by Max Pemberton
The following article covering various aspects of Penmon was researched and written by Max Pemberton whilst living in Priory House (formerly his mother’s home) in Penmon. It will be serialised over the next few issues of the magazine.
The earliest churches erected in Anglesey were connected with the cells or abodes of hermits, and Penmon is perhaps the most well known, and certainly became one of the most important, of these.
This now apparently tranquil location on the eastern tip of Anglesey has nonetheless a very busy and turbulent history, with remains spanning over 1,400 years.
Tradition dates the foundation of the Priory to the reign of Maelgwn Gwynedd (c534-c549). The founder is widely regarded to be to be St. Seiriol, a monk related to the royal family of Gwynedd, but is more likely to have been his brother Cynlas, who was succeeded by Seiriol.
According to legend, Seiriol regularly used to meet St. Cybi of Holyhead (Caergybi) at a central rendezvous. Seiriol, travelling with his back to the sun in the morning and returning with his face to the east in the afternoon, became known as Seiriol Gwyn (Seiriol the Pale), the other, Cybi Felin (Cybi the Tanned).
St. Seiriol was reputedly originally buried on nearby Puffin Island (Ynys Seiriol), his body later being brought into the Priory Church and placed under the original stone altar, in a shrine that pilgrim’s could enter by means of a stone staircase.
In the early 13th century the monastery was regularised under the Augustinian Rule, and at this time the Priory Church was enlarged. The monastery was finally dissolved by Henry VIII in 1537, and the lands granted to the Bulkeleys of Beaumaris, the local landowners and existing stewards of the estate.
The Monastic Buildings
Seiriol’s monastery prospered and developed over the centuries, and by the 10th century it had a wooden church building and two fine crosses were set up at its gates.
Unfortunately, after the Viking raids in the 10th century, these crosses are all that remains of the early medieval monastery, the original wooden settlement at Penmon being raided and burnt in the year 971.
In the 13th century the Celtic monasteries were persuaded by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great) to adopt a more regular rule. Penmon, and its sister foundation on Ynys Seiriol (Puffin Island/Priestholm), were regularised, becoming an Augustinian Priory of the order of the ‘Black Canons’, with quite substantial conventual stone buildings.
The cloister, now a garden, stood on the south side of the chancel of the church. The eastern range of buildings has now gone but the southern one, containing the Refectory, still stands.
The South Range consisted of three storeys: the cellars, which can be entered by a door on the south side; the dining room (Refectory) on the first floor and a dormitory above.
The Refectory would originally have been reached by an external stairway on the south wall (now non-existent, yet the original door can still be made out above the cellar door), and from the cloister to the north.
During meals the monks observed silence, whilst one othem, seated at a window, would read aloud. The seat used is by the window in the southeast corner (first floor) of the Refectory.
Near to the south door of the cellar is a 12th-century gravestone with a plain incised cross, which had once been used as a lintel to this door.
The Warming House and Kitchen at the eastern end of this building is a 16th century addition, and on the left side of the first floor (kitchen) fireplace has been carved a figure, thought to be of a lady wearing a wimple.
This type of hat was in fashion in the 13th and 14th centuries, though why such a carving is evident in a monastery is open to speculation. The communicating doors through to the Refectory and dormitory were created at this time.
Outside the monastic buildings is a stepped mounting block which was added, probably around 1710, when the cellar was used as stables.
The Priory survived the Edwardian conquest and was even expanded slightly, but was finally dissolved, along with most others in England and Wales, in 1537 during the reign of Henry VIII, the buildings then passing into the hands of the Bulkeleys of Beaumaris, who enclosed much of the land as a deer park and built the impressive dovecote.
They also converted the Prior's lodging into a rather attractive house. Throughout this time the Priory Church remained in use, as it does today.
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