St Mary’s was founded in 1087 for a prior and twelve monks. There’s not much left of the Norman building but it is now apparently one of the largest parish churches in Wales. Most folk go to the church to look at the huge wooden carving of Jesse – who should lay at the base of a Jesse tree depicting the lineage of Christ. He’s the only wooden figure like this left in England or Wales – whether there were many more is a matter of debate. Suffice to say that the bonfires of the reformation probably carried several works off in smoke and ash. Usually we think of Jesse windows in stained glass – What Thomas Cromwell’s thugs didn’t carry out his three times great nephew Oliver’s men completed. A new Jesse window now looks resplendent above the carving of Jesse.
The Herbert Chapel (its the St Benedict Chapel now) is packed with alabaster effigies the most important of which is William ap Thomas and his wife Gwladys – who are the ancestors of the Herbert Earls of Pembroke. However, my favourite effigy is of Sir Richard Herbert of Ewyas and I couldn’t even see the original part of the carving that I think is so wonderful. His feet are resting on a lion – the head pokes around the corner of the niche that Sir Richard fits very neatly into with an ornate canopy over his head – but under is left foot is a monk telling his beads. Just a reminder that in the pre-reformation world the wealthy paid for prayers to be said for their souls to speed them from Purgatory to Heaven. Sir Robert is the illegitimate son of the 1st Earl of Pembroke.
The 1st Earl of Pembroke who was Edward IV’s friend William Herbert isn’t in Abergavenny – he fell foul of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick having come to prominence in Wales after the Battle of Towton in 1461. It was he, who having fought by Edward’s side at Mortimer’s Cross, who was given custody of Henry Tudor and Jasper Tudor’s Earldom of Pembroke. Herbert planned to marry his ward to his own daughter Maud but before that could happen Warwick, who was keen to get his hands on some of Herbert’s estates and administrative roles, rebelled against Edward. The Battle of Edgecote Moor on 24 July 1469 was not a good day for Edward IV or the Herbert family. Having lost the battle and fled Herbert and his brother Richard were captured and executed on Warwick’s orders.
The bodies of the 1st Earl and his brother were being transported home when the Cistercians of Tintern Abbey hijacked them and buried them in their abbey…the things some monks would do to ensure extra patronage!