St Mary's Priory Church
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St Mary's Priory Church information
Lonely Planet review
The relatively modest-looking St Mary's Priory Church has been described as the 'Westminster Abbey of South Wales' because of the remarkable treasury of aristocratic tombs that lies within. During the official opening hours there's usually a volunteer warden around to answer questions; outside of these times, ask at the neighbouring Tithe Barn to have the doors unlocked.
St Mary's was founded at the same time as the castle (1087) as part of a Benedictine priory, but the present building dates mainly from the 14th century, with 15th- and 19th-century additions and alterations. A graceful, worn, carved-oak effigy (1325) in the north transept commemorates Sir John de Hastings, who was responsible for the church's 14th-century transformation. It survived Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries by being converted into a parish church, making it an interesting counterpoint to the ruins of nearby Tintern and Llanthony abbeys.
The oldest memorial (1256) is the stone figure near the sanctuary of Eva de Braose, Lady Abergavenny, portrayed holding a shield. Her husband William was hanged after being found in the bedchamber of Prince Llywelyn the Great's wife, daughter of England's King John; the family tradition of royal adultery and execution continued with their direct descendant, Anne Boleyn.
In the northern transept is one of the most important medieval carvings in Europe – a monumental 15th-century wooden representation of the biblical figure of Jesse. It was the base of what must have been a mighty altarpiece showing the lineage of Jesus and the only such figure to survive the Reformation.
The Herbert Chapel is packed with recumbent effigies. Most depict members of the Herbert family, starting with Sir William ap Thomas, founder of Raglan Castle, and his wife Gwladys – Sir William's feet rest on a lion that looks like it was modelled on a sheep. The oak choir stalls were carved in the 15th century (note the lively misericords and the little dragons at the ends).