The Priory was founded in 1070 AD by Benedictine Monks and its church, now St Mary's Church, was dedicated in 1101 AD. The parent Benedictine Abbey was St Florent at Saumur in France. Monmouth Priory was endowed by St Florent with some of its income going annually to France. This continued into the 14th century. The Benedictine ideals of Prayer, Study and Hospitality are still relevant in the work of the Priory today. Traditionally the Priory was connected with Geoffrey of Monmouth whose 'History of the Kings of Britain' chronicles the coming of Christianity, the departure of the Romans and the legends of King Arthur. The building's beautiful oriel window with its castellated battlements is known as Geoffrey's Window.
Beneath Geoffrey's Window, three sandstone heads - the Knight, the Angel and the Miller - represent the government of the town, the parish and the business community respectively. They were sculpted by an anonymous mediaeval mason and today they serve as symbols of the partnership enjoyed between the Priory and the Town.
With the help of funding from the Heritage Lottery, this unique and beautiful building has been restored and improved as an amenity for the community. Keith Murray (who was also responsible for projects at Oxford Colleges and Lincoln Cathedral) was commissioned to draw up plans for the renovation of the building. The work involved local craftsmen and was completed in 2002, the furnishing and equipping of the Priory and the planting of the gardens were finished the following year.
From the front entrance this work can be seen on the left above the first flight of stairs. It represents the apostle Peter's attempt to walk on the water to Christ. "Lord, save me" - is a universal cry. Otto Maciag was born in Hungary in 1918, and went to school in Poland.
In September 1939 he was interned in Rumania, but escaped, and on reaching France, he joined the Polish army. He came to Britain and served with an anti-aircraft unit in Scotland. In 1945 he studied at Liverpool College of Art and was appointed head of the Art Department at Monmouth School in 1947, where he stayed for 31 years. He died in 2000.
Amongst his major works are two large ceramic murals in the chapel of Monmouth School.
At the half-landing this lovely oak carving is displayed. It was made by Maureen Jameson of Builth Wells and given to the Priory in 2003 by the generosity of Mary Lewis of the Skreen, Erwood, Powys.
As you climb the stairs you will see the original Scholars Boards from Priory Street Boys' School (1896 - 1973). Here are the names of the boys who 'passed the scholarship' to go to Monmouth School or the County School. There are many well-known Monmouth names on the boards and visitors often come to look for family names. Before 1896 the school catered both boys and girls, but when the girls moved to Overmonnow in 1896, the boys carved the date - 1896 - on the top hinge of the front door!
This hangs upstairs in the Geoffrey Room of the Priory and is made up of three panels. The background is worked in wool on canvas and the panels are embroidered on linen. The left hand panel is of King Arthur with his queen, Guinivere, being crowned at Caerleon by Dubricius (maybe you recognize Archbishop Rowan Williams who was Bishop of Monmouth when the tapestry was made.) King Arthur's shield 'Pridwen' with its image of the Virgin Mary is depicted in the circular design below with his sword 'Caliburn' in the initial 'A'. The River Usk flows through the panel. The central panel depicts Geoffrey of Monmouth writing his book. He is dressed in the black habit of the Benedictines and the image of the angel, taken from Geoffrey's Window on the outside of the building, is repeated in the circular panel below. The River Monnow flows through this panel. The righthand panel depicts King Vortigern listening to Merlin telling him the legend of the red and white dragons. The red dragon is below on the right with the white dragon in the initial 'V' and below is the River Wye. Postcards of the Geoffrey Tapestry are available. There is a most informative booklet available 'Stitches and Stories' cost £3.50 per copy.
Upstairs in the Quiet Room is a simple wooden cross made by Colonel Jack Willes, who died in 2004. He was a prisoner in Colditz during the Second World War.
Half-way up the back stairs is a mediaeval fireplace. This exciting discovery was made during the restoration work on the Priory in 2001.