Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, St. Mary's was built as the church of a Benedictine priory and a cell of the Abbey of St. Vincent at Le Mans, by Hamelin de Ballon after 1087. Succeeding lords of Abergavenny were also benefactors.
At one stage it was badly run, resulting in an enquiry as the monks were said to be consorting with women of the town and the prior, Fulk Gaston, absconded with the church silver. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when it had only a prior and four monks, it became a parish church.
It is cruciform and large, the chancel and nave being 172 ft long (52 metres). The central tower has 8 bells and the church is mostly in the Decorated and Perpendicular styles, there being little trace left of Norman architecture. The oak choir stalls with misericords (pop-up comfort seats) and carved lattice backs date from the 15th century and bear the name of the prior at that time: Wynchestre. There is a Norman font which was rediscovered in the 19th century in the churchyard where it had been placed by a Baptist minister, John Abbot, during the 17th century as he did not believe in infant baptism.
The Westminster Abbey of Wales
This informal title has been given to the church because of the splendid tombs and monuments inside, which date from the entire medieval period and beyond, the 13th to 17th centuries. The most famous is the wooden figure of Jesse, a more-than-life-sized carving which would have formed part of a Jesse tree showing the ancestry of Christ and probably part of a reredos (a screen behind and above the altar). It is recumbent, bearded, robed and hatted, holding the stem of a tree which springs from the heart. An angel applies a cushion to the back of the head and traces of gesso and paint, red and blue, remain. H. J. Massingham admired the carving of the beard, the half-spirals of the robe and the folds of the cushion as well as the expression on the face of "weariness and resignation, dignity and calm," which he felt reflects the spirit of the sculptor also.
|The tomb of Sir William ap Thomas, father of the 1st Earl of Pembroke. The side figures, according to Pevsner, seem to represent 12 prophets and the 12 apostles, a series regularly found in other Medieval contexts but rare on monuments.|