central to the town
An active hub
One of the focal points of the town
The cathedral today
The remains of the former monastic buildings today provide the administrative centre for the Diocese, as well as housing for the cathedral clergy. In addition there is a shop and Pilgrims’ Restaurant and these are open daily to the public. The cathedral has a vibrant musical life, offering a lunchtime concert series in the summer and evening concerts throughout the year, in which a number of local and other choirs and orchestras perform. The complex comprises a remarkable collection of buildings regarded as the finest of their kind in Wales. The cathedral has welcomers and guided tours can be arranged by contacting the office, who will be pleased to provide you with more information when you visit. There is a pay and display car park adjacent to the cathedral, and this leads directly into Priory Groves and the River walk, which are mentioned in the ‘walks in and around Brecon’ section. More detail on the history of the cathedral can be gleaned from the definitive history of Brecon- History of the County of Brecknock – published in two volumes in by Theophilus Jones (1758-1812) in 1809. Local historians still use this tome as an important point of reference for local history.
Originally it was surrounded by what Theophilus Jones described as ‘a lofty and strong wall’, part of which is still in existence today. The only remains of this church are the font and stone work in the walls at the east end of the nave. Half of the priory church was reconstructed in the 1200s in the early English style and the nave and the aisles in the Decorated Style a 100 years later. The church attracted numerous pilgrims towards the end of the Middle Ages, drawn by the presence of the golden rood, a representation of the crucifixion; this cross was allegedly imbued with healing powers, and the church became known as that of the Holy Rood . Considerable effort was made by Bernard’s descendants down the years to ensure that the priory was of equal status with the castle.
In 1537 a new chapter of the church’s history began with the dissolution of the priory, and the church of St John became Brecon’s parish church, saved from total destruction because of its function as a parish church. Sadly, at this point, many of its medieval treasures and the rood had been destroyed, and the walls and pictures white-washed and covered with plaster. After the reformation and abandonment of the church by the medieval guilds the building was in a state of disrepair, with the Chapel of St. Lawrence, for example, having no roof. Thus it was that between 1862 and 1874 Sir George Gilbert Scott, a noted Victorian architect, renovated the chancel vaulting and other roof work, and this work ensured that the entire length of the building could be used, with the choir stalls in the chancel and the pulpit and lectern at the eastern arch of the crossing. The church served the parish until 1923, when the establishment of the Diocese of Swansea and Brecon elevated its status to that of cathedral.
The Pevsner Architectural Guide for Powys describes the cathedral as ‘ pre-eminently the most splendid and dignified church in Mid- Wales’, and there are notable features that may be of particular interest to historians and visitors. It is probably best known for the Havard Chapel, which is the regimental chapel of the South Wales Borderers (24th Regiment), one of Britain’s oldest infantry regiments. This homes the original colours of the Zulu Wars, including Rorke’s Drift. The wreath of the immortelles, (long-lasting dried flowers), was given to the Regiment by Queen Victoria to commemorate the battle, for which the rare honour of seven Victoria crosses were awarded. Also of note is Wales’s only surviving cresset stone, from which thirty small indentations have been gouged out in neat rows. In the days, when monks residing in the cathedral were expected to rise very early, these holes were filled with oil as a means of illumination to assist them in their devotions. It is said that success for Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt was due mainly to the archery skills of men from Brecon and the surrounding area, and there is a claim that some of the archers involved in battle sharpened their arrows on another stone in the cathedral. Guilds were important to the town, covering various trades, such as wool and shoe-making, and chapels belonging to these guilds appeared in the aisles. One of these chapels, for example, was used by local cordwainers, and became their national shrine. This chapel can still be seen today, and at its entrance is a plaque featuring a shoemaker’s tools. The cordwainers indeed marched through the town as a reminder of their heritage until the 1980s. The oldest object in the building is the font, which belonged to the Norman church and is carved with grotesque masks intertwined with beasts and birds. Around the rim is a partly decipherable Latin inscription, thought to refer to the baptism of Jesus. Many more interesting features can be observed when you visit the cathedra,l and a small guidebook is on sale to assist in this, as well as the ‘welcomers’, mentioned below.
The cathedral is a few minutes’ walk away from the centre of town
The cathedral opening times correspond to daily services. On weekdays this is 8.30 am to 4.30 pm and Eucharist on Sunday is at 8am, with choral evensong at 3.30pm
It is thought that it began life as a church before the Norman Conquest (possibly 789), and that Bernard de Neufmarche built a castle after his defeat of the Welsh in 1093 and commissioned Roger, his monk, to upgrade the existing church to the status of a Benedictine priory, dedicating it to St. John the Evangelist.