, the people flocked to the church for help. The Priory Church itself became a primary source of infection and the monks were greatly reduced in number. The beautiful oriel window overlooking the Monnow was built in the late 15th century.
16th Century- Suppression of the Priory
The influence of the Priory gradually diminished. The 1530s witnessed its suppression on the orders of a Cromwellian supporter, Dr John Vaughan, and the departure of the last priory and the sale of its contents.
18th - 20th Centuries
From the 18th century up until 1973, the Priory was the site of a school. From 1973 it served as a Youth Hostel and Parish Room. By 1999, when the Youth Hostel had closed, the Priory building was badly in need of attention. The vicar of St Mary's, the Reverend Canon James Coutts, decided to launch an appeal for an ambitious restoration scheme with the aim of making the Priory a place that could be used for events to serve the whole community.
Source for this page: "Stitches and Stories" by Eira Steggles, available for £1 from Monmouth Priory Office.
Who Was Geoffrey of Monmouth?
Geoffrey wrote two major works of literature – a poem on the life of Merlin and “The History of the Kings of Britain”. It is from the latter that he built up. His reputation – especially the writing about King Arthur. Geoffrey sets out his “Historia” as a true historical document; he uses a framework based on previous writers such as Gildas, Bede and Nennius, together with actual or adapted stories rooted in the Welsh oral tradition.
Many of his characters were actual historical figures, but his writing was embellished with his own colourful ideas and he brought the character terms to life in a way that had not been done before. When his book appeared in 1139, it was an instant best-seller. It was hand copied and recoiped, and translated from the Latin into other languages. Even today a number of manuscripts still exist in libraries throughout Europe. Geoffrey was at the centre of intellectual and cultural life at Oxford, and was aware that the learned classes were eager for knowledge of their own history. He astutely recognised “the gap in the market”.
Geoffrey is one of the few writers who had a major impact on European literature in the 12th Century. We know much more about the work that he produced than the man himself – but there are clues to be followed.
- He called himself Galfridus Monumotensis (Geoffrey of Monmouth) which suggests that he was born (circa 1090) and possibly grew up in the town, even though most of his adult life was spent at Oxford. He could have been of welsh or Breton parentage, but it was the Normans that he had to look to for career advancement.
- He tells us that he was asked to translate an old Welsh manuscript into Latin and so we know that he was at least able to understand Welsh.
- His writing demonstrated that he knew South East Wales well
- We can also gather from his writing that he had a knowledge of or access to the ancient stories of Wales.
- Three years before his death in 1155, he was appointed to a Welsh bishopric at Saint Asaph, North Wales.
Monmouth Priory Tapestry hangs upstairs in the Geoffrey Room and is made up of three panels. The background is worked in wool on canvas and the panels are embroidered on linen.
The left hand panel is of King Arthur with his queen, Guinivere, being crowned at Caerleon by Dubricius.
The central panel depicts Geoffrey of Monmouth writing his book.
The righthand panel depicts King Vortigern listening to Merlin telling him the legend of the red and white dragons.