For over 900 years the Priory Church of St. Mary has been at the very heart of life in Usk. Built for the glory of God, this beautiful church continues to serve as a living place of worship, prayer and pilgrimage. St. Mary’s is a haven of peace and stillness in a fast and busy world. St. Mary’s was originally both a priory and parish church, the priory for Benedictine nuns being founded c1160 by Richard ‘Strongbow’ le Clare.
The nuns’ church ran east and west of the tower, with transepts (long demolished)north and south. The parish used the westerly part of the nave behind the screen or pulpitum that survives to this day. Entering beneath the vaulted ceiling of the 15th century west porch, visitors are led into the huge space of the north aisle that is linked to the nave by a 13th century arcade.
Immediately the eye is drawn to the richly carved screen described by the architectual historian, Arthur Mee as ‘A masterpiece of 15th century craftsmanship.’ Beyond the screen the ground floor of the tower, with its four massive Norman arches, forms the dignified sanctury.Among the many treasures to be found in St. Mary’s is the historic pipe organ, originally built for Llandaff Cathedral in 1861 by the eminent Victorian organ builder, Gray and Davidson. It was moved from Llandaff the Usk in 1900 and is believed to be the most complete Victorian cathedral organ in existance.Today, St. Mary’s provides a stately place of worship and meeting to Usk’s Anglican community.
The Parish Church of SS. Peter, Paul and John has Celtic origins when it was probably dedicated to SS. David, Teilo and Padarn. The church was re-dedicated following the Norman Conquest.The oldest accredited feature is the small lancet window on the south side of the chancel. This thought to date from the thirteenth century but the nave appears to have been rebuilt in the sixteenth Century. It is believed that the Tower and porch date from the time of Queen Elizabeth I, a theory supported by the stone inscription on the tower wall at the back of the nave, 1593 ER XXXV.
The scissor rafter roof of the nave is thought to be seventeenth Century and is sufficiently robust to have originally supported stone tiles, evidence of which was found during recent restoration. The whole building was substantially restored in the mid nineteenth century with Welsh Slate being the new roofing material.
John Newman, The Buildings of Wales- Gwent/Monmouthshire (Penguin, 2000) describes SS. Peter, Paul & John as A handsome church, west Tower and lower chancel, all on a big scale and with slightly battered wall-facing, which gives the building a stern appearance. However, visitors can always be assured of a warm welcome to this impressive house of God.
The church has recently undergone major repairs including total replacement of the roof and nave ceiling. The east nave gable wall was substantially repaired inside and out and the porch partially underpinned and re-plastered.
The church is dedicated to St. Llywel, a Celtic saint about whom little known. He probably lived during the sixth century and was a disciple of St. Dyfrig (who died in 546 and is buried in Llandaff Cathedral). Llywel was also a companion of St. Teilo (who became bishop of Llandaff and died in 580). Llywel spent some time with Teilo in Pembrokeshire at the court of King Aercol whom he saved from poisoning.
St. Llywel’s church is first mentioned in 1254. The font is certainly Medieval and the limestone used in the south window of the chancel is a feature of other local churches of Medieval origin (eg the nearby church of SS. Peter, Paul & John, Llantrisant). The slit window in the North wall of the nave would also suggest that the church is Medieval. However, it was substantially restored in the 1870s when the West and North walls were rebuilt.
The doorway was probably restored to match the walls as originally the door would have been divided. It is possible that the doorway was rebuilt during the reign of James I, the door lock is Jacobean and this suggests that a new door was fitted. The lintel is part of a medieval cross which would have stood in the churchyard. The pattern on the lintel is a compass drawn engraved flower. On the left hand side of the doorway, the doorjam bears three simple crosses. These may represent three men from the parish who joined the Crusades.
Today, St. Llywel’s is a peacful place of worship and prayer mainteined by a small but faithful group of worshippers and friends.