Cradled among mountains, the border town of Abergavenny brings you face to face with the medieval past.
This walk is one of 13 separate circular routes which together make up the St Thomas Way.
Place and History
The town motto of Abergavenny (Welsh Y Fenni) is stitched into the great tapestry housed in the twelfth-century Tithe Barn (now a visitor centre): ‘Hostes Nunc Amici’ or ‘Enemies Now Friends’.
The motto reflects Abergavenny’s turbulent medieval history as a town in the March of Wales. No event represents the violence of this period as well as the Christmas Day Massacre of 1175, at Abergavenny Castle. The Norman Lord William de Briouze (or Braose – an ancestor of the William de Briouze who hanged William Cragh in Swansea) invited a group of Welsh princes and other leaders to a Christmas feast. Instead of offering hospitality, Lord William had his men murder his guests, leading to his epithet ‘The Ogre of Abergavenny’ in medieval Wales. According to some sources, Lord William later hunted down and murdered Cadwaladr, the seven-year-old son of one of his unfortunate guests. A story like this throws us right into the blood and horror of medieval border conflict, and brings us face to face with the individuals involved.
Another place to get face to face with men and women from Abergavenny’s medieval past is in the town’s historic St Mary’s Priory Church.
Founded in 1087, most of the visible church today is fourteenth century, with the Sanctuary dating to the twelfth century. St Mary’s is famous for its impressive medieval effigies and monumental sculpture, now mostly housed in the two chapels towards the east end of the church. Highlights include the carved alabaster tomb of Sir William ap Thomas (who began building Raglan Castle, and died 1446) and his wife Gwladys, and the magnificent tomb of Sir Richard Herbert of Ewyas (died 1510), with a tiny ‘beadsman’ (a monk praying with a rosary) hiding under his foot. Here you will also find the tomb of Eva de Briouze (Braose), cousin of the Lord William de Briouze who hanged William Cragh. She married William de Cantilupe, Lord of Abergavenny – the older brother of Thomas Cantilupe (who became St Thomas of Hereford).
The Hanged Man’s Journey
The story of medieval Swansea’s hanged man, William Cragh, brings us face to face with many individuals who witnessed or participated in the strange events.
Adam of Loughor was about fourteen years old at the time of the hanging, in 1290. In his testimony, he explains how he found a spot on the walls of Swansea with a good view of the execution. Later, he went to visit the body of Cragh when it was laid out in the house of Thomas Mathews. Adam gives gory details of the scene:
‘lying prostrate on the ground, head downwards and dead, covered except for the face by his cloak; and the eyes of William himself were hanging down outside of their sockets, and part of his tongue was outside his mouth, the teeth firmly pressed together wounding it, and it was black.’
Unsurprisingly, Adam adds that ‘out of fear, he did not dare to approach him’.
Henry Skinner, a local man whose name suggests he was involved in Swansea’s thriving leather trade, stood at the foot of the gallows to watch the hanging. He recognised and named the kinsmen of Cragh whom he saw forced to hang their relative. He also saw up close the messy physical signs that Cragh was surely dead.
William of Codineston was a priest and chaplain to the ruling Norman de Briouze family. He reports how he accompanied Cragh and the other condemned man to the West Gate of Swansea, and took Cragh’s confession. But he did not follow the execution squad out of Swansea and up Gibbet Hill, because he felt it would not be appropriate to his ‘priestly office’. He remembers that, after his revival, Cragh came to meet with Lord de Briouze in Swansea Castle, ‘with great fear and panic’, because he didn’t yet know if he would be hanged again.
Lady Mary de Briouze, the only female witness whose testimony is recorded, was with her ladies in her chamber in Swansea Castle and saw nothing of the events. But it was Mary who chose to pray to St Thomas to intervene and save William Cragh. Why did she pray for Cragh to be saved? What are the unknown, forgotten stories here?
A place for dreaming
Abergavenny Priory contains a remarkable piece of medieval sculpture: Jesse, fast asleep, dreaming of his descendants – all leading up to Jesus. This world-famous sculpture has recently been linked with a Jesse Window (by Helen Whittaker) that depicts his dream, with Welsh saints and many other symbols incorporated. From the breast of the sleeping medieval Jesse the stem of the tree emerges, and it leads to the stem in the modern window of his dream.
What do we dream of for family, friends, ourselves, or the world we live in? Scripture says that ‘Where there is no vision the people perish’. We need dreams so that we can have hope in the present and find energy for building the future. We need visions so that we can live.
Lord, make me a person able to dream dreams and see visions of your Kingdom coming on Earth as it is in Heaven. Inspire me to work for justice and peace, and to hasten the day when your will is done in love, mercy and compassion. Grant me vision so that I can bring life to the world.
Spring and summertime visitors to St Mary’s Priory, Abergavenny, may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the erst (group) of mason bees who make their home in the sunny, south-facing wall of the Priory.
Mason (or mortar) bees are small, furry creatures which like to nest in solitude in the individual holes in the mortar joints, soft bricks and stones of old walls. There are over twenty species of mason bees in Britain, with the most common being the Red Mason Bee (Osmia rufa). They resemble the honeybee in appearance and tend to be very placid in temperament, only known to sting when squeezed or squashed.
Local legend holds that the mason bees at St Mary’s are the descendants of a swarm of bees previously kept by the nuns at the Priory. Beekeeping is an ancient practice and during the Middle Ages most farms and monastic institutions would have kept bees to collect the honey for food, baking confectionary and brewing mead (the world’s oldest alcoholic drink), as well as the wax for candles.
The bees were kept in conical baskets called skeps, made from woven wicker bands with a daub (mud) coating. Medieval beekeepers would have used sulphur smoke to calm or even kill off the bees and then break open the hive and retrieve the honeycomb.
Whether or not the bees are the distant relatives of a domestic medieval hive, St Mary’s Priory are proud of their mason bees, and decided to include one in the beautiful stained glass ‘Jesse Window’, installed in 2016 and designed by Helen Whittaker.
Specially-chosen music for this location from Hereford Cathedral, a medieval ecclesiastical soundscape, and present-day ambient sound from Abergavenny Indoor Market.
Distance: Approx. 2 miles
Time: Approx. 1 hour
Access: Easy, some slopes and gentle inclines up the High Street; mostly paved with level access, suitable for wheelchairs and buggies
- Start your walk at St Mary’s Priory and Tithe Barn. St Mary’s Church originally served the eleventh-century Benedictine Priory and is one of the largest churches in Wales; it is home to many fine monuments, including the ‘Jesse Tree’. The Tithe Barn dates back to the Twelfth Century and used to store the taxes owed to the Priory monks; it now houses an exhibition showing the history of the Priory, the Abergavenny Tourist Information Centre, and a gift shop. Cross over to the far side of Monk Street, using the pedestrian crossing to your right and follow the road to your left towards Cross Street. Turn Right onto Cross Street, passing the Town Hall and Market on your right. Cross the road at Market Street onto the High Street.
- Turn left onto Flannel Street, then right onto St John’s Street, turning right again to follow St John’s Street back onto the High Street. Abergavenny was once famed for its soft, light woolen flannel, woven here in the town. The remains of a loom were found in a building here, indicating that Flannel Street was the likely location of a flannel-weaving workshop. Turn left to continue up the High street and then turn left again onto Nevil Street.
- Nevil Street leads onto St John’s Square, the site of the Medieval Market place. Cross the road at Castle Street and turn right onto Tudor Street. Tudor Street was the site of the West Gate.
- Turn left off of Tudor Street onto the garden, turning left through the archway. Walk down the bank to continue on the footpath following the sign to ‘Castle Meadows’ and pass through the gate. Walk through the meadows to the Usk River During the Middle Ages, the Castle Meadows were used as grazing land for cattle, sheep and other animals.
- When you reach the River Usk, turn left and follow the path that leads along the riverbank. At a ‘t’ junction, take the path on the left which goes uphill towards the remains of Abergavenny Castle. The path, signed ‘Cycle Route 42’ towards Town Centre/Hay-on-Wye, follows the contours of the castle motte, which was built in 1087 by the Normans.
- On your right you will see the remains of the castle, which lead through to the Museum. Finish your walk at the castle, the site of the Christmas Day Massacre of 1175. If you used the Priory car park, leave the castle and turn left onto Castle Walk, cross the road at Cross Street and follow the pavement back to the car park.