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The mysteries of Ewenny Priory

Ewenny Priory is recognised by countless textbooks as the finest example of unmodernised, Norman ecclesiastical work in Britain. But despite its renown, it still holds many secrets. Not least of which, why a place supposedly built to house just 12 monks and a prior is quite so big? And given that the principal pursuit of those monks was study, scribing and worship, why was it built like a mighty fortress?

To get to the bottom of all that, we need to know something about its benefactor; Maurice De Londres and what he is likely to have had in mind when he commissioned it.

Even by the standards of other Norman, warrior knights, De Londres was a brute. He had a fearsome reputation which was dramatically encapsulated when he decapitated Princess Gwenllyan of Dehaubarth in Kidwelly. He was certainly not known to be a godly man.

He had always intended to build a mighty castle in Ewenny to provide the local Norman lordships with what scholars have ever since described as a “quadrilateral defence” of the main crossing points of the Ewenny and Ogmore rivers. With Coity and Newcastle to the North, and Ogmore and Ewenny to South. But if that was his plan, what persuaded him to instead build what we still describe today as “a priory”, a place fundamentally intended to be “a house of God”?

There is a commonly held belief that at some point, De Londres built the priory as a way of atoning for his former sins (just as Richard De Glanville did when he financed the Abbey in Neath). Call me cynical, but I am not altogether convinced by that theory. I believe that instead, his true motivation was a decree issued by Pope Honorius II himself, dated 12th April 1128 (six years after work had begun on the site). It threatened De Londres that if he did not “restore and make good whatever lands, tithes, obligations, or other valuables he had appropriated from his mother church…” – that he would be ex-communicated. In other words, De Londres had clearly plundered a pre-existing monastic building on the site and had already begun building a castle on it. But the Pope wanted it back.

There are records of this older site. The 12th Century “Book of Llandaff” lists a Celtic cell dedicated to the early Welsh saint, St Eguenni in the area. The fact that the pope had threatened De Londres with ex-communication, a fate of social disgrace from which a nobleman could not recover meant he had made De Londres an offer he could not refuse.

To say that De Londres was reluctant would be an understatement, so he built what was fundamentally the fortress he was going to build anyway but to appease the Vatican, annexed it to a priory cell and turned over its custody to the Benedictine order of St Peter at Gloucester Abbey. Hence its size. It needed to be big enough to house 13 monks to keep the pope happy, plus a detachment of men-at-arms to help De Londres subdue the troublesome Welsh.

It seems that beyond the Vatican, there was little pretence of what he had done. King Edward I stationed troops at the priory to assist with his invasion of West Wales, so he clearly knew of its intended purpose. And nearly 200 years later, when Owain Glyndwr laid siege to Coity Castle in 1405, King Henry IV stayed and launched his counterattack from Ewenny Priory. So even he knew that this priory was a castle really and only a priory in name. There is evidence to suggest that the King was also compliant in the deception as he went on to nominate Hugh Morton, the Prior at Ewenny at the time, to be appointed the next Abbot of St Peter’s Gloucester. A huge promotion for him and doubtless a reward for maintaining the pretence of what Ewenny Priory really was if the Pope ever asked.

Graham Loveluck-Edwards (published in the Glamorgan Star newspaper 18 November 2021)

If you are interested in the history of the Bridgend and Vale of Glamorgan area, why not give my book a go? It’s all about the history, the many legends and the abundance of folklore of the area and is called ‘Legends and folklore of Bridgend and the Vale’. Available from all good independent book shops, Amazon, or direct from the author at http//grahamloveluckedwards.co.uk