Llanthony was a house of the Augustinian order, the White Canons, not the White Monks. But it is on the traditional pilgrimage route from Gloucester through Monmouth and up this now-remote valley to Brecon and eventually to St Davids. The tradition of hospitality to pilgrims is maintained by the Abbey Hotel, whose buildings incorporate the cellars of the prior’s house. The inspiration for the founding of a monastery in this remote valley was akin in some ways to the inspiration which led the early Cistercians to seek hardship and solitude, though it was also rooted in the traditions of Celtic religious life.
Llanthony is on the traditional site of one of these earlier religious foundations, a hermitage or retreat house attributed to St David himself. From this the place takes its Welsh name, Llanddewi Nant Hoddni, the church of St David in the Hoddni Valley. At the end of the eleventh century, one of the family of the Norman lords of nearby Ewyas, William de Lacy, came to the Hoddni valley on a hunting trip. He found the ruins of David’s little hermitage and was so moved by them that he decided to spend his life there as a hermit. The fame of his sanctity spread and a few years later, in 1103, he was joined by Ernisius, the chaplain of Henry I’s wife Queen Matilda. Together they decided to found a small religious community in this remote location. The adopted the order of St Augustine, which was an order of canons rather than monks. Thios gave them more flexibility in their lifestyle and enabled them to go on serving the local community.
Matilda was devout as well as powerful: she and Henry gave generously to the new community and encouraged their followers to endow it with land. However, during the troubled reign of Henry’s nephew Stephen, the local Welsh rulers reasserted their rights over the land and the canons were forced to flee. They eventually set up a new house outside Gloucester (on a site which has recently been reopened to the public) and the original foundation in the Hoddni valley fell into ruins. Then in 1175 the heir of the de Lacy family returned from crusade and determined to revive the community on his own lands. The canons were encouraged to return and a magnificent new church and cloister range was built. More about its history, and photos, at http://www.monasticwales.org/site/45.
In spite of its original inspiration in the hermit cell of St David, the revived community was emphatically English in orientation and suffered during the Welsh wars of independence in the late thirteenth century and the Glyndwr uprising. By 1481 the original Llanthony had reverted to the status of a dependent priory of the Gloucester foundation. The buildings illustrate how the community had shrunk - parts of the church walled off, a fireplace inserted in one of the transepts, crude buttressing to deal with the effects of subsidence in the alluvial soil of the valley.
The abbey was finally closed in 1538 and the site and surrounding lands were sold to a Gloucestershire landowner, Nicholas Arnold. His main home was at Highnam, near Gloucester, and he used the abbey at Llanthony as a horse-breeding ranch. Nicholas was a courtier and soldier and a member of the king’s elite guard, the Gentleman Pensioners. In later life he became Lord Justice of Ireland, and it was here that he met the notorious (and unfortunately-named) Katherine Hoare, the wife of one of the English settlers in County Wexford. Sir Henry Sidney had been warned about Katherine when he became Lord Deputy, but Nicholas was not to be put off. He brought her back to England as his mistress and installed her at Llanthony. Eventually, he married her - but not in time to legitimise their children.
However, he left the Llanthony estates to their son, John Arnold. There was a protracted legal battle after Nicholas’s death, when his legitimate grand-daughter, Dorothy Lucy of Charlecote, tried to lay claim to Llanthony. By this time, Katherine had married again and moved away, so that only her servants were living in the abbey house. At one point they were besieged by Dorothy’s local supporters and penned up in part of the house - where, they complained, they could get no access to water and were forced to boil some beef in beer for their supper.
John eventually succeeded in claiming the Llanthony estates, but his troubles were not over. As a result of his mother’s conflict with the local branch of the Cecil family, he became involved in the Earl of Essex’s disastrous rebellion in 1601. It may have been the remoteness of his home which saved him: when Essex’s Welsh steward, Gelli Meyrick, rode down to London, gathering supporters as he went, he failed to collect John Arnold on the way. However, John and his mother both had a worrying few months of interrogation before they cleared themselves. Soon after that, John’s son Nicholas leased out the Llanthony estates and moved to Llanfihangel Court, an imposing Elizabethan mansion a few miles down the valley.
The family was again involved in the seamier side of politics in the late seventeenth century. In 1678, Nicholas junior’s son, another John and one of the MPs for Monmouthshire, gave a detailed report to the House of Commons on the activities of Catholics in his county. The allegations were really a concealed attack on Arnold’s political opponents, the Marquis of Worcester and his followers. However, they tied in with the paranioa about Catholicism which had resulted in the ‘Popish Plot’ scare earlier that year. Persecution of Catholics was revived; the Jesuit college at the Cwm in Llanrothal, near Monmouth, was destroyed, and in Monmouthshire alone, five Catholic priests were barbarously executed, including the saintly David Lewis.
The Arnold family died out in the male line and the estates passed through several hands in the eighteenth century. A Colonel Wood of Brecon rebuilt the south tower of the church as a shooting box. However, the unoccupied portions of the building were deteriorating. In 1803 Sir Richard Colt Hoare witnessed the collapse of the great west window, and on Ash Wednesday in 1837 the five central arches fell.
In about 1809 the estate was bought by the poet and author Walter Savage Landor, who fell in love with the beauty of the valley and dreamed of rebuilding the priory buildings and founding an ideal community there. For three years he lived in the prior’s house (now part of the hotel) while he commenced building a villa in the trees over looking the ruins. This was never finished and only fragments of the foundations can now be seen. Robert Southey and his wife stayed with him in the summer of 1811 and he may have written Count Julian and some of his other works here.
Landor had ambitions to become a model improving landlord: he rebuilt farms and improved the roads in the area, imported sheep from Spain and planted a number of trees. Alas, his schemes nearly bankrupted him and his idealism brought him into conflict with his tenants and the local authorities as well as the neighbouring landowners. With ruin staring him in the face, he was forced to leave. He handed the estate to trustees who managed it on more conventional lines and it was eventually inherited by his son. Landor’s abiding love for the place is summed up in his poem:
Llanthony! an ungenial clime
And the broad wing of restless time
Have rudely swept thy mossy walls
And rockt thy abbots in their palls.
I loved thee by the streams of yore
By distant streams I love thee more;
For never is the year so true
As bidding what we love adieu.
The site of the priory is now cared for by CADW and a recent programme of excavation and consolidation has made the history of the buildings much easier to understand.
The canons looked after local people, and had an infirmary south of the cloister. This is now the parish church - an atmospheric old building with some lovely eighteenth- and nineteenth-century wall memorials. Look out for the one with a long quote from the Book of Job:
'... As the cloud is consumed and vanisheth away so he that goeth down to the grave shall come up no more'.