St. Mary’s Church
The Church was separated from the ancient parish of Llanigon in about 1115 A.D. At that time the manorial tithes were bequeathed to the Church by the then Lord of the Manor, Walter Revel. A transcription of the original deed of endowment is preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. A translation is shown on the southwest corner of the nave. The list of vicars and patrons of Hay Church are shown in the same frame. Recent research for the ‘History of Hay’ has corrected, and added to, the list given in Theophilus Jones’s ‘History of Brecknockshire’.
As was customary, the church was built close to the castle, which at that time was on the mound just east of the church. The present castle and town walls were not built until later, which accounts for the church being outside the town walls.
Shortly after the foundation, the rectorial tithes were transferred to the Priory of St. John, Brecon, in return for which the Prior was supposed to provide a resident Priest from his community. The arrangement was not very satisfactory. In 1215 the Lateran Council decreed that the Parish Priests were to be the responsibility of the Bishop, in the case of Hay this was then the Bishop of St. David’s.
Thereafter there is little precise information about the church until Puritan times when the vicar, Thomas Dennis, was ejected solely because he was a Royalist. The church was left unattended for eight years until just before the Restoration when John Dennis was appointed, only to be almost immediately ejected in his turn by the Royalists. In the post Reformation Period Hay suffered, as did many other parishes throughout the Kingdom, from absentee vicars and it was not until 1845 than an active resident vicar was appointed.
During the period from about 1662, the vicarage was in general, either held jointly with the rectories of Llanelieu (near Talgarth) or Cusop (the neighbouring English rectory), or else the appointed vicar lived away from the parish, appointing a resident curate to do his work in Hay. As a result, both the state of the parish and the fabric of the church deteriorated seriously. In fact, in 1827 the church wardens were summoned to appear before the Consistory Court at Brecon to answer for their neglect of duties!
The position was aggravated by the systems of proprietary pews which had grown up. These pews were the absolute property of their owners and no one else could use or occupy them whether or not the proprietors wished to use them. Three quarters of the seats in Hay Church came under this heading, leaving only just over a hundred seats available as free sittings.
This was the position when Humphrey Allen came to Hay as curate in 1825. He was a man of drive and vision and had a considerable private fortune. It was largely due to his energy and gifts that the church was rebuilt in 1833. Whatever may be said about the rebuilding on aesthetic grounds (it was unfortunate that the rebuilding took place in a period when architectural taste was not of the best), it must be remembered that the Church was transformed from a cold and dark building in a bad state of repair with inadequate seating, into a light and warm building where the Offices of Church could be enjoyed by all who wished to come.
Humphrey Allen laid the foundation for the work which was carried on by the Archdeacon, Wm. Lathan Bevan. Archdeacon Bevan was the first resident Vicar for a hundred years and he held the incumbency for the amazing period of 56 years. During that time, he lived in Hay Castle, and had a profound influence on local affairs, with particular interest in education. He left the fabric and body of the Church in a very healthy state. The marble paving and stalls in the chancel is a memorial to him from his children.
The only part of the original building that remains is the tower and some of the 18th century grave slabs. Before the rebuilding, many of these were used to pave the nave but were then transferred outside and used for a paved walk on the northern and western sides of the church.
A tablet in memory of Elizabeth Gwynn of Hay Castle, who founded the Gwynn’s Almshouses in Hay, is located on the west wall of the Church. This stone originally lay inside the altar rail of the old church.
The badly worn recumbent figure at the west end of the church has in the past been said to be that of Maud Walbee, builder of Hay Castle, but is actually a figure of an unknown monk – possibly one of those who was once vicar of the parish.
The gallery of the rebuilt church is sited so that the seats face the pulpit, emphasising the importance laid on preaching in Victorian times. The pulpit was erected by Dr. R. F. Trumper in memory of his wife who died in 1865.
The rather restricted Chancel was extended to the present apsidal form in 1867. The seven carved heads above the Chancery Arch may be noted. It is not known whom they represent but it was the custom of stonemasons working on the church to carve heads either or some of their workmates or of people connected with the church or district. Perhaps this was the case here.
In the centre arch hangs the Rood – this recent addition was made by a local artist, Maggie Denny. As has become the standard practice since the 12th century, the Great Rood is flanked by the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist.
To the left of the Chancel is the Shrine Chapel of Our Lady of Capel-y-Ffin – a quiet place of contemplation.
The tower at present contains only one bell, but it is known from the old churchwardens’ presentments that prior to obtaining the present bell from the Evans foundry in Chepstow in 1740, there were 6 bells ‘in need of repair’. Possibly they were taken to Chepstow for recasting but were lost on the way – giving some colour to the local story that St. Mary’s bells repose in the Steeple Pool in the River Wye below the church.
The Victorian Pipe Organ was installed in 2010. It was built in 1883 by Bevington & Sons, Soho. It has come to St. Mary’s via several country houses and finally as a gift from Holmer Church, Hereford. The organ has cost over £100,000 to move and rebuild in Hay. This money has been raised by grants and gifts. The three-manual organ has some 2000 pipes and is distinguished not only by its exceptional sound but by an unusual Italianate case of gilded light oak and beautifully painted organ pipes by William Lamb.
Restoration and refurbishment of the church:
Phase 1 of the work was completed in 2006 at the cost of approximately £70,000 – raised locally and by grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Cadw, and the Listed Places of Worship Scheme. The chancel and two vestries were re-roofed; many structural repairs were made; rewiring was completed and new lighting installed. The internal walls and ceilings were also repainted at this time.
Phase 2 consisted of re-roofing the Church; repairs to stonework; new guttering and drains and repairs to windows. The money for this work has been raised locally and with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It was completed in 2014.
Phase 3 involved the installation of toilets and a kitchenette in the tower. A grant from the National Church Trust and money raised locally enabled this work to be completed in 2015.
Phase 4/5 the following improvements are planned in the next stage of refurbishment: – An emergency door through the north wall.
The renewal of the central heating system and the provision of purpose-built, ramped access for wheelchair users and families with pushchairs.
Why not visit the two other beautiful churches in our parish group?
St. Eigon’s at Llanigon just two miles away and Little St. Mary’s at Capel-y-Ffin, which is on the road from Hay into the Black Mountains.