Sunday, 13 April 2014


The Masonic Hall in St John’s Street, Abergavenny, occupies the site of an ancient Roman Catholic Church.  The Church, St John’s, began life as Abergavenny’s Parish Church.    A curfew bell in the tower was rung each evening to warn residents that the town gates were closing for the night.   Although the original building was taken down and rebuilt, the tower, which dates from the 14th century, still remains.   

The 14th century Tower

By the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541) more people were attending the Priory Church of St Mary so the Priory became the Parish Church.  At the request of the people King Henry VIII gave the tithes from the priory to establish the King Henry VIII Grammar School in the redundant St John’s Church.

King Henry VIII Grammar School opened in 1542. When the school opened it had 26 pupils, all boys, between the ages of 7 and 14.  The school’s first Headmaster, one Richard/Nicholas Oldsworthy, was appointed by the King himself.  Oldsworthy was said to be “learned and instructed” and had an M A degree.  A description of the necessary qualifications for a 16th century Headmaster might cause us to smile or perhaps even gasp!   It was pointless to apply unless you were “A graduate of one of the universities, not under seven and twenty years of age, skilful in the Greek and Latin tongues, a good poet, of a sound disposition, NEITHER A PAPIST NOR PURITAN, of good behaviour, of a sober and strict conversation, no tippler or haunter of alehouses, no puffer of tobacco and, above all, be apt to teach and severe in his government”.  Would any of you like to apply?
The main purpose of the school, as outlined in the Letters Patent, was the teaching of Latin Grammar.  The teaching was to be the responsibility of a master sufficiently versed in Latin.  He was to receive an annual salary of £13 6s 8d.  An usher or assistant master was also appointed and received an annual salary of £6 13s 4d. 
Grammar Schools in the 16th century accepted boys from the age of seven and they usually attended for six or seven years.  In summer the school day began at 6:00 am and continued until 11:00am.   The afternoon session was from 1:00pm, ending at 6:00pm.  Due to winter darkness, things were a little easier in winter.  Classes didn’t begin until 7:00am with the usual break at 11:00am.  Back again at 1:00pm, classes broke up early – at 5:00pm!    Just as today, the boys looked forward to their school holidays.  Twice a year they enjoyed a break of about fifteen days!
The boys had to supply their own candle and slate and they spent their days in the study of Latin grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, poetry and astronomy.  If a boy misbehaved, he was put into a basket and hoisted up to the rafters.  Here he remained for the rest of the day. 

A Naughty Boy in a Basket!

King Henry VIII Grammar School, Abergavenny, can claim many prominent Old Boys.  The school numbers among its former pupils Dr David Lewis, first Principal of Jesus College, Oxford, Dom Augustine Baker, Benedictine writer and mystic, and St David Lewis, the Jesuit Martyr. 

St David Lewis was born in Abergavenny in 1616 to Morgan Lewis and Margaret Pritchard.  Margaret Pritchard was a devout Catholic but her husband conformed to the new Established Religion.  Eight of their nine children were brought up as Catholics.  Morgan Lewis ensured that their youngest, David, was brought up in the Protestant Religion.
Morgan Lewis was Headmaster of King Henry VIII Grammar School and his youngest son attended his school.  Since Morgan’s wife was a Catholic and there were a number of recusant children attending the school, Morgan and the school came under suspicion of being a centre of recusancy in Monmouthshire.   William Herbert of Coldbrook was not a particularly influential member of Monmouthshire society so it is quite likely that his ties to William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, account for his election for Monmouthshire in 1626.  Mr Herbert, known to be a ‘godly Protestant’, was nominated to committees for bills to direct the true conformity of popish recusants.  He was the Member of Parliament who alerted the Committee of Religion to the suspicions of popery surrounding Morgan Lewis.  Subsequently, questions arose in the Parliament of 1626.  However, Morgan was reported to be “very conformable” and he and his career were able to survive the questioning.
This building housed the King Henry VIII Grammar School until 1898 when a new school was built at Pen-y-Pound.   The former Catholic Church, turned Grammar School, became a Masonic Lodge.
Holy Trinity Church in Baker St, Abergavenny, is a pretty and welcoming church erected and endowed by Miss Rachael Herbert in 1840.   Miss Herbert was the daughter of Charles Herbert who made a fortune as a dealer in iron in Abergavenny and was a descendant of William Herbert.  Although a relatively ‘new’ church, Holy Trinity has some very interesting historic links.
The stone slab of Holy Trinity’s present altar was originally that of the ancient parish church of St John.  It was discovered by Iltyd Gardner and Fred Gardner walled up in a chimney breast of the old Cow Inn in Neville Street.  

The Former Cow Inn

The Plaque on the former Cow Inn, Neville Street

The Gardners presented this valuable piece of Abergavenny History to Holy Trinity Church.  The consecration marks, roughly cut, are still visible in the stone. 

The original Altar Stone from the ancient Church of St John,
in Holy Trinity Church, Abergavenny

In the sanctuary of Holy Trinity one can see an early English piscina. This piscina was found in the wall of the north transept of the old St John’s Church and presented to the church by the Worshipful Master and Brethren of the St John’s Lodge of Freemasons.
The Piscina from St John's Church, in Holy Trinity Church, Abergavenny
Catholic Church; Boys' Grammar School; Masonic Lodge.  If only this building could talk!

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