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.
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.
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. They were tried and condemned to death for their religion. 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 is currently owned by a commercial company who, although aware of its significance, see its value as an income producing asset. All of the retails units are let and producing a regular income.
The Welsh Georgian Trust was invited to get involved by the local community to explore a way forward for the building. Monmouthshire County Council has become supportive of the scheme and see’s 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 Welsh Georgian Trust has negotiated a purchase option for the building from the current owners. An agreement has been reached which would allow the Trust and the local community until the end of 2016 to raise funds for the initial purchase of the building.
Once under Trust ownership the plan is to develop a comprehensive restoration programme, funded by, amongst others, the Heritage Lottery Fund Enterprise Scheme.
The planned scheme would involve a mixed use, with retail units being retained on the ground floor. The first floor, with the main reception rooms, would become a Landmark Trust style holiday let. The end gable, which contains the Chapel, would 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 would 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 the proposal should allow for the building to be financially self-sustaining, whilst retaining public access to its most significant rooms.
We have now launched an Appeal for funds to help us acquire Gunter Mansion.
The Welsh Georgian Trust has an Option Agreement with the owners of Gunter Mansion to buy the building for £150,000. This Option expires at the end of 2016.
We are confident that the building would be an excellent project for an HLF Enterprise Grant but the timescale of the option means that we do not have the time to follow this route until we own it. We need to raise a minimum of £150,000 to be able to buy and secure the building. We would then have the time to develop a long term HLF funded restoration programme.
In July and August 2016 we ran a crowdfunding campaign with a short term target of £10,000. On 25th August we successfully reached this target and in doing so demonstrated the widespread public support that our plans have. We really appreciate the generosity of the wide range of people who contributed.
We currently have major grant applications pending with the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Pilgrim Trust. We hope to know the outcome of these bids by the beginning of October 2016. However, we very much still need additional funds – to pay for any shortfall in the grant funding and for emergency repairs that the building requires.
There are two ways to contribute to our appeal:
Please send a cheque to the Welsh Georgian Trust at The Old Stables, Beaufort Arms Court, Monmouth NP25 3UA, giving your name and address and whether you would like your donation to be gift aided.
Or, by transferring money directly to our bank account (please send an email too).
- Bank Name: Unity Trust Bank
- Account Name: The Welsh Georgian Trust
- Sort Code: 60-83-01
- Account Number: 20282219