Usk
Community ID
 
2575
 
Alternate Names
 
St. Mary's Priory
 
Town
 
Usk
 
Diocese
 
Llandaff
 
Medieval Location
 
Usk in the county of Monmouthshire and the diocese of Llandaff; the community stood in close proximity to Usk Castle.
 
Corporate Status
 
Priory
 
Dedication
 
S. Mary
 
Date Founded
 
before 1135
 
Date Terminated
 
August 29, 1536
 
Religious Order
 
Benedictine
 
Rule
 
Benedictine
 
Foundation Information
 

This priory of Benedictine nuns was founded in the early twelfth century, certainly before the death of the founder, Richard de Clare, Earl of Hertford and Lord of Usk, in 1135. (His family crest appears in some of the floor tiles recovered from the chancel). His son, Gilbert (d.1152), continued the development of the establishment, and Richard Strongbow, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (d. 1176) granted an important charter to the priory, which was confirmed in 1330 by Elizabeth de Burgh (Usk Nunnery, 44). The earliest part of the church predates the foundation and the church is mentioned in the foundation charter. The nuns thus took over an existing church and it is possible (by analogy with better-documented communities in England) that there may have been an informal community at Usk before the formal endowment of the priory. The community was founded by 5 nuns and grew to the usual 13. According to Bruce Venarde, the community was founded by Richard de Clare and his son, Gilbert, according to a document confirming the properties in 1236. Nothing is known of the first century of the nunnery's history; the first documentary mention of the community appears in 1246 when there was an inter-regnum and the community received licence to elect a new prioress. In the following year, 1247, the prioress obtained letters of protection (Usk Nunnery, 44).

 
Notable Heads
 

The only known prioresses are: Joan Lewis, 1491-7; Agnes, 1500-01; Joan Haryman, 1518-29; and Ellen or Eleanor Williams, from a local gentry family, prioress 1529-36.

 
Population Counts
 

The community is believed to have been founded for 5 nuns, but there appear to have been more at the time of Archbishop Peckham's visitation in 1284. Knowles and Hadcock believe the community held 13 nuns. At the time of Dissolution, the Abbess Ellen Williams, resided with 5 other nuns.

 
Priveleges & Papal Exemptions
 

In 1404 Adam of Usk petitioned the pope requesting indulgences for alms to support the priory.

 
Other Ecclesiastical Relations
 

In spite of its priory status, the house appears to have been independent and to have had ties to no other house.

 
Visitations
 

Archbishop Peckham made a visitation to the community in 1284 and found the nunnery in a "most desolate state," for primarily economic reasons. He recommended better accounting procedures and a senior priest to supervise financial affairs (Power, 223-4; Martin 1885, 805-6). One of his complaints was that the nuns of Usk were wandering outside the confines of the nunnery and staying with layfolk. He ordered that the nuns should not go out of their precinct without suitable companions, nor stay in the houses of layfolk for more than 3 or 4 days. Other criticisms dealt with economic affairs. He suggested the appointment of 2 "provident and discreet" nuns as treasuresses; they were to receive all monies and make all disbursements, and render account of their stewardship to the Prioress and 5 or 6 of the senior nuns at Lent, at Whitsun, and at Michaelmas. The nuns were also to have a "senior priest, circumspect in temproal and spiritual affairs, to be master of all their goods" (Usk Nunnery, 44).

 
Patrons/Benefactors
 

Patrons of the community were Richard de Clare and his son Gilbert (d. 1152); Richard Strongbow, 2nd Earl of Pembroke; Elizabeth de Burgh, countess of the Marches; Edmund Mortimer, 5th Earl of March (d. 1424); and his nephew, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (d. 1460). The latter two served as Lords of Usk. All of these patrons/benefactors were prayed for as founders and alms were given for their memory on Shrove Tuesday (Valor ecclesiasticus temp. Henr. VIII. Auctoritate regia institutus.). Richard Strongbow granted an important charter to the priory which was confirmed in 1330 by Elizabeth de Burgh. The lawyer and writer, Adam of Usk (c.1360-1440) was also remembered as a protector of the convent. A recovered floor tile with the Mortimer arms on it seems to indicate that the first dateable repair work to S. Mary's Usk was done at the expense of the Mortimer family between either 1368-1381 or 1398-1402 (St. Mary's Priory Church, Usk: some recent work and some new theories., 61).

 
Secular Political Affiliations
 

The house had strong links with the de Clares family and their successors as Marcher Lords of Usk.

 
Social Characteristics
 

According to Adam of Usk's petition to the pope in 1404, "only virgins born of noble ancestry were and are wont to be received." Adam of Usk also numbered some of the nuns among his relations.

 
Relative Wealth
 

69 pounds, 9 shillings, 81/2 pence gross, 55 pounds, 4 shillings, 51/2 pence net in Valor Ecclesiasticus.

 
Assets/Property
 

The only record of the community's possessions come from the period of the Dissolution. The estate at that date donsisted of: land in Usk and adjoining parishes; land in Badgworth, Uphatherley and Downhatherley (Glos); the recotories of Usk, Cilgoegan [Llanfihangel Pontymoel], Llanbadoc, Llandenni, Llangyfiw, and Trostre (Monmouthshire). The community also received tithes in Raglan, Estavarney (Monmouthshire) and had an interest in the rectory of Badgworth (Glos). When the nunnery dissolved, the lead on the roofs was valued at 52 pounds 4 pence; a not very considerable sum (Usk Nunnery, 45).

 
Income
 

There is little documentation of the community's economic activities prior to the Dissolution. The estates at that time were tightly administered, with short-term leases and more land farmed in demesne than the men's houses in the county. Much earlier, however, Archbishop Peckham's visitation in 1284 had found the nunnery in a "most desolate state," for primarily economic reasons. He recommended better accounting procedures and a senior priest to supervise financial affairs (Medieval English Nunneries, 1275-1535, 223-4; Martin 1885, 805-6). Adam of Usk's petition to the Pope on behalf of the community in 1404 (transcribed in Bradney 1921, 48-9) described the priory as devastated by the after-effects of fighting during the Glyndwr uprising, but no blame could attach to the nuns for this. According to Adam of Usk, the monastery was in such want that unless some remedy was found, the nuns would be "forced to beg for food and clothing by wandering about the country, or to stay in the private houses of their friends; whereby scandal might arise" (Usk Nunnery, 45).

 
Other Economic Activities
 

The chantry chapels in the priory church at Usk belonged to the local community, which shared the church, but the nuns had chapels dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene and St. Radegund of Poitiers within the priory precinct. Endowments and offerings at these chapels were valued at 4 shillings, 7 pence in Valor Ecclesiasticus but may have included other tithes which were accounted for under the general tithes of Usk. There is also some evidence for pilgrimages to the statue of Mary Magdalene at Usk.

 
Art & Artifacts
 

The priory church still has its rood screen, embellished with a carving of the Virgin Mary, and there was another image of Mary in the church before which Adam of Usk wanted to be buried (Bradney 1921, 59). [The present location of the wooden screen extending right across the nave and north aisle may not be its original position.] The rood screed also bears a commemorative brass lauding Adam of Usk in Welsh (Usk Nunnery, 44). In the years immediately before the Dissolution, the then prioress, Eleanor Williams, had some remarkable panelling installed in the conventual buildings, possibly in her own apartments. The cornice is embellished with a frieze of shields decorated with the IHS monogram, the Five Wounds and the Instruments of the Passion, with royal and other armorial bearings including Catherine of Aragon's pomegranates (a brave statement of support in the 1530s). The frieze and the panelling were incorporated into the Priory House but much of the carving was removed in about 1860 to a local mansion, Cefn Tila (Rickards 1904 has drawings of the frieze). [However, recent research by John Guy of the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies at Aberystwyth suggests that the iconography of the cornice with the Instruments of the Passion and the 5 Wounds, now at Cefn Tila House but believed to come from Usk Priory, did not come from Usk at all but from the great hall at Raglan Castle and that the initials EW are those of Elizabeth Worcester,wife of the Earl of Worcester, owner of Raglan Castle, who was presumably responsible for its installation. An antiquarian's drawing depicts the cornice in situ at Raglan in the eighteenth century, shortly before the hall roof fell in. Thus the iconography of this work can not be ascribed definitely to Usk without further research.] The floor of the chancel was probably laid with stone slabs and embellished in places with decorative tiles, four of which have been recovered. The four tiles depict motifs of a fleur-de-lys, the arms of the Mortimer family (a shield within a shield), a white rosette, and the arms of the de Clare family (St. Mary's Priory Church, Usk: some recent work and some new theories.). Two other tiles, one depicting a curly-tailed, up-winged dragon, are believed to have come from Usk as well and probably date from 1430-1450. According to Mein, the "subsidence effects on what was no doubt designed to be an impressive floor must have been both distressing and dangerous for the Sisters in their daily offices." The floor, at least the part with the tiles, was relaid twice (St. Mary's Priory Church, Usk: some recent work and some new theories., 57). In addition, wall paintings within the claustral complex were of sufficient note to be referred to in a will. The image of St. Mary Magdalene was a prime attraction of the community. In 1514 William Bakere willed to be buried before an image of "Blessed Mary of the Priory." Sir Hugh David ap John gave rents to maintain the lamp burning day and night before the Blessed Sacrament, and Richard Plantagenet and Lady Elizabeth de Clare provided for the wax and oil necessary for the church's illumination. The present window east of the high altar incorporates an accurate representation of the common seal of the nunnery. The seal, an oval in red wax, depicts the Virgin Mary enthroned and holding the Infant Jesus on her left knee. The Lombardic Capital script used in the legend shows that the seal was engraved prior to the mid-14th century. The legend reads: S: SCE: MARIE: ET: CONVENTUS: DE: VSKA (The seal of Saint Mary and the Convent of Usk) See Usk Nunnery, 45.

 
Architecture & Archaeology
 

The oldest known part of the complex was the church, which may have predated the foundation. The Norman church was cruciform, and in the thirteenth century a broad north aisle was added for parochial use. The parish church and the nuns' choir were thus parallel and adjacent. The chancel measured 22.1 meters from east to west. The north transept of the chancel and choir of the monastic church and the priory gate-house both overlay the remains of a Roman fort and ditch, which caused considerable stress and damage to these structures. At Usk the nuns' choir and the cloister appear to have been both oriented to the south, while Roberta Gilchrist (in Gender and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Religious Women) suggests that a substantial minority of women's houses had accommodation to the north. Most of the claustral buildings lie under more recent building and the largely Victorian rebuild of "the Priory," the house built after the Dissolution out of the south claustral range. However, excavation by the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust and by A.G. Mein and others (Maylan 1987, Mein 1993, Mein 1994, Williams and Boucher 2000) have established the full size and layout of the priory church. The gatehouse had previously been assumed to be twelfth century, but St. Mary's Priory Church, Usk: some recent work and some new theories. suggests a complete rebuild in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century on architectural evidence. Chancel, north transept, and gatehouse (and possibly some of the claustral buildings) overlie the ditch and rampart of the Roman fort, which may explain some evidence for structural damage and the "most desolate state" which Peckham found there in the thirteenth century. According to Mein, another alternative might be that the "Sisters had been 'ripped off' in truly modern fashion by a local builder whose assistance they had sought to repair the place." Some fine datable floor tiles testify to rebuilding work in the late fourteenth and mid-fifteenth centuries. Mein believes that Adam of Usk's plea to the pope for aid, which claimed that poverty would force the sisters "to beg for food and clothing, straying through the country or to stay in the private houses of friends," may have had less to do with personal poverty than with the bad state of repair of the monastic living quarters at the time he made his plea (1404) (St. Mary's Priory Church, Usk: some recent work and some new theories.). The church, larger in conventual days than presently, accommodated the chapel of St. Mary Magdalene and three chantries to the Holy Trinity, S. Nicholas, and "John Edward's chantry" (St. Mary's Priory Church, Usk: some recent work and some new theories., 68-72) suggests the chapel of St. Radegund may have been the structure attached to the west wall of the north aisle shown a sketch of the church in 1799. The chapel to S. Radegund was not an original feature of the complex, but a later addition, abutting onto the north end of a range of buildings, such as the kitchens or infirmary, that would have lain along the western side of the cloister. In addition, the monastic church was surrounded by a burial ground immediately to its east; numerous burials also surround what was once the high altar of the Priory. Considerable repair work to the church was carried out in the fifteenth century by one of the Raglan Herberts. See St. Mary's Priory Church, Usk: some recent work and some new theories..

 
State Of Medieval Structure
 

The present sanctuary was the medieval crossing. The present window east of the high altar incorporates an accurate representation of the common seal of the nunnery. The present Priory House was probably formed out of the south range of the cloister. The priory gate-house is still extant.

 
Relics
 

The convent may have acquired a relic of St. Radegund of Poitiers through Alicia de la Marche, first wife of Gilbert de Clare (1243-95). (see miscellaneous information)

 
Miscellaneous Information
 

Mein suggests (St. Mary's Priory Church, Usk: some recent work and some new theories., 68-72) that the cult of St. Radegund of Poitiers at Usk may have been introduced by Alicia de la Marche, first wife of Gilbert de Clare (1243-95). The marriage was unhappy and ended in divorce in 1285. Gilbert did not acquire Usk until after his mother's death in 1289. Mein suggests, however, that Alicia may have received sympathy from her mother-in-law Matilda and may have stayed with her at Usk and visited the priory. Alicia's family came from Lusignan, near Poitiers, and she may have been able to acquire a relic of the saint for the nuns. Mein contends that the chapel to S. Radegund came into being at Alicia's promting and expense between 1271 and 1285. Radegund was a potentially intriguing choice for a community of enclosed nuns. After a forced (and possibly polygamous) marraige to the Frankish king Clovis, she was released by her husband to found a religious community of considerable austerity (for details see Nie in Sanctity and Motherhood: Essays on Holy Mothers in the Middle Ages., 139-51; for translations of the Lives of St. Radegund see Sainted Women of the Dark Ages, 60-105). Mein suggests that Alicia may have chosen Radegund for personal devotion because of her own unhappy experience of marriage. The priory church is also the burial place of the lawyer and writer Adam of Usk (c. 1360-1440), who was related to some of the nuns, and was remembered as a protector of the convent. An anonymous early sixteenth-century poem "Mair fadlen mawr yw dwrtais" was written to the statue of Mary Magdalene at Usk. Cast in the form of a dialogue between the pilgim and the statue, it advises the would-be penitent to be just and charitable, and to pray regularly (Celtic Britain and the Pilgrim Movement, 318-19). Unfortunately, it offers no hint as to the appearance of the statue.

 
Admin. Notes
 

[V0922]more information to be found
Old community code 4PP02; community #1174 = same/deleted 6/16/00

 
Contributors
 
Dr. Madeleine Gray; Marilyn Dunn; Bruce Venarde
 
Contributors Notes
 

Only 2 records provided much of an account of the religious life at Usk: the visitation record of Archbishop Peckham in 1284 and the petition addressed to Rome by Adam of Usk at the time of the Glyn Dwr Revolt in 1404.

 
Length
 
7819