Last Photographed: Tuesday 15th July 2008
Llanthony Priory is an Augustinian monastic house dating back to the tail end of the 11th Century. It was founded by the Norman knight William de Lacy, who is rumoured to have chosen the location after visiting the valley on a hunting trip and finding shelter in the ruins of an earlier hermitage dedicated to St David. It's this hermitage from which Llanthony takes its name, being a contraction of the Llanddewi Nant Hoddni - 'the church of St David in the Hoddni Valley'.
William was moved to renounce his worldly life, and spent the rest of his years in religious devotion. In 1103AD, he was joined by Ernisius, chaplain to Henry I's wife, Matilda. Together, they adopted the rule of St Augustine, and founded a religious community in this remote location.
Henry I and Matilda were generous in their support, offering land grants and encouraging their nobles to do likewise. The site was quickly established as a priory in 1118AD and enjoyed rapid growth. Unfortunately, as Giraldus Cambrensis observed, Llanthony was 'fixed amongst a barbarous people'. This dangerous location appears to have been its early undoing. in 1135AD, following a Welsh national rising, the 40 canons retreated to Hereford, leaving no trace for later generations of their first Llanthony church. A new site was granted to them at Gloucester, and Llanthony Secunda was founded.
Renewed peace and patronage from Hugh de Lacy allowed a number of canons to return to the original site, and in 1180AD, work began on a new church. The ruins of this later building form the visible remains that we see today.
The size and grandeur of the later church make it one of the greatest medieval religious buildings in Wales. Despite the wealth and status granted by noble patronage though, it appears to have struggled throughout its history to really flourish. The remote location may have been ideal for monastic seclusion, but it also resulted in an isolation that would have made trade and pilgrimage both difficult and dangerous. By 1504, most of the canons had retreated to the second site at Gloucester, and only four remained at Llanthony. In 1539, the priory suffered under the avarice of Henry VIII and was dissolved.
Today, Llanthony is still very much off the beaten track. Heading away from the A465 and striking out along the narrow country lane that leads up the valley, there's still a real sense that you're heading out into the wilderness. The countryside retains a wild and rugged feel, and the rough terrain and thick tree cover speak of an ancient landscape free from the strictly managed fields and hedges that invariably characterise modern farming. The journey to the priory is a journey back in time. It's reassuring to know that such secluded and isolated spots still remain in this modern age.
The site of the priory is a bucolic idyll. Nestled amongst the hills and surrounded by trees, fields and streams, it's hard to imagine a more perfect location. The relative lack of people and the peaceful solitude of the valley guarantee a refreshing and introspective visit. This is, without a doubt, one of the finest locations that Britain has to offer.