The origins of this building go back to the Norman Conquest. Bernard de Neufmarche built a castle in Brecon in 1093 and gave an existing church, on this spot, to his confessor, Roger the Monk from Battle Abbey in Sussex – a long way from Brecon! Roger built the priory church, dedicated to St John the Evangelist, and, in 1106, a monk called Walter became the first prior.
The church was rebuilt and extended in the Gothic style in the 13th century, but the font survives from the original, along with stones at the east end of the nave. Various alterations were made over the following centuries. The top section of the tower was added in the 16th century.
The priory built St Mary’s Church, in the centre of Brecon, as a chapel of ease. With the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537, the priory church survived as the parish church of St John. It became Brecon Cathedral in 1923, three years after the Church in Wales was disestablished (separated from England’s established church, headed by the monarch). The cathedral is the mother church of the diocese of Swansea and Brecon. Diocesan officers are based in surviving monastic buildings in the cathedral grounds.
Inside the cathedral you can see Wales’ only surviving cresset stone, a rock in which 30 holes have been gouged in neat rows. There were probably several such stones at the priory complex. The holes were filled with oil to light dark corners and steps. Even in summer the monks rose when it was dark outside – the monastic day started at 2am!
Visitors can also find objects and information relating to archers who served in 1415 at the Battle of Agincourt, where the greatly outnumbered army of King Henry V defeated the French army, partly through superior archery. It is said that some archers sharpened arrows on a stone in the cathedral which bears many grooves. A board lists 150 Agincourt archers from Brecknock including, for example, David tew ap Howell ap Griffith ap Madoc. “Tew” means “fat” and “ap” means “son of”, so we see that overweight David’s great grandfather was called Madoc.
The 14th-century Havard Chapel was originally a private chapel for the Havards of Pontwilym. Since 1922 it has been the regimental chapel of the South Wales Borderers, whose former depot is now the Royal Welsh Museum. The chapel holds the regiment’s colours (flags) from Isandlwana during the Zulu Wars.
Another chapel was used by local shoemakers and became their national shrine. The Tudor screen between the chapel and the nave includes square bosses that came from the 15th-century oak roof of the chancel.
With thanks to Dr Mike Alun Williams
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