The Gwent Local History Council was set up in 1954 to encourage public interest in local history, to bring together societies and persons interested in the study of local history, to arrange lectures and publish the results of historical research. Their twice yearly magazine "Gwent Local History" has made a valuable contribution to the store of historical knowledge. Here Caerleon Net, with the full agreement of the Gwent Local History Council, is making available many of the articles from this magazine relating to Caerleon.
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Enquiries relating copyright should be addressed to the Gwent Local History Council.
Gwent Local History No. 62, Spring 1987
The Priory, Caerleon
by Eija Kennerley
One such building that has inspired stories of this sort is the Priory, a long stone building in the High Street. Inhabitants of Caerleon tell about the Priory approximately like this: "It is the old monastery of Caerleon. It was founded by Hywel ap Iorwerth, a Welsh prince. Later when Caerleon grew and became too noisy, the monks wanted to move to a quieter place and founded Llantarnam Abbey. This house remained their town house." And: "There is a passage from the Priory to the Bull Inn, underground. That is the passage the monks and nuns (sic!) used when they met their lovers (sic). The Bull Inn used to be the monks' kitchen."
It would be a pity if these legends died out. However, they remain legends and the reality is rather different. David H. Williams in his study of the Welsh Cistercians comes to the conclusion that there "is no proof whatsoever, documentary or archeological to support the local tradition that Caerleon Abbey was founded first here." (1) Although the facts about the first Caerleon Abbey will forever stay hidden from us and although it really is very tempting to think that it first was founded at the present site of the Priory, the history of the house can be traced only as far back as the 16th century. As visible evidence of the age of the house there are some windows in the inner courtyard, now called "The Nuns' Walk". They appear to be from the 16th century. Also, the cellars and the thickness of some walls point to the same period.
The earliest known owners of the house were the Morgans of Pencrug or Pencreek (also spelt Pencraig, Pencreig), Llanhennock. About 1530 Eleanor Morgan, daughter of John Morgan of Pencreek, married Henry Morgan, son of Edmund Morgan of Penllwyn Sarth or Sarff. The Morgans of Penllwyn Sarth descended from John Morgan, Knight of the Sepulchre, who died about 1492. (2)
Henry Morgan was elected M.P. for Cardiff in 1571 and became High Sheriff of Monmouthshire in 1588. (3) Apparently the house was then in existence but what it looked like is not easy to say.
The first Henry's son, also Henry, was M.P. for Monmouthshire in 1601 and High Sheriff in l603. (4) He again had a son called Henry and a grandson Edmund. (According to the Parliamentary History of the Principality of Wales 1541-1895, this Edmund was Henry's brother, not son.)
Edmund Morgan lived "for the most part of the year" at Westgate House, Newport, tells Kyrle Fletcher in his collection of writings now included in the local collection in Newport Library. Fletcher does not say how he knew this. The first member of the family who is mentioned in connection with Caerleon, is Henry Morgan of Bedwellty and Caerleon, who married Rachel, daughter of Sir Trevor Williams of Llangibby. (5) His son Henry was Sheriff in 1722. (6) He had a son called Henry and a grandson of the same name.
On the west wall of the church of St. Cadoc's, Caerleon, is a memorial stone which tells us:
In this Chancel (the stone was there originally) are reposited the remains of Mary, wife of Henry Morgan, Esq. of the Priory, Caerleon, who died Nov. 29th, 1788, aged 66 years; and of Henry Morgan, Esq. who died Dec. 11th, 1795, aged 75 years; also Elizabeth Morgan, their daughter, who died Feb 25th, 1819, aged 58 years, and of Mary Morgan, also their daughter, who died Sept. 19th, 1835, aged 75 years.
The Henry Morgan, mentioned in this tablet, was then the first one who certainly lived in the house now called the Priory. According to the Parish Registers his wife's maiden name was Knight and they were married on the 4th of September 1757. They had at least two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, of whom Mary lived the longest.
There is an Estate Map of Henry Morgan's property, of the year 1765. (7) It shows that the whole corner in the bend of the River Usk then belonged to Henry Morgan, except a field in the furthermost corner, called Burgh's Land, on the riverside near what is now called the Hanbury Arms Inn. This was an area belonging to Capel Hanbury.
Henry Morgan was an attorney, Clerk of the Peace for the County and County Treasurer. Mary, his daughter was born in 1760 and died 1835. It was most probably she who gave the Priory its present-day appearance. In her lifetime a new interest in Gothic architecture had arisen everywhere. This was the mock-Gothic period of Horace Walpole and Sir Walter Scott. The Priory had genuine old features from the Elizabethan or Jacobean period, and Mary built on this basis. When Archdeacon Coxe was in Caerleon in the last years of the 18th century, he saw that part of the house had been "rebuilt with the Roman facings, and part remains in its original state." (8) In 1838, the sale notice of the Priory has the following words:
"The Priory is indebted to the present family for having escaped the fearful ravages of a later period. A very large expenditure, aided by consummate skill, has restored its by-gone perfection. The Gothic style of architecture prevails throughout."
The "present" family most probably means the Morgans, as Mr. Hooper who then lived in the house, had only been there a couple of years and could not possibly have had time to do such extensive restorations. He had married a relative of the Morgans, Catherine Price, according to the information given by J. Bradney. (9)
Miss Mary Morgan belonged to the gentry of Caerleon and was one of the Assessors at the Land Tax Assessment in 1831. She herself had to pay tax for house and land £3.13s.1½d., which she paid in a lump sum, and was therefore "exonerated". (10) At her death the Monmouthshire Merlin printed the following: "Kindness of heart, unaffected piety and unostentatious though active benevolence, endeared this lady to all...". (11) She was the last of the Morgans in the Priory which after it was soon sold to strangers.
The next occupant, Thomas Hooper, Esquire, also was of the gentry and it seems that he was highly thought of. Reading the sale notices and other reports of events in The Merlin one does get the impression that simply living in the Priory gave its people a kind of status and a halo of romance. One of the sale notices is full of fine sales talk. It tries to persuade the readers that the Priory "beggars all description" and that it is a purchase that can occur "but once in a century". It quotes Giraldus Cambrensis and Thomas Churchyard on Caerleon, and the amphitheatre behind the Priory is poetically lifted to royal heights and called King Arthur's Round Table-as it indeed was called by the inhabitants of Caerleon then and even much later. The peculiar arch on top of the Roman wall is mentioned. It was probably built by Mary Morgan to give "a vista" from the house towards the countryside. A boat-house and a yacht are included in the sale. As to the auction itself, it is stated that "no person shall advance less than twenty guineas at each bidding", which indicates that the final price may have risen quite high. (12)
A sale notice reappeared weekly in The Merlin from 16th June until 7th July in 1838. We learn that T. Hooper Esq. intended to move to "Hardington Park". (13) The sale was going to be at a Hotel-probably the King's Head-in Newport on Saturday 18th August, at 12 o'clock. The agent, Mr. George Robins used highly coloured "estate agents' poetry" in these notices:
"The Caerleon Priory may be traced, from Historical Records, as far back as the sixth century; there are still remaining outward and visible signs which indicate that the town was erected on the site of A Great Roman City-King Arthur's Round Table in the meadow upon the verdant lawns-skirting the lawn of the Abbey.-There are two approaches, the one through the Gothic Gates at the Lodge, the other passing through the Tranquil winding Cloisters.-The windows below are of ancient painted glass, shedding the 'Dim religious light' and are finely contrasted with the gay and lightsome appearance of those above. The bed-chambers are numerous and all the offices seem to harmonise well. The wavy and shaded walks which encircle this Elysium are enriched by shrubs and flowers-they are nothing in extent, but everything in grace and beauty."
Mr. Hooper found it hard to leave this Elysium. On 21st July the Merlin tells us:
"Many of our readers will be glad to hear that the sale of the Priory and of the other estates in the Neighbourhood of Caerleon, belonging to Thomas Hooper, Esquire, which were advertised-is deferred 'sine die' (to unknown date). Mr. Hooper, it seems, has considered that the attractions of Hardington Park (great as they unquestionably must be to a staunch and zealous sportsman) will not afford perpetual compensation for the loss of the comforts and enjoyments which centre in 'dear delightful home'... Of Mr. Hooper's second thoughts we highly approve."
However, the reason for deferring the sale was perhaps different from the suggestion of the Merlin, because Mr. Hooper tried to let the house, instead of selling, on 6th October, 1838.
In January 1839 The Merlin informs us, that Mr. Hooper finally was going to leave and "invited the whole of his tenantry to the Priory, in order that they might dine and take a parting glass together.-His kindness as a landlord, and his candour and affability as a gentleman" impressed The Merlin.
Now the Priory came into the hands of another great local family, the Mackworths. The first owner was Sir Digby Mackworth, baronet, of Glen Usk. (14) It appears that he had a tenant from the start, the amateur antiquarian from Hull, J. E. Lee, who did so much for the study of Roman Caerleon. Lee was living in the house at least from 1843, as this address is given in the Electoral List of the year 1843-44. His children, Frances Anna and Edward Arthur, were baptised at St. Cadoc's on July 31st 1849 and September 27th 1850 respectively. (15)
Just a few days before the christening of the first child, on 25th July 1849, there was a grand Bazaar at the Priory. The Merlin reports on the 28th July: "At about 12 o'clock carriages from various directions began to arrive-We should suppose that about five hundred persons visited the Priory, and amongst them were families of the highest station." The Bazaar was intended for "Raising funds to found an institution tending to cultivate pursuits which enlighten the intellect, encourage the spirit of enquiry, impart a taste for liberal studies, and preserve from the destroying hand of time the valuable relics of by-gone days." The immediate purpose was to finance the building of the Museum which had been started about a year before.
It is easy to imagine the day: everyone who was anything at all was there, buying at the stalls where the ladies, from Lady Mackworth to Mrs. John Jenkins and Miss Jones of the Vicarage, were smilingly selling. They all listened to the band of the 14th Regiment, in the spacious marquee and under the trees upon the lawn. "Caerleon bells rang their best peal-the town wore quite a gala appearance-and the leading inhabitants kept an open house-terminating the day, in some instances, in a dance." The money collected was first reported to be £195 but the Merlin soon corrected this, saying that the sum was somewhat less.
The arrival of Lee was indeed a blessing for Caerleon, as he soon started working at excavations and assisted in the planning of the Museum. It is possible that he had quite a lot of influence on Mackworth in regard to the repairs of the house and that some features appeared during his tenancy, e.g. some ceilings upstairs. On the other hand, Sir Digby Mackworth himself was genuinely interested in history and was one of the pillars of the Antiquarian Society, founded in 1847. In fact, the foundation meeting of the Society was held in the Priory. The grounds were often teeming with people at different occasions. The Priory was the veritable centre of the county social life.
Some changes have been made in the Priory during recent years, but in general it has kept its old appearance. Also, in the interior many features are still to be seen which have been there hundreds of years. With the help of local benevolent opinion it may be possible to keep this old, valuable building intact.
1. David H. Williams, Welsh Cistercians, p.32.
2. The Parliamentary History of the Principality of Wales, 1541-1895, by W. R. Williams, Cardiff Reference Library.
5. George T. Clark, Limbus Patrum Morganiae & Glamorganiae, p.318. Cardiff City Library.
6. Records of Sheriffs of Monmouthshire 1541-1935. Compiled by William Gardner, on the instructions of Frederick Pringo Robjent, Sheriff 1937. May 1937.
7. GwRO 260/1508.
8. Coxe, Tour of Monmouthshire, p.82.
9. Sir Joseph Bradney, History of Monmouthshire. Llanhennock, Caerleon.
10. Land Tax Assessment, 1831. GwRO.
11. Monmouthshire Merlin, 26th Sept. 1835.
12. Photocopy of the sale notice in Newport Reference Library.
13. His address is given as Hardington Park, Somerset, in the Electoral List 1843-44.
14. Bradney, History of Monmouthshire, Caerleon, p.211.
15. St. Cadoc's Parish Register.
My grateful thanks to the then architect, Mr. Baker,
for the chance to study in the Gwent Record Office.