Few locations in the British Isles display the rich history of what life was like living or should I say existing on the frontline of the Norman occupation as it relentlessly advanced westwards across south Wales under the orders of King Henry during the 12th century. But one such place is a stone’s throw from Bridgend and only a short drive from Swansea or from the centre of Cardiff. We are talking about Ogmore Castle with its nearby ancient stepping stones across the crystal clear River Ogmore and not too distant Ewenny Priory, and how they were linked at this momentous time in Welsh history. Constructed on the banks of the beautiful River Ogmore, what eventually became a stone- built stronghold, Ogmore Castle is an excellent example of what is referred to in the USA as an historic monument in “arrested decay”. It is now in the custody of CADW. But let’s have one quick look at it before we get too far into our story.
It was around about 1093 that the Normans came to Glamorgan and here in the Vale of Glamorgan it was William de Londres who was given control over the surrounding lands. Unsurprisingly the Welsh were determined to rid their lands of theses brutal Normans and they succeeded in slowing construction of Ogmore Castle down sufficiently to cause the de Londres family real problems. Think about it, the Welsh commanded the high ground tactically (where the M4 is located today) and the castle was being constructed on sand dunes which meant that the preferred motte and bailey construction was not possible.
Added to that, the earlier attempts by the Normans to defend their newly-acquired territory with their Newcastle fortifications located atop an escarpment in Bridgend centre, was a failure because the Welsh were successfully able to lay siege time and time again. A Castle positioned downstream aside the River Ogmore was set to be a much better location defensively, leading William de Londres – one of the legendary Twelve Knights of Glamorgan – to commence its construction circa 1107.
But did this defence work? Not entirely, requiring William’s son Maurice de Londres to be a little more imaginative. To engage the local Welsh through religion was seen as his answer. And so in 1115, began the construction just a few miles away alongside the River Ewenny of a Priory Church to become dedicated as the Church of St. Michael 5 years later. It was later that same century that twelve Benedictine monks from St. Peter’s Abbey in Gloucester, took up residence in what is today referred to as the “monastic end” of the Priory with its dormitory, library and refectory etc. From that time, public worship has continued to take place in the Nave and Chancel (often referred to as the “church end”) and does so to this day.
There have been few changes to the Priory in the 900 years since it was founded though there is very little left of the area where the monks lived. Public worship and Music Festivals still take place on a regular basis. Look up at the glass PULPITUM SCREEN. This was designed by a famous artist from Swansea, Alexander Beleschenko, in 2006. We see a large Cross surrounded by clouds. This is a symbol of the Resurrection of Jesus. From the Cross fly butterflies inspired by a rare species to be found in Ewenny. Other famous works by Beleschenko are to be seen at the Wales Assembly Building in Cardiff and Southwark Station, London.
Pass through the little door to the left of the Altar and you enter the “so-called” monastic side of the Priory Church or to give it its proper title – The Crossing. And it’s here you will gain a greater sense of the military side of the history of this region as you stand by the tomb containing the remains of Maurice de Londres.
It has to be said that the planned religious influence masterminded by Maurice which brought the 12 monks to Ewenny initially had very little influence on the mood of the Welsh. Attacks on the Priory -a symbol of Norman rule, were frequent necessitating the Priory to eventually be fortified over the course of its first 100 years. That is why today’s visitor may be surprised to see a massive Curtain Wall on approaching the Priory and inside the Bell Tower, a loft in the tower where soldiers were garrisoned. If you stand underneath the Bell Tower in the monastic end of the Priory and look upwards, you will see a wooden floor above your head where Norman soldiers were on duty. You can even still see the tiny access steps that the soldiers rushed down when they were scrambled.
These castle-like fortifications were not only built to provide protection for the monks but with Coity Castle and Newcastle, a ring of defence was created with Ewenny Priory being able to act as a look-out post. Ewenny Priory is now one of the best preserved fortified Norman monasteries in Wales. Past Royal Visitors have included Edward I and Henry IV
Visitors wanting to dig a little deeper into the craftmanship that was in use at the time to manufacture the floor tiles and the stained glass windows are amply rewarded by visiting Caitlin at Ewenny Pottery and Christian at the adjoining Stained Glass Studio in Ewenny Village.