- Gunter’s place in time
- The Gunter Family
- Gunter Mansion
- The Chapel
- Our Plans for Gunter
- Thomas Gunter and His Circle
- A morning imagined with Mistress Gunter 1670
- Riding into Abergavenny 1680
- The Popish Plot
- What is recusancy?
- Catholicism In Monmouthshire
- Why was Catholicism so strong in Monmouthshire?
Gunter Mansion is a hugely important survival from a pivotal time in British history. It was a key focal point in the religious struggles immediately following the Restoration in the 1660s and 1670s. At this time the future of Britain as a Protestant nation was far from certain, with a resurgence in Catholicism seen as a major threat to the fragile peace. The Catholic activities in Abergavenny, and Gunter Mansion in particular, were catapulted to centre stage, being discussed in Parliament and directly contributing to the febrile atmosphere engendered by the Titus Oates plot. The house itself dates from the early 1600s and compromises 37, 38, 39 and 39A Cross Street.
Parliament requested reports of the strength of Roman Catholicism due to fears of Popish plots in England and Wales after the restoration of Charles II in 1660. John Arnold, a local protestant of Llanfihangel Court, took on this role in Monmouthshire and Herefordshire. On 12 April 1678 John Arnold told a shocked House of Commons ‘that he had seen a Publick chapel near the house of Mr Thomas Gunter, a papist convict, in Abergavenny, adorned with the mark of the Jesuits on the outside, and is informed that Mass is said there by Captain Evans, a reported Jesuit, and by the aforesaid David Lewis in that very great numbers resort to the said chapel and very often at Church time, and he hath credibly heard that hundreds have gone out of the said chapel when not forty have gone out of the said church, that the said chapel is situate in a publick street of the said town, and doth front the street’ (quoted in Knight p162). This made the allegations of Jesuit plots, including one to murder the King and invade with French and Irish Catholics, far more credible. This, and the Titus Oates plot which quickly followed, initiated a wave of national paranoia, to which the king had no option but to respond. On 20 November 1678 he issued a proclamation for the immediate arrest of all papists and Jesuits. The Government offered a reward of £20 to any person who could provide information about priests and Catholic families, which opened the floodgates resulting in many turning in their neighbours. John Arnold added £200 to the Government’s reward, determined to rid the area of Catholics.
This led directly to the arrest of the Jesuit priests Philip Evans and David Lewis. Both had held mass at Gunter Mansion and both were arrested by the end of the year. Lewis was arrested in Llantarnam on November 17th 1678, a Sunday, and was taken to the Golden Lion Inn in Abergavenny for his preliminary hearing, and after remained in custody until March 28th 1679. On this date Lewis was taken to Monmouth to be tried, and acted as his own defence but was thus found guilty. Despite having the opportunity to save his own life by divulging information about any plots against the King or if he would give up Catholicism for Protestantism, Lewis refused. Consequently, Lewis was taken to Usk gaol to await his execution. David Lewis became the last Catholic martyr in in Wales, and one of the last in Britain, when he was hung, drawn and quartered on 27 August 1679. He is said to have addressed the local crowd and said, in Welsh, ‘I was condemned for reading Mass, hearing confessions, anointing sick, Christening, preaching and worshipping God. For religion I die.’
Madge O’Keefe has written that there was local opposition to David Lewis’ sentence and that local officials made many unsuccessful attempts to secure a reprieve the priest. However, these efforts were futile and the Sheriff received a heavy fine alongside his rebuke from Parliament for frustrating the will of Parliament. When Lewis’ execution took place, there was significant difficulty in finding anyone willing to build the scaffolding and carry out the sentence, and the local crown prevented the body from being cut down to ensure that Lewis was already dead before the rest of his sentence was carried out.
Father Phillip Evens was arrested in the house of aGlamorgan recusant Christopher Turberville at Sker after a raid on the Jesuit college at Cwm in 1679. He was found and arrested there by Richard Bassett of Beaupre and a former Catholic Edward Turberville. He refused to say the oath of allegiance and was confined alone in the underground dungeon of Cardiff Castle, where he was later joined by a secular priest, John Lloyd. After 5 months both were brought for trial at the shire-hall in Cardiff and condemned based on the evidence of two poor women who were bribed. Evans was treated well enough that he was playing a game of tennis when he was told that his execution would be the following day and refused to return to his cell until he had finished it. Evans died first at Gallows field on July 22nd after having address the people in Welsh and English stating ‘Adieu, Mr Lloyd, though for a little time, for we shall shortly meet again’.
Many question Arnold’s motives, with Jeremy Knight writing that ‘at one time he [Arnold] had been sympathetic to Catholics, a friend of the future martyr David Lewis, and had even given him a room in the Skirrid Mountain Inn, with he owned, for use as a Catholic chapel. It may be that the Titus Oates plot provided an opportunity for Arnold to settle scores with the Marquess of Worcester who, in the fall out from the Civil War, had removed him from some important public positions’. It appears that Arnold became anti-Catholic in the years following the execution of David Lewis and Philip Evans as he was at the centre of yet another controversy in Paris 1680 when he was apparently attacked by a catholic (Arnold alleged), John Giles, who tried to stab him to death in Bell Yard off Fleet Street to avenge the execution of the priests. Although Giles was fined £500, many historians believe that Herbert of Coldbrook was the culprit or that Arnold invented the affair in an attempt to revive the Popish plot. The following year, Arnold supported the case for removing the Earl of Halifax and Laurence Hyde from the King’s Counsels and was given a large armed guard to protect him against Papist attacks during his travels to Oxford. However, Arnold’s sanity became increasingly questioned when the Portuguese ambassador, Feria, in September 1681 claimed that Arnold offered him £300 to testify that he had seen the Marquess of Worcester at mass and then stated that Arnold had called the King a Papist. It was said that Arnold would attack people on the street, accusing them of being Papists and took the appointment of his arch-enemy Worcester as a Duke as a personal insult.He stated ‘the Marquess of Worcester is a Papist and as deeply concerned in the Popish Plot and as guilty of endeavouring to introduce Popery and the subversion of the Protestant religion as any of the Jesuits that justly suffered for it, and I doubt not but to make the said Marquess and his crooked-back son to suffer for it in time’. Arnold was fined £10,000 for this, which he was unable to pay and was thus imprisoned until 1686.
The resultant increase in sectarian tension effectively ruled out any accommodation of Catholicism within Britain, paving the way for the crisis over James II’s Catholicism less than ten years later, which led directly to the Glorious Revolution. These momentous changes have been seen by historians as the start of the long Eighteenth Century, ushering in a political and religious hegemony which was to last 150 years. Because of this, we do not know whether the chapel continued in use after the execution in 1678/79. O’Keefe argues that the Titus Oates plot didn’t deal a massive blow to Catholicism despite what many believe, and that missionary activity in the Monmouthshire area continued. However, the resurgence of Catholicism was short lived and the lack of a separate college for Welsh priests resulted in a gradual decline. In 1687, Thomas Gunter and his wife Catherine gave their house in Frogmore Street (not to be confused with the Gunter Mansion) to the Franciscan order to be kept for mission purposes.
Within the international Catholic Church these judicial murders have taken on great significance with both David Lewis and Philip Evans subsequently being made saints on account of their martyrdom.
Jeremy Knight’s excellent book ‘Civil War and Restoration in Monmouthshire’ (Logaston 2005) is the key book on this period and has been used to inform the above history of Gunter.
Madge O’Keefe’s talk ‘Recusancy in Monmouthshire in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’ was vital in understanding the case of David Lewis further.
Research has shown us that the Gunters were an ancient family of Norman origin, descended from Sir Peter Gunter (or Gaunt D’or) who was given the Lordship of Tregunter in Breconshire. William Gunter (James Gunter’s grandfather) moved from Scethrog, near Brecon, to Abergavenny in the late 14th/early 15th century
James Gunter bought St. Mary’s Priory and adjacent land in Abergavenny in 1546 and built Priory House within the grounds. Despite being a lawyer, he had made most of his money speculating in the purchase of monastic lands after the dissolution o the monasteries in 1536. He even went on to represent Monmouthshire in Parliament in 1554 after having secured the support of the Early of Worcester. James spent most of his life a Protestant, as well as being a lay preacher for a while, yet when he died in London in 1558 he had become a self proclaimed Catholic.
As far as we know, James Gunter’s son, Robert Gunter (1540-1615) inherited the Priory and lived in Priory House his entire life, then selling or gifting the land for Gunter Mansion to his second son Thomas Gunter (1) (1569-1657). Thomas Gunter (1) was a committed Catholic and was frequently convicted and fined throughout his entire life for refusal to pledge his allegiance to the establish Church. Towards the end of his life, charges were dropped as he grew into poverty and old age.
Legal documents that were found in Gunter Mansion under some floorboards tell us that Thomas Gunter’s son, Thomas Gunter (2) (c.1627-1711) lived and probably worked at Gunter Mansion as a lawyer. Manuscripts were found that were dated between 1674 and 1697 that included the attribution ‘Thomas Gunter, Attorney at law’. Thomas Gunter (2) was also a committed Catholic and lived through some of the worst years of persecution during the period of the alleged Popish Plot of 1678, although this doesn’t seem to have dented Thomas Gunter’s religious convictions, with him and his wife Ann listen in the Papist returns as late as 1706 when Thomas would have been around 79 years of age.
Richard Allen tells us that Thomas Gunter’s eldest son who was also an attorney and also named Thomas (3) was seen to be a ‘violent zealot’ and was arrested around 1696 for refusal to swear the Oath of Allegiance, however G. W. Gunter’s family tree states that Thomas Gunter (3) died in 1692, pre-deceasing his father who died in 1711, meaning that the Gunter arrest would have been Thomas (2) who would have been around 69 at the time.
Thomas Gunter’s (2) great nephew, Richard Gunter (1654-1701) also lived at the property, we can stipulate, as the house is named as his residence in his will of 1701. Thomas Gunter (2) oversaw this will and refers to his only living son James Gunter (1693-1752) and four daughters. James is mentioned as being a resident of Gunter House but we cannot be sure what the living arrangements were as he was only 8 at the time of his fathers death. We can assume that he lived with his great uncle Thomas Gunter (2) until his death in 1711.
The last Gunter to live at Gunter Mansion was James Gunter’s son, Walter (1717-1790). Walter Gunter’s son, James (1731-1819) made his mark in the confectionery business in London by opening a confectioner’s shop called The Pot & Pineapple with Domenico Negri in 1777. They were later joined by John Gunter (1788-1856) James’ cousin. By the end of the 18th century James was the sole owner with the popular business, well loved among Mayfair’s residents. He supplied foods to the royal family and bought a mansion in Earl’s Court. The business remained in the family for generations after his death in 1819. Gunter’s Tea Shop moved to Curzon Street when Berkeley Square was remodelled in the 1930’s and the business eventually closed in 1956.
There were many different brilliant books that aided this research, such as:
John Newman, Buildings in the Landscape, in Gray, Madeline, Morgan, Pays, The Gwent County History, Volume 3: The Making of Monmouthshire, 1536-1380 (Cardiff, 2009), Joseph Bradney, The Hundred of Abergavenny (Part I), (Academy Books, 2001), Matthews, R P, Roman Catholic Recusancy in Monmouthshire A demographical and morphological analysis (Unpublished thesis University of Wales, Cardiff, 1996), Allen, Richard C, The Society of Friends Wales: The Case of Monmouthshire c. 1605-1836. (PhD Thesis History and Welsh History University of Wales Aberystwyth 1999)
Gunter mansion on Cross Street Abergavenny is an important building in its own right. It is listed grade II* on account of the particularly fine 17th Century plaster ceiling on the first floor and the recusant chapel on the second.
The original house probably dates from the late 16th Century and is a long four room range parallel with the street. There are Tudor door frames and moulded timber ceilings from this period. The house was then given a major improvement in the mid-17th Century when all three projecting gables, one at the front and two at the rear, were added. The mid-17th Century plaster ceiling in the main first floor reception room also dates from this time.
The house gains its name and was probably built by the Gunter family, who were resident throughout the 17th Century. Thomas Gunter in particular was a leading recusant and took great risk to promote Catholicism during the turbulent years following the Civil War and Restoration. It was he who created the chapel on the second floor.
The façade of Gunter Mansion was georgianised in the 18th Century and this is what is presented in the 1907 photograph. The 1908 restoration substantially changed the external appearance by adding the shop fronts and altering the fenestration, but thankfully left most of the interior unchanged.
The chapel in Gunter Mansion drifted from history following the momentous events of 1678-79. However, during a remodelling of the building in 1908 a hidden attic was discovered which had lain dormant since the 17th century. ‘The removal of lime wash revealed a painted alter piece representing the Nativity on the sloping eastern ceiling of the attic. There were also painted graffiti and initials, including ‘T(homas) G(unter) His Mark’ and a crude drawing of a man in long black clothes adorning the matchstick figure of a woman. Above a little window looking out into Cross Street was the monogram of IHS (the ‘mark of the Jesuits’ complained of by Arnold) on a red heart within a green oval, surrounded by golden rays, with a cross above. Papers belonging to Thomas Gunter were found under the floor boards’ (Knight p171-172).
Therefore this Chapel is a key survival and direct link to a key event of Welsh and British history. It is the only known extant recusant chapel in Wales and one of the most important and best surviving in the whole of Britain.
Gunter Mansion today is in a very poor state of repair and is the most important building at risk in Abergavenny. Not only is the historic fabric at risk of being lost but the building and its important interiors are hidden from public view.
The building was bought by the Welsh Georgian Trust for £150,000 off the previous owners, a commercial company who, although aware of its significance, saw its value as an income producing asset.
The Welsh Georgian Trust was invited to get involved by the local community to explore a way forward for the building. Monmouthshire County Council became supportive of the scheme and saw the Trust’s involvement as a positive step towards saving the building and realising its importance as a heritage asset and attraction to the town.
The funds were raised through grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and the Pilgrim Trust, and we are currently awaiting the outcome of two grants from the Architectural Heritage Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund that will allow us to start architectural analysis on the building to find out more about it.
The planned scheme will involve a mixed use, with retail units being retained on the ground floor. The first floor, with the main reception rooms, will become a Landmark Trust style holiday let. The end gable, which contains the Chapel, will be occupied by the Trust as offices with the Chapel and an interpretation/exhibition space being made accessible to the public.
The internal and external features will be restored and the later unauthorised and inappropriate additions and alterations removed.
The building should then become a key asset to this part of Abergavenny and an international tourist attraction. The multi-use nature of our ideas will allow for the building to be financially self-sustaining, whilst retaining public access to its most significant rooms.
Thomas Gunter’s house would have had many visitors. It was, after all, his place of business as a lawyer as well as a centre for local Catholics where Mass was celebrated. It was reported to the House of Commons that a hundred attended Mass here, directly opposite the parish church. This may be an exaggeration, as John Arnold M.P. attempted to stir up anti-Catholic feelings as part of local feuds with Worcester, the lord at Raglan, whose family had long been Catholic supporters.
The family life of many Catholics seems to reflect the relaxed approach to religious differences in Monmouthshire. Many families were ‘Church Catholics’, outwardly conforming by attending the parish church as required – at least occasionally, but adhering to the Old Faith. Catholic priests could move around quite freely. From time to time, the laws were applied and recusants were fined – any Catholic or Protestant who did not attend the parish church or would not swear that Cromwell, or the king, was head of the church.
All these Martyrs have achieved sainthood in the eyes of the Church. They are numbered among the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, created by Pope Paul VI, 1970.
Saint David Lewis
David Lewis was born in 1616, in Abergavenny into a big family. His mother, Margaret, was a Catholic and David’s father, Morgan Lewis, was the headmaster of King Henry VIII Grammar School where his son was educated. Morgan Lewis was not a Catholic, or he would have been barred from that position.
When he was sixteen, David Lewis went to London and studied law. During this time, he became a Catholic after a visit to Paris. After the death of both his parents at the age of twenty-one, he set off to Rome to join the English College. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1642. He entered the Jesuit Order in 1645 while in Rome and was immediately sent to Wales, but was soon recalled to become Spiritual Director at his college. He was anxious to get back to Wales and was able to become the Superior at The Cwm in Llanrothal, a Jesuit college. He worked from there from 1648 until his martyrdom in 1679.
He worked among the Catholic population with great energy during this thirty years, and became known as Tad Tlodion (Father of the Poor) for his devotion to his people. He was well loved by all classes of people including non-Catholics. He was a regular visitor to Gunter Mansion in Abergavenny, and said Mass there frequently, not just for the family, but for the general public as well, much to the annoyance of a vicar at the parish church, which was across Beili Lane from the Gunter Mansion.
The tolerance given to Father Lewis and his flock was very unpopular with fanatics like John Arnold of Llanvihangel Crucorney and John Scudamore of Kentchurch, especially when the Popish Plot precipitated anti-Catholic hysteria (see article on the Popish Plot). Although Father Lewis escaped from the raid on The Cwm, he was caught at Llantarnam, near where the Glasshouse inn is today, in November 1678. He was taken to the Golden Lion on the corner of Frogmore Street and Lion Street in Abergavenny where he was charged with being a Catholic Priest. John Arnold took him to Llanfihangel Court to stay overnight before he went to Monmouth Gaol. He was later transferred to Usk, then back to Monmouth to be tried. He was charged under the Elizabethan statute which made it a capital offence for a priest ordained abroad to return for more than a limited period. Here is the sentence passed by the judge: “David Lewis, thou shalt be led from this place to a place whence thou camest, and shalt be put upon a hurdle and drawn with thy feet forward to the place of execution where thou shalt be hanged by the neck and be cut down alive; thy body to be ripped open and thy bowels plucked out; thou shalt be dismembered and thy members burnt before thy face. So the Lord have mercy on thy soul”.*
On the Day of execution, the 26 August, 1679, no-one could be found to erect the gallows. A convict, promised his release, made a bad job of it. Then the hangman could not be found, so a blacksmith was bribed to do the job. Father Lewis had to stand on a stool, not a ladder for the hanging. Those watching prevented him being cut down alive for disembowling and quartering. He is thought to be buried near the porch of the parish church in Usk marked now by a blue plaque. The ‘David Lewis pilgrimage’ began after his burial, and the grave is still a place of pilgrimage each year, on the nearest Sunday to 27 August.
*Quoted by Father Gareth Jones in his book: In Thoroughgoing Service: A Life of St David Lewis. Cardiff, 1999
Saint Phillip Evans
Philip Evans was born in Monmouth. He went to St. Omer in France for his education, and entered the Jesuit order. He was ordained in Belgium, and sent to Wales in 1675, and was to be here for four years ministering to the Catholic community, saying Mass and administering the Sacraments in both English and Welsh. He, like Father David Lewis, was well known at the Gunter Mansion, and often said Mass there.
Following the frenzy of the Popish Plot, Philip Evans was advised to go on the run, but refused to do so. He was arrested at Sker House in Glamorgan, and imprisoned in Cardiff Gaol, at first in solitary confinement, but later was able to share a cell with Father John Lloyd. The following year he was tried, found guilty of treason for being a Catholic priest, and sentenced. He was not executed straight away, and returned to gaol. He was even released from time to time. It was said that when the order did come, Father Evans was out playing tennis and was able to finish his game, before returning to his cell, where he wrote to his sister, a nun in Paris, and told her what was about to happen. On the morning of his execution he was found playing his harp. He and Father John Lloyd were taken together to the place of execution. Philip Evans’ last words were to John Lloyd, who was to be executed after him: “Adieu Mr. Lloyd! Though only for a little time, for we shall soon meet again.” He suffered the full rigour of the law, and was hung, drawn and quartered.
Saint John Lloyd
John Lloyd was a secular priest (not a member of a religious order), who is mentioned here because he was executed with Philip Evans. He is not, as far as we know, associated with the Gunters, but he is a part of the Philip Evans story. He, like the others, was caught up with all the ‘fake news’ that was the Popish Plot in 1678-9.
John Lloyd was born to a Catholic family in Brecon in 1616. He entered the English College at Valladolid in Spain. He was ordained in 1653 and returned home the next year. For the next twenty-five years he administered the Sacraments to the people of Monmouthshire and Glamorgan. His brother William was also a priest working in South Wales.
Like Father Evans, he was arrested at Sker House, and taken to Cardiff Gaol. The two were eventually allowed to share a cell, and were tried at the same Assizes in May, 1679. His brother William was also sentenced but died a few days before execution.
Father Lloyd had to watch his friend, Father Philip Evans, being hung, drawn and quartered, before being himself dispatched similarly.
Saint John Kemble
John Kemble was born in1599 in St. Weonards to Catholic parents. He entered the English College at Douai in northern France around 1620. He was ordained in 1624, becoming a secular priest, i.e. not a member of a religious order. That year he returned to his native land. He ministered to the Catholics of Wales and the Marches for the next fifty-four years, in relative peace and freedom. He was widely known and much loved by Catholics and non-Catholics as he went about his work openly. Father Kemble would have been a very welcome visitor to the Gunters in Abergavenny.
However, the Popish Plot fabrication caught up with him in 1678. He was arrested by John Scudamore of Kentchurch, taken to Hereford Gaol, and kept there until the Assizes in 1679. Under the Elizabethan statute he was found guilty of treason because of his ordination overseas, and sentenced to hanging, drawing and quartering. He and other priests were sent to London to be interviewed about the plot. He was in his eighties and was unable to ride a horse so he had to be tied on! The interrogation was aimed at finding information about the plot, but as there was no plot, no information could be extracted from anyone. John Kemble was sent back to Hereford. This time he walked!
He stayed in prison until August 22nd when he was executed in Hereford. He hanged for half an hour, but because of his age was spared the other grotesque parts of the punishment. The body was decapitated. His hand was severed also. This became a relic, which is kept in St. Francis Xavier’s Church in Hereford. Very soon afterwards St. John Kemble was commemorated every year in Monmouth, beginning with a pilgrimage to the saint’s grave at Welsh Newton, not far from where the Jesuits had their college. It continues, and modern day pilgrimages finish with Benediction at St. Mary’s Church in Monmouth – and lavish tea and refreshments after that!
Note: Three other priests, Thomas Andrews, Charles Pritchard and Walter Price, who fled when The Cwm was raided, perished in the hard winter while they tried to shelter in barns and outbuildings.
Later, under James II, the Franciscans opened a mission in Frogmore Street, Abergavenny, financed by Thomas Gunter’s daughter.
Beti, the maidservant, was up from her straw mattress before it was light. She joined Mistress Gunter and the two of them were quiet as they moved around and down the stairs. Only Morgan, the clerk, was up, readying the working rooms for the legal business of the day. Outside, dawn was arriving and the street was noisy as people, carts and animals jostled to get through the narrow South Gate. The gateway was just up the hill from their street door, still barred and closed at this early hour. They drew on their cloaks and the pattens over their shoes and picking up their baskets and cloths, made their way out of the back of the house, down the garden and through the gates into Beili Lane. Turning left to Monk Street, they passed between Priory House, where her brother-in-law lived, and the Tithe Barn. They made their way through the queue of carts at the East Gate and then turned right to walk up Cross Street to the half-timbered Market House in the centre of the street. It was still cold and they were glad of the long cloaks.
First, they climbed the stairs in the Market House to the Buttery. Mistress Gunter haggled over the price of a pound of butter and, once it was agreed, the butter was scooped out of the cask and weighed. Beti produced the cold earthenware jar from her basket and it was scraped in with both of them watching carefully for any short weight. They looked at the flour, oats and barley and noted the prices today. It was not urgent to arrange for any to be delivered and they would see how much was left after they had baked pies and bread and made the next batch of ale. It was always difficult knowing how many people they would be feeding, as visiting Catholic friends and priests made irregular inroads on their supplies.
Downstairs in the Market House, they picked their way between the butchers’ stalls and the people. Mistress Gunter chose an animal, haggled over the price and had the joint cut for her. Beti wrapped it in a cloth and added it to her basket. Then they parted, Beti to take her purchases back to the cool larder and Mistress Gunter to look for some other goods. She had not had time to make candles, so bought some from a shop on the High Street with the shutter up and the table down at the front. She tutted over the price but good candles for upstairs and for the working rooms were essential, and Thomas, her husband, disliked the smell of tallow ones, saying they “smelt of poverty”. The chandler was recently established in Abergavenny and had little Welsh. She slipped easily into the English that was increasingly in use locally as more incomers joined the prosperity of the market town. She thought with pride that she could use either, unlike most of the poorer sort locally. She could read too, write a little and keep accounts as well, lessening the burden on her husband and keeping costs down. The brewing business she ran, making enough for themselves and selling the surplus, helped pay the fines they incurred by not attending the St Mary’s Priory, the parish church. Thomas would not conform, even occasionally, and neither would she. They kept to the Old Catholic Faith of Rome, even though it cost them large sums of money.
The Spicer further along the High Street with the sign swinging in the cool breeze still had the shutters up – despite the noise of the cattle from the cattle market in Rother Street. She would have return later in the day, as she needed some more nutmegs and cinnamon. She hoped that they would not be too expensive but she knew prices were high. As she walked back along the High Street, a new shop was opening up its shutters – selling pipes, tobacco and snuff from the front room. It was well situated to catch the trade of men who visited the Golden Lion on the corner of Frogmore Street and Lion Lane and the Greyhound Inn on the High Street as it was between the two. She wondered whether they were from Caerleon, where so much tobacco was landed, but the voices sounded local in their dialect Welsh, so they were probably trying to make a living from the increased popularity of tobacco. She thought about visiting the poultry market in Chicken Street, but the joint she had purchased would probably be enough unless she had unexpected visitors, and she wanted to keep some money back for the spices she needed. She hoped that they would not be so difficult about the silver this time. Last time she was in there they had weighed her coins and insisted on an extra one as they were too clipped to make up the correct weight.
It was about time she had some new stockings too, so she hoped one of the stocking sellers would come to the house, but when she returned home a pedlar was already at the door with a flustered looking Beti trying to tell him that they needed no knives sharpening or pots mended. Mistress Gunter had only to raise her voice a little and the man was gone, only to be replaced, before she had her cloak off, by another selling penknives and quills. She brought him into the kitchen and choose some good quality goose quills as she knew how quickly Thomas and the clerk, Morgan, used them up with their document writing and copying. They had enough penknives for cutting the quills and erasing mistakes, so she sent him on his way after haggling over the price. When she put them in the store room, she checked that they had plenty of oak-apple galls, copperas and gum Arabic for Morgan to make into ink and made a mental note to ask him if he was running low.
Huw, the boy, came into the kitchen looking dirty and tousled. He put the basket with eggs from the hens on the side table, took one look at Mistress Gunter and fled outside again as she shouted at him to wash. He thought there was no point, he was about to get dirty again in the garden and he still had to see to the pigs before they started making too much noise. Beti chased after him to tell him to pull some leeks, taking a basket out herself to pull sallets. On her return, Mistress Gunter was sitting on a stool by the table with a mug of ale and some bread and cheese. It was only around nine o’clock by the bell in the tower and they had been busy since just before dawn. Beti sat with her and they discussed what tasks to do. In the larder was an unfinished meat and vegetable pie made yesterday, the meat could be roasted and there were plenty of vegetables from the garden. They had enough cinnamon to make a posset with cream, ale and bread for a third course which could be kept warm near the roasting meat by the fire. They needed to make some fresh bread and while Beti started that, Mistress Gunter went into the brewery house to tend to the beer and ale. That made her think about Richard, their ward and nephew, now away apprenticed to learn the brewing and wine business. She knew Thomas, her husband, missed the boy, but she felt, grimly, that they could do without the extra mouth to feed and the school fees to pay. Money was always short.
Beti took ale and some cakes through to the lawyer and his clerk at the front. She bustled back, looking pink, for another tankard as they had a client and Mistress Gunter hoped her husband had not been annoyed to be interrupted. Later, Beti set the table in the dining room with knives and napkins. She changed her apron before serving the meal to Master Thomas Gunter, the clerk Morgan and Mistress Gunter and then thankfully was able to sit down for a short while with the boy to have some food herself in the kitchen.
Dr G M Wakley
William Morgan was impatient and tired, sitting on his horse where the road up from the Lord’s Mill below the Castle Walls in Mill Street led to the narrowed entrance through the South Gate on Cross Street. A flock of sheep was making its disorganised way through the gateway towards him and he was stuck behind a cart waiting for entrance into the town.
On Monday, he had travelled by trow to Chepstow from Bristol after organising the purchase and delivery of wine for the Greyhound tavern. He could not, of course, travel on the Sunday as that was forbidden to all except those with a permit from the magistrate, although he had finished his business by then and would have liked to have got back home. He had had to wait for the tide to settle on the Severn River and the flat-bottomed boat had been tossed by the choppy water but speeded by the wind in its sails. After a night at Chepstow, he had retrieved his horse from the stables where he had left her and ridden to stay overnight at Usk at his brother’s house. The tracks were muddy after the rain and progress was slow in the poorly kept surface. He was sometimes held up by carters pulling their carts around a deeper rutted area, but apart from among the small groups of houses, he had seen few people on his way. The bridges were all passable fortunately, but a few of the fords were treacherous because the streams were so full. Some of the tracks were almost overgrown with the new vegetation of the spring, but who was going to cut them back until they needed the wood for burning? Coming up past the small, mean houses in Mill Street he had threaded his way past carts and people and wrinkled his nose as he passed the tanning pits. Now he was waiting for entrance to Abergavenny town and nearly home.
After riding in the quiet of the countryside, the noise of the town was overwhelming. Men shouting, children running and screeching, pedlars announcing their goods, and women trying to make themselves heard over the noise of the bleating of the sheep and the instructions of the shepherd to his dog. The carts which had made little noise on the earth tracks outside the towns, now clattered on the cobbles, where they were not covered with a layer of rubbish.
He was used to the smells of the middens, the dung in the streets, and the smoke from the fires but the sharp, rank smell from the sheep milling around him made him catch his breathe. They had obviously been penned up in the sheep market in Castle Street for some time awaiting collection by their new owner and their fleeces were matted and soiled. He wondered briefly if there was any way that all animals could be made to come in and out through the West Gate – after all most of them were overnighted in Castle Meadows or Grofields before being sold in the sheep and horse markets in Castle Street and the cattle market in Rother Street. But then, how would the cattle make their way up towards Hereford and the longer journey towards the London markets? No, the animals had to come through the town.
William had the urge to scratch the bites from the fleas and lice; there was no escaping them when you stayed in taverns. His mud-spattered clothes felt stiff, but at least they kept him warm in the biting cold wind that still persisted into this late spring. He looked across to the grimy lower windows of Gunter House, placed imposingly just below the gate on Priory land. A man was just entering the street door – going to see the attorney on business from the look of his bearing. He thought wryly of the attorney, Thomas Gunter, who had paraded his Catholic faith like armour against change, as had his father before him. William himself had been careful to keep to a middle way, to worship as the Lord Protector had, or the king now required. He attended St Mary Priory Church, the parish church, most Sundays, often enough to appear conforming but not so often as to appear zealous.
Mind you, that was a bad business all round with Father David Lewis, best not mentioned aloud. A good and caring man by most accounts, taken by that fanatic John Arnold. They said that he had been holding Catholic masses in Thomas Gunter’s house and that did seem likely, given Gunter’s opinions. The priest had been taken and held briefly in Abergavenny before being transferred to Usk, taken back and forth to London to make him recant his Catholic faith and then last August he was hung. Thomas Gunter was quieter these days, concentrating on his attorney’s business. But, he thought more cheerfully, Gunter liked a glass or two of red wine, as well as his home brew, and that was good for business
At last the sheep were through and he could continue on his way. He glanced disdainfully at the old fashioned looking Sun Inn on his right just inside the South Gate, with its board in need of repainting. The Greyhound tavern was much smarter and patronised by gentlemen who wanted to sample the latest wines, not just the local ale of the house with its smoky flavour from local kilned barley. But it did take a lot of work to arrange the purchase and safe delivery of wine. The oak barrels had to be packed in straw to protect against the jolting from the rutted tracks and making sure that the load was well-guarded from thieves was always a challenge. He was hoping that the new vintner who had set up in Cross Street and had a part share in the Angel, would take on this arduous task, although then he would miss going to Bristol and hearing all the latest news.
The Greyhound was well placed for gentlemen being on the High Street and opposite St John’s Lane. The lane led to the Henry VIII Grammar School in the old St John’s Church where the sons of gentlemen attended.
There seemed to be many more of the merchants and professionals in the town than he remembered from his apprentice days – attorneys, physicians, surgeons, clergymen and teachers. They, together with the few well-off tradesmen and craftsmen of the town, like the printers, flannel dealers and wheat wholesalers, were keen to make useful connections whilst enjoying a glass of wine in a comfortable tavern. Mind you, some of the older customers preferred to drink the metheglin that his wife made from honey and herbs.
William rode up Cross Street with its tightly packed houses, filled with merchants, tradesmen, craftsmen and taverns. The boards swung in the breeze above the buildings mostly with their gable ends to the street and running back to their plots at the rear, some with long narrow passages between. He went past the cross roads with Castle Street to his left and Monk Street and the East Gate leading to the Priory Church to his right. He glimpsed a pig wandering free along the road and thought it would soon be rooting around in the churchyard. That is, until the sexton took it to the Pound in Castle Street to be reclaimed by its owner after payment of the fine for the damage. He swung aside, shouting, to avoid the kitchen refuse collector leading his horse down with the cart behind, already stinking.
He passed by the narrow side of the Market House in the middle at the top of Cross Street, where by this time of day, they were clearing out the blood and muck from the morning butchers’ market. The butter market above had long since finished. He turned down Little Lane to the right and looked down to where it led on through the town wall and the small gate to the boggy meadows around the Cibi Brook. He turned left into the yard of the Greyhound and an ostler ran up to take his horse. He dismounted stiffly and walked with his saddle bags into the back of the tavern. Home at last.
Dr G M Wakley
For much of the 17th century Catholics were left to practise their religion with little interference or harassment with occasional outbursts of feelings against Catholics influenced by threats from France and Spain. The situation changed with the defeat of the royalists in the Civil Wars (including in Monmouthshire the downfall of the Marquis of Worcester at Raglan, the Catholics’ most powerful protector). Charles II’s accession in 1660 helped a little in that he did not want to persecute anyone, only enjoy himself. Parliament, however, still dominated by those of puritan leanings, were determined not to allow any of those they saw as Catholic traitors to succeed. Louis XIV on the throne of France had territorial ambitions which aroused English nationalism and fears. The Great Fire of London was rumoured to have been caused by Catholics, while the conversion to the catholic faith of the James, Duke of York, heir to the throne, increased anti-Catholic feelings.
Titus Oates, the instigator of the “plot” found ears ready to accept his revelations. He had been an Anglican curate, a naval chaplain, and at one time a member of the Duke of Norfolk’s household. He then converted to Catholicism, studied at the English College in Rome and later at the Jesuit school at St Omer. He was expelled from both.
Oates was assisted by Dr Ezerel Tonge, Rector of St Michael’s, Wood St, London in compiling details of leading Catholics and their movements. Using their research, they fabricated a lurid plot in which the king would be murdered, stabbed by Irish ruffians, and poisoned by the queen’s physician. The Duke of York would become king and rule under the influence of Jesuits. Through a court employee they managed to make the king aware of all this. Charles II, used to such rumours, hardly believed the threat but referred it to his Treasurer . Probably nothing more would have come of it had it not been for the murder of a London magistrate. Oates and Tonge had sworn an affidavit before Sir Edmund Godfrey whose murdered body was found in a ditch on Primrose Hill. A post-mortem showed that the dead man had been strangled, then run through with his own sword. This was thought, erroneously, to confirm Oates’ story and numerous other accusations against Catholics, however ill-founded, spread abroad.
The vast sum of £500 was offered as a reward for the discovery of Godfrey’s murder. William Bedloe, originally from Chepstow, made up a story that Godfrey had been murdered by three Jesuits and two laymen. The Commons ordered these men to be hunted down; lists of Catholics throughout the country were to be made and those refusing to take the Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy were to be imprisoned. Strongly supported by the Earl of Shaftesbury, an influential and bitter enemy of Catholics, the story of the plot became widely accepted. Of particular relevance to the Gunter story, John Arnold M.P. of Llanfihangel Crucorney had already earlier in the year presented the Commons with a detailed account of Catholic practices in Monmouthshire and Herefordshire.
Oates and Bedloe now set about embellishing the ‘plot’ in more detail. All the Welsh bishops and the bishop of Hereford were to be replaced by Catholic religious, by a Dominican at Bangor, a Jesuit at Hereford, two secular priests at St Asaph’s and St David’s, and by Father David Lewis at Llandaff. A soldier called Winter was to be a leading officer in a large Catholic army which would join forces with Spanish troops landing at Milford Haven.
The existence of the Cwm at Llanrothal, as a house where many Jesuit priests had lived and studied for over fifty years, was well known locally and from Arnold’s account to the London authorities. Bishop Croft of Hereford had once studied for the Catholic priesthood but had then converted. Thus, he was an apostate and as part of the plot he was to be murdered. It is therefore hardly surprising that when instructed to bring an end to the Cwm, he responded with alacrity. At that time there were seven or eight residents with Father David Lewis as their Superior. He had little time to order their evacuation. The priests fled to friendly houses, several even to the surrounding woods abandoning their library and liturgical items, just before Bishop Croft with the magistrates Arnold and Price and armed guards, raided the house.
This was just one of the best known episodes resulting from the perceived existence of the plot. There is no doubt it had a devastating effect on Catholic practice throughout the country particularly in the Welsh marches. It is thought about thirty-five innocent men lost their lives directly or indirectly through it and the shortage of priests meant that recusant numbers never recovered.
Oates’ chequered career continued to his death. He was convicted for perjury and imprisoned for life by Judge Jeffreys. William of Orange reversed this and gave him a pension. This was later stopped. In 1698 he joined the Baptists but was expelled for dishonesty. He died in 1705.
The word comes from the Latin ‘recusare’ to refuse. Recusants were people who refused to accept the practices of the Church of England or the role of the monarch as head of the Church, as established by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. They followed the Catholic Faith, Yr Hen Fydd (the Old Faith), as it was known in Wales.
Catholic clergy and lay people faced penalties of varying severity for practising the old faith in a period sometimes referred to as ‘penal times’. This lasted for almost 300 years, from Henry VIII’s time until at least 1689, although restrictions still faced hostile legislation until until well into the 18th century. Lay people were fined, often heavily, for refusing to attend Anglican services. Priests were regarded as having been guilty of high treason for being ordained abroad and returning to England and Wales to celebrate Mass and tending to the Catholic faithful. They faced the death penalty.
In Monmouthshire, there were many recusants among the gentry, for example, the Somersets at Raglan and the Morgans of Llantarnam. The powerful gentry gave some protection to other Catholics, and to the clergy who kept Catholicism alive. Catholicism was relatively strong in the county. The Gunters at Abergavenny made the Gunter Mansion a centre of Catholic worship. The Vicar of Abergavenny complained in the 1670s that there were large numbers of Catholics seen leaving Mass at the Gunter house when there were only 40 or so at worship in the parish church. Fines were often not imposed – many magistrates owed their appointment to the gentry – and Catholic religious practices allowed to continue unless the level of alarm in the country demanded action.
However, the intensity of persecution ebbed and flowed with perceived political threats from foreign Catholic powers, for example, at the time of the Spanish Armada in the 16th century, and at the time of the alleged Popish Plot of 1678-9 (see article) as a result of which Saint David Lewis was executed.
The Plot, David Lewis’s execution, and the dispersal of the Jesuits, who had been so active in keeping Catholicism alive in Monmouthshire, brought an end to the period of relative tolerance, although Catholic recusancy persisted in the 18th century, if in somewhat diminished strength, thanks to the work of the Franciscan Order.
Monmouthshire (and the neighbouring areas of Herefordshire) had one of the largest Catholic populations in the country for almost 300 years, and O’Keefe sates that in the mid-seventeenth century Monmouthshire was more Catholic than Lancashire, which is often seen as the historic Catholic heartland.
The Pope’s excommunication of Elizabeth I in 1570 brought many changes to attitudes and approaches to Catholicism. Prior to this, there were penalties of varying severity for Catholics who refused to accept the practices of the Church of England or the role of the Monarch as head of the Church, however these were generally mild as long as Catholics practiced their beliefs quietly and privately. However, without the Popes approval of the queen as head of the Church, many thought that foreign powers had more opportunity to depose the Queen, and missionary priests who were trained abroad were treated more and more suspiciously. Penalties became significantly more harsh, with the fine for missing Sunday church increasing from 1s in 1559, to £20 in 1581. Anyone participating in Catholic Mass was fined £130 and imprisoned for twelve months and ‘Jesuits, seminary priests and such like disobedient persons’ were imprisoned.
After Elizabeth’s death in 1603 and the arrival of James I in 1605 made many optimistic that the laws would be relaxed, however, the Gunpowder plot of 160 and pressure from misters brought in more penalties. The fines for missing Sunday church increased to consume not taking the sacrament, with informants receiving a 50% commission of the fines rather than the previous 30%, something that encouraged the population to give up their neighbours. Hopes came and went similarly when Charles II was restored to the throne.
Many lives were disrupted in Monmouthshire due to the heavy Catholic presence there. Thomas Richards stipulated in the early 1920’s that in 1676 there was 541 Catholic recusants in Monmouthshire, with 416 in Abergavenny alone. However, Matthews puts the number of Catholic recusants in Abergavenny at no more than a hundred or so. Either way, if we assume Matthews lower estimate of Catholics in Abergavenny when the population was around 1,000, then that makes at least a tenth of the towns population Catholic in comparison to the average of just 1% across England and Wales.
The true number of Catholics is likely to have been higher than the official figures as they reflect how leniently or stringently the penal laws were administered locally, and the strong Catholic presence in the gentry would suggest a high degree of local tolerance. Many priests were sheltered by major Catholic landowners who would still have held office as JPs or deputy-lieutenants, such as Charles Prodger at Llantilio Pertholey, Edward Morgan at Llantarnam and William James of Llanarth. The fluctuations in the numbers of recorded recusants supports the idea that Monmouthshire held a more lenient approach. Furthermore, some Catholics may have conformed to the laws on religious observance for any number of reasons, and thus would not have shown up in recusancy figures.
O’Keefe stipulates that the anti-Catholic legislation remained a ‘dead letter’ in Monmouthshire due to the Catholic presence, and compliance with the law was ‘contrived’ with Catholic worship largely unimpeded. Catholic activities were not really secret, with hundred meeting at the ruined chapel on Skirrid Fawr as often as eight to ten times a year, with a local magistrate stating that he had seen many there with beads in their hands, and that the priests from the Jesuit college at Cwm regularly took part in illegal pilgrimages to ancient shrines and shopped openly for provisions at Monmouth’s Saturday market.
Despite the more lightly applied laws in Monmouthshire, there were periods when active persecution was much more common which was more often than not triggered by a national scare or crisis – such as the Spanish Armada (1588), the Gunpowder Plot (1605), The Great Fire of London (1666) and the Titus Oates plot (1678).
The role of local landed families was vital.
It is impossible to consider the strength of the Catholic faith in Monmouthshire after the Reformation without acknowledging the position of the Catholic family associated with Raglan Castle. The Lord at Raglan Castle was the Earl of Pembroke, William Herbert. He was the first Welshman to be elevated to the English peerage and with this accolade came power and wealth. In 1492 Elizabeth, one of his daughters (and he had no son), inherited the property. She married Sir Charles Somerset and the Somersets acquired Raglan Castle. The family became Marquises of Worcester, and later Dukes of Beaufort through marriage. They had administrative and legal authority which was valuable to the far-off government in London. They were trusted and this was not a boat to be rocked without good cause. The wealth of the extended family is said to have paid many off the fines on less well-off in the area, who refused to attend Anglican services. These were the recusants.
The first Sir William ap Thomas, known as the Blue Knight of Gwent, had his family seat at Wern Ddu in the parish of Llantilio Pertholey. Sir William Herbert’s mother was Gwladys, daughter of Sir Dafydd Gam (who died at Agincourt fighting for Henry V), so many influential families in the county could claim kinship through blood or marriage. The social position of the family meant that they were in a position to send their sons away for education. Many would have gone to Oxford to study subjects such as law and theology and some who were so inclined would be sent to the English College in Rome or to seminaries in France to be trained as priests. Priests returning from abroad were welcomed and supported and it is also said that the Catholic faith was kept alive particularly through the women of the families, who had much influence in the early years of their children’s upbringing.
The decision of the Jesuits to build their college dedicated to their founder, St Francis Xavier, at the Cwm, Llanrothal across the border in Herefordshire was significant in itself. Before the establishment of the Cwm, the Jesuits had met a few miles away in Raglan. Even today, the Cwm, seems a million miles from civilisation and in the 17th century it must have been very difficult to access. The land was given by the Marquis of Worcester and was on the extreme ‘outer edge’ of all the nearest dioceses and probably of little interest to the relevant bishops hunkered down in their headquarters. For many years it was classed as the ‘Welsh District’ by the Jesuits, probably from 1600 to 1679. Then, following the Popish Plot which raised emotions and fear of Catholics, it was raided by Bishop Croft of Hereford. Warned beforehand, the priests fled.
One branch of the family was that of the Powells of Perthir (Perthyr), a house associated with Bishop Matthew Prichard, Vicar Apostolic of the ‘Western District’, a Franciscan, who lived and then died there in 1750, being buried in Rockfield church. The 18th century antiquarian, William Coxe, in his An Historical Tour of Monmouthshire writes about the Powells of Perthir, whose chapel there was dedicated to St. Catherine. When the house was demolished, items from it were said to be deposited at various locations including the Catholic church in Monmouth and at Clytha. There must be many such artefacts, uncatalogued as yet, in the county.