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Brecknockshire Churches Survey

Church of St Mary , Brecon

Brecon Church is in the Diocese of Swansea and Brecon, in the community of Brecon in the county of Powys. It is located at Ordnance Survey national grid reference SO0452428526.
The church is recorded in the CPAT Historic Environment Record as number 16720 and this number should be quoted in all correspondence.

Brecon Church, CPAT copyright photo 412-22.JPG

Summary

St Mary's church which acquired parochial status only in 1923 is a fine church situated in the heart of Brecon. The great tower dates to the earlier part of the 16thC but the rest of the building, with aisles coupled to nave and chancel, is earlier, generally early 14thC through to late 15thC, and a couple of the aisle piers go back to previous centuries. Regrettably the varied and interesting architectural detail is not matched by contemporary internal features, and its former status as an urban chapel means that there was no churchyard.

Tower is as first built though some of fenestration has replacement dressings; little of the nave externally is visible and some of that is replaced in the 19thC. Internally it reveals a more complex development starting with what is thought to have been a short aisled church of the mid-12thC, the sole evidence of which is a single surviving pier. A second pier opposite is also circular but of a different design and is attributed to the early 13thC. Finally an octagonal pier at the west end of the south arcade is dated to the early 14thC.

The north aisle is said to have been rebuilt in the earlier 14thC, and there is one unrestored Decorated window in the north wall; most of the western end is a Victorian rebuild.

The chancel appears to have been lengthened in the later 15thC; the Perpendicular window at the east end and the butt joint in the south wall confirm this.

The south aisle on the basis of its Y-tracery windows dates to the early 14thC, but again on the basis of a single pier in the south arcade it should be a rebuild. A blocked doorway is visible half way along this side. There appears to be some rebuilding at the west end of the south wall: though conceivably this is no more than a contemporaneous masonry change, it is possible that it is contemporary with the erection of the south porch, perhaps in the late 15thC. However, the masonry phasing of the south aisle and porch is not properly resolved.

Parts of the following description are quoted from the 1979 publication The Buildings of Wales: Powys by Richard Haslam

History

St Mary's was erected as a chapel of ease within the town walls, probably late in the 12thC. It was enlarged in the 14thC and a new tower was added around 1510-20 by Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, at a cost of 2,000, its style reflecting this patronage.

The Taxatio of 1254 refers to 'Ecclesia de Brechonia' and its successor in 1291 rated it at 20 in value.

About 1690 that part of the south aisle near the south door was partitioned off to form a room for the Ecclesiastical Consistory Church of the Archdeaconry of Brecon.

There have been a series of restorations starting with the fabric in 1831 and continuing in 1856, with the renewal of the arcades in yellow stone and perhaps some dressings, by T. H. Wyatt, who may also have been responsible for the scissor truss roofs.

Glynne when he visited the church in 1847 found a north porch, the interior encumbered with pews and the west gallery protruding into the nave. The northy side had houses close against it, and consequently there were few windows.

In 1928 W.D. Caroe replaced the reredos, stalls, and organ case, and finally, in 1949, the screen.

St Mary's became a parish church in 1923.

Architecture

St Mary's comprises a nave and chancel of similar width, a south aisle comparable in length with the nave and choir combined, a shorter north aisle, a west tower against the west end of the nave, a small south porch and a vestry against the east end of the north aisle. The church is oriented fractionally north of grid west.

Fabrics: 'A' of medium and large blocks of red sandstone, regularly coursed, with occasional grey sandstone incorporated. 'B' is of random blocks and slabs of multi-coloured sandstones, some soot blackened; little obvious coursing; dressings of pink and grey sandstone. 'C' is of small slabs of red and grey sandstone, regular coursed. 'D' is of slightly irregular blocks and slabs of grey, red and buff sandstone, small to medium in size and randomly coursed. 'E' is of regular blocks and slabs of frequently buff sandstone. 'F' is similar to 'D' but the masonry, predominantly grey and red sandstone, is less well-coursed, more randomly set.

'B' is medieval, and 'D' is considered to have been used in both the 14thC and 15thC with re-use in the 19thC; 'F' may be late 15thC; 'A' is early 16thC; 'C' is Victorian.

Roofs: in red and grey reconstituted clay tiles with plain ridge tiles and no finials, except for a cross finial to the chancel.

Drainage: impossible to determine because largely edged by tarmac.

Exterior Tower. General. The finest tower in Powys with its red battlements and carved waterspouts visible all over the town (Haslam). Fabric A. Several string-courses: i) above basal plinth at height of c.1.0m; ii) hollow-moulded at top of second stage; iii) at top of third stage; iv) at top of fourth stage with gargoyles, and battlemented parapet above. Diagonal stepped buttresses at two western angles, integral in that the string-courses run around them, and rising to just below the highest string-course; and on south and west sides there is a chamfered plinth at ground level in addition to that already noted. A octagonal turret rises above the north-east corner and is topped by a weathercock.

North wall: wall face shows some patching with flatter blocks of stones in third stage. At ground level, a narrow, two-centred arched doorway without dressings, and a simple wooden door. In the third stage is a large two-centred arched window with three ogee-headed lights having cusped tracery, four panels above and minor lights as well - the whole is blocked in red sandstone to the bottom of the ogee-heads; the arch is in dressed stone but not the jambs. Fourth stage has a similar window illuminating belfry, but some replacement of the tracery elements; there are no louvre boards but instead a 'grille of ornamental stonework'. Two gargoyles.

Small quatrefoil lights for stair turret: two in second stage in north face, and one in the north-east face; two in both of the third and fourth stages again in the north-east face. The last stage of the turret is inset with its own string-course above and two gargoyles just below its battlements.

East wall: apex of nave rises to just above top of second stage. The third stage has a standard, partially blocked, window with some tracery replacement, and the string-course rises over this as a hoodmoulding. The fourth stage has a clock face, and above it a standard window some of which may be replaced. Two gargoyles.

South wall: as north wall for all windows, but it can be noted that the stone edging the windows is well dressed, and the tracery appears very fresh; together with some of the coping stones on the buttress, much appears to have been replaced.

West wall: dominated by an inserted Victorian window in the Perpendicular style in cream-coloured sandstone, having five ogee-headed lights with cinquefoil tracery, panels, a hoodmoulding with decorated stops and a big relieving arch. Haslam sees this as an original window much refurbished. A standard window in the third stage, greyish sandstone in the arch indicating replacement, and likewise some replacement in the standard belfry window above. Two gargoyles.

Nave General. Disguised almost totally by the aisles, only a small part of the north wall is visible at the west end where it abuts the tower turret.

North wall: most of visible wall is in 'B'. There are quoins at what would be the north-west angle, now butting against the stair turret but two quoin stones actually act as ties with the turret. Close to the angle with the north aisle is a vertical line of chamfered dressings which can only be the jambs of a blocked window. Beyond this up to the north aisle the masonry is 'C'.

North aisle. North wall: west end is in Fabric C though the masonry is a little more regular and has more blocks; set in this is a Victorian door in buff sandstone and having complex mouldings, the inner order with stops; relieving arch and lamp over; heavily sooted, a result of a building backing up against it in the last century, though Dawson recorded a north porch at the beginning of the century. This is now the main entrance to the church. East of the doorway is a clear break with 'C' giving way to Fabric 'D'; almost immediately there is a plinth at ground level, some 2m long and about 0.4m high; its significance is uncertain, and other than this the base of 'D' is faintly battered. Set in the rest of the wall are five windows, the second blocked though perfectly visible on the outside. The first window is in buff sandstone and has a two-centred arch over two lights with cusped tracery and a quatrefoil above; wholly Victorian. The second window is blocked in material not dissimilar to 'D', but many jambs in grey sandstone survive. Beyond this point the 'D' masonry is less clean and more weathered but is undoubtedly 'D'. The third window is similar to the first but has a trefoil rather than a quatrefoil above the lights, and the chamfered dressings are original and unrestored. The fourth and fifth windows are both Victorian replacements, similar in form but shorter than the first window. The masonry around these windows is sootier; otherwise it is similar and suggests that the insertion of new windows was accompanied by the re-use of existing stonework. The top courses in the wall throughout its length are in Fabric 'E' suggesting that the roof has been raised at sometime, logically after the Victorian insertion for at the west end it lies above 'C' as well.

West wall: in 'C'. There is a two-light window with broad cusps and three trefoils above, all in weathered pale sandstone; the tracery is particularly weathered, the chamfered jambs less so. Notwithstanding this, it must be a Victorian (or perhaps slightly earlier?) replacement.

East wall: the Victorian vestry abutting this wall effectively disguises it.

Chancel General. Fabric 'D' though some largish blocks, and in the east wall a mixture of red and grey sandstone.

North wall: battered base though part protrudes more than the rest for no obvious reason. A two-centred window with two lights having cinquefoil tracery, all replaced, but the chamfered jambs and mullion are original.

East wall: battered to 1.2m. A large Perpendicular window with a two-centred arch, five lights with cinquefoil heads, a transom and four panels above; some of the jamb- and arch-stones are original but the tracery has been replaced, not necessarily all at the same time.

South wall: this is gently battered. A two-centred arched window with two lights that have cinquefoil heads and a diamond light in the tympanum; the tracery has been renewed but most of the jambstones and perhaps the mullion are original. At the extreme west end, close against the south aisle angle, is a butt joint, stopping just below the eaves; little is visible but there could be quoin stones on the west side of the butt joint, and this appears to bear out the contention that the chancel has been enlarged.

South aisle. General. Fabric D; base battered to maximum height of c.1.1m. Considered to be early 14thC.

East wall: wall abuts quoins of chancel south wall (see above). Fabric D at lower levels but at higher levels more irregular and flakey akin to Fabric B. Door at north end of wall. Two-centred arched window has three stepped lights with cusped heads; these and the mullions have been renewed in light yellow stone, but the moulded jamb and the archstones are original. Window not centrally placed in wall.

South wall: In Fabric D with selected stones for quoins. A complex wall. From east: i) window with two-centred arch and Y-tracery, the two lights with trefoiled heads; mullion and tracery above it renewed in yellow sandstone, and some jambs appear to be renewed also, but the arch is original and much weathered; ii) larger window with three stepped lights with plain heads, the mullions and springers replaced, as are some jambs; but again the two-centred head is original; iii) third window is two-centred with Y-tracery, two plain lights and a diamond light above, the mullion renewed in red sandstone, part of the arch replaced in buff sandstone, and the sill, too, replaced; the rest original; iv) between third and fourth windows is a blocked doorway, its arch broad and probably two-centred, but the edge picked out only by a change in stone except lower down where jamb-like stones are visible; v) fourth window is the same as third with some replacement of dressings: the mullion in yellow and some patching to the west jamb; vi) west of fourth window is an irregular joint, 'D' giving way to 'F'; the south porch appears to be set against this although it is conceivable that the aisle wall behind the porch is still 'D'; above the porch is a square-headed window with two trefoil-headed lights, most of the dressings being renewed; vii) immediately to the west of the porch is a near-vertical strip of infilled masonry reaching to the full height of the wall; its significance is not clear. Could it relate to a chimney?; vii) beyond this the masonry reverts to 'F' and contains a sixth window, with a two-centred arch, Y-tracery, two lights with trefoil heads and an irregular quatrefoil light above; most of the jambs are original, the rest largely renewed. The lower part of the wall is in 'D' and above this the juncture rises towards the south-west angle.

West wall: considered to be in Fabric D. At base of wall is a boiler room which is below ground level and is approached by brick steps; there is a chimney at the apex of the roof and an infilled channel leads across the wall face to it. The wall face also exhibits the diagonal scar of a pitched roof line from a building now gone, its apex at the south end of the aisle wall. Above this is a window of two trefoiled lights, all the dressings original except for the mullion.

South porch. General. Abuts south aisle and on the evidence of its roof may be late 15thC. Fabric is probably 'F'.

East wall: plain. A crack just behind the quoins at the south-east angle hints at some rebuilding.

South wall: two-centred archway with stopped chamfers; some renewal of arch stones.

West wall: fresh fabric rather like the infill running down the aisle wall just to the west (see above).

Interior

Tower. General. Tiled floor with carpets. Walls plastered and whitewashed. Ceiled above the level of the west window, but there are springers for a vault which has been dismantled.

North wall: four-centred arched doorway to stair turret, complex stopped mouldings. Benefaction board hangs on wall.

East wall: tower arch (see below under nave).

South wall: benefaction board on wall.

West wall: splayed window embrasure, mostly plastered.

Nave. General. Floor tiles in aisle, benches raised on boarded plinths; rear of nave behind benches covered with carpet. Walls plastered and whitewashed. Roof of close-set scissor trusses with intersecting collar beams.

North wall: primarily a five-bay arcade, leaning slightly outwards, with some though not all the dressed stone exposed - the fifth bay actually opens off the choir. At the west end is a section of plain wall, covered with old photographs and a list of incumbents since 1403. Then the west respond of the arcade which is rectangular, of yellow sandstone, chamfered and with foliate decoration. Next a circular pier with moulded capital. Then a circular pier with a broad scalloped capital supporting a square abacus, the only remnant of the mid-12thC aisled church; the arches springing from the pier are low and pointed and thus probably not contemporary; between them is a shallow round-headed niche fashioned from rough masonry. The next two piers are in yellow sandstone and finally a chamfered respond.

East wall: no division between nave and chancel.

South wall: a short stretch of plain wall at west end and the western respond has two panels containing trefoil-headed blank lights set into it. Then an arcade of seven bays, the last two in the chancel. All the piers have been renewed (and most of the arch stones replaced) except for the third from the west end and even this has a 19thC capital; but it is opposite the 12thC pier in the north arcade, though taller and more slender. The first pier is octagonal though set on a square base, and is considered to be of early 14thC date; it carries an inscription commemorating the establishment of St Mary's as a parish church in 1923.

West wall: high tower arch with complex 16thC mouldings.

North aisle. General. Main door into church in north wall and the three steps down into the church indicate how much the external ground level has been raised up. Floor carpeted. Walls plastered and whitewashed. Roof as nave. East end occupied by organ, and divided from rest of aisle by a four-centred blind arch of Victorian date.

North wall: tablets with Lord's Prayer (signed by Stanton of London), plus 20thC brasses.

East wall: not inspected.

South wall: arcade. Three corbels for earlier lean-to roof remain above the arches.

West wall: splayed window and beneath are a foliate slab and a Victorian stoup on a column.

Chancel. General. Floor of polished stone slabs; one step up to the sanctuary which is carpeted, one to the altar. Choir stalls on wooden block flooring, raised at rear. Walls and roof as nave.

North wall: splayed window; two 19thC brasses.

East wall: splayed window.

South wall: modern parclose screen across one of arcade bays (see nave above). Piscina in triangular-headed niche, drain blocked and shelf inserted.

West wall: none.

South aisle. General. Floor around altar as chancel, the rest carpeted. Walls and roof as nave. West end partitioned off as toilets etc.

North wall: arcade with most of visible stonework replaced.

East wall: splayed window and to south of it a re-set corbel which provides a base for a wooden statuette.

South wall: most of lower wall face panelled with woodwork from old pews. At east end is a piscina with a two-centred arched niche, indicating that the south aisle formerly had its own altar.

West wall: nothing significant except for unexplained disconformity near apex.

South porch. General. Slab floor. Walls plastered and whitewashed. Roof of two bays with three arch-braced trusses and trefoil-cut principals; two tiers of quatrefoil windbraces. Attributed to the late 15thC.

North wall: two-centred arch with stopped chamfers all in grey sandstone; original but unweathered.

East wall: stone bench set into wall. Flaking cross slab set upright above bench.

South wall: wooden door with small dog door set in it.

West wall: bench set into wall.

Churchyard

The yard attached to St Mary's consists only of a small plot on the north side of the church which is railed off from the street. It contains a memorial cross to the war dead within a well-maintained grass patch. Until the late 19thC the yard was occupied by houses.

Sources consulted

CPAT Field Visit: 22 November 1995
Crossley and Ridgway 1952, 56
Dawson 1909, 23
Glynne 1887, 276
Haslam 1979, 296
Click here to view full project bibliography

Please note that many rural churches are closed to the public at certain times. It is advisable to check when the church will be open before visiting. Information about access, or how to contact parish clergy, can often be obtained from the relevant Diocesan Office which can be found through the Church in Wales website. Further information about Brecon Church may also be found on the Swansea and Brecon Diocese website.


The CPAT Brecknockshire Churches Survey Project was funded by Cadw as part of an all Wales survey of medieval parish churches.

This HTML page has been generated from the Cadw Churches Survey database & CPAT's Regional Historic Environment Record - 17/07/2007 ( 22:00:32 ).
Further information about this and other churches surveyed is available from the Regional Historic Environment Record, Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust, Curatorial Section, 7a Church Street, Welshpool, Powys, SY21 7DL tel - (01938) 553670, fax - (01938) 552179, email - chrismartin@cpat.org.uk, website - www.cpat.org.uk.

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