The Abbey of Margam, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, dates from the second half of the twelfth century. No documentary evidence relating to Margam exists prior to the arrival of the Normans, but the presence of numerous carved and inscribed monuments, now housed at the Stones Museum, indicates an earlier Christian presence. The abbey is believed to have been built on or near the site of an important Celtic monastic house.
In 1147, Robert, Earl of Gloucester granted St Bernard’s Cistercian abbey of Clairvaux all the lands between the rivers Afan and Kenfig for the purpose of founding a daughter house. The Cistercians earned their livelihood by cultivation of the land and the rearing of sheep for wool, choosing sites remote from human settlement for their abbeys. The building of monasteries such as Margam was on a scale hitherto unseen in Wales. For some forty years, skilled craftsmen toiled from dawn to dusk constructing church, cloister and the usual domestic offices. Shortly after completion of the late Norman buildings and with a desire to keep abreast of contemporary architectural trends the abbey’s entire east end was rebuilt in the Early English style. A great centre of learning, the abbey swiftly rose to a position of importance in the social, cultural and religious life of South Wales. However, there were times when the fortunes of the abbey were at a low ebb due to floods, livestock disease, increased taxation, the Black Death and revolts of the Welsh.
Although once the richest monastic house in Wales, Margam Abbey was closed by the Crown Visitors of Henry VIII in August 1536. The last Abbot, Lewis Thomas and the remaining monks were ejected and possession was taken on behalf of the King by Sir Rice Mansel, courtier and landowner, of Oxwich and Penrice,Gower.
Margam’s polygonal chapter house, one of the earliest in Britain, had long been sadly neglected. The lead had been stripped from its roof to cover the banqueting house of the Mansels and merely replaced by oiled paper, which provided little protection from the elements. The roof and central column collapsed in 1799 after severe frosts.
At the turn of the century a further petition from the Margam parishioners advised Talbot of their concern at the serious state of decay of the church and of the south aisle in particular. Talbot eventually acceded to their wishes and restoration began in the spring of 1805, largely due to the influence of Dr John Hunt, the Margam incumbent. Work commenced on condition that the parishioners agreed to meet the cost of restoring the eastern section of the north aisle to its original width. At Talbot’s expense a family vault was constructed there. Charles Wallis, a Swansea architect, began the restoration of the church but escalating costs and general dissatisfaction prompted a search for an alternative design, that of a Mr Heverfield being accepted.
The exterior of the church was now transformed. Most of the original west front between the buttresses remained unaltered but the area above the triplet of late Norman windows was entirely rebuilt. As Talbot had insisted that the church should not be visible above the skyline of the orangery, the church roof had to be lowered. The bell-cot was replaced by a cross finial, a circle of interlaced tracery inserted below the gable and the buttresses extended upwards and capped by Italianate campaniles.
The interior of the aisle roofs were raised necessitating the blocking up of the old clerestory windows. New round-headed windows pierced the north and south aisles and the old belfry at the church’s west end was demolished. Carpenters constructed Gothic screens and railings to separate the nave from the chancel and a communion table and deal seats were installed, with old oak being used for the west door and three decker pulpit. The restoration was completed in 1810 at a cost to Talbot of some eight thousand pounds.
Thomas Mansel Talbot died in in 1813 and for his son the Gower estate may have seemed too remote. Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot preferred Margam where between 1830-1840 he built an imposing Tudor Gothic Mansion at the foot of the wooded Iron Age fill-fort at Mynydd y Castell. Known locally as Margam Castle, the house became the principal Talbot residence and the abbey church once again a major benefactor of the family’s patronage. Its interior fittings benefited from the generosity of Talbot who installed the organ for the wedding of his daughter Bertha Isabella in 1866. At the same time, he directed the conservation and restoration of the abbey ruins.
Much of the interior work of the church today is the work of Talbot’s only son Theodore, a diligent church-warden at Margam. He attended the London Mission of 1869 and was greatly influenced by Father Arthur Stanton of St Albans, Holborn (a leading figure in the Tractarian movement). Theodore supervised the refurbishment of Margam between 1872-73 – according to Father Stanton ‘exactly like St Albans’ – and under his guidance, Margam became a centre of Anglo-Catholicism, of high church teaching and practice.
During the renovation a fine wood panelled ceiling superceded that of lath and plaster, a handsome pulpit of Caen stone replaced the three decker pulpit and oak seats the old high fashioned boxed pews. A marble font of crinoidal limestone was placed at the west end of the south aisle.
A major task was the removal of the plaster and whitewash from the late Norman pillars and west wall. Three windows designed by Edward Burne Jones, depicting the Virgin and Child flanked by St Bernard and St David, were made by William Morris and Company and inserted in the west wall.
Following Theodore’s untimely death in 1876, as a result of injuries sustained while foxhunting his work continued under the strict guidance of his eldest sister Emily Charlotte Talbot, who inherited the estate on the death of her father C.R.M. Talbot in 1890. She commissioned handsome brass electric lights to replace the oil lamps, and in 1904 installed the choir stalls in memory of her sister Olivia. The colossal and spectacular east window depicting “Christ in Glory”, made by the firm of James Powell of Whitefriars was another fine example of the patronage of the Talbot family.
Burne Jones in his account book, described the cartoon of St Bernard as ‘of colossal size and excellence – entirely priceless – I make no charge for the genius displayed in this work, but for the trouble of lifting the cartoon about during the work, - £15”. Theodore exercised great care in the choice of altar fittings and furnishings and spared neither trouble nor expense in making the altar a prominent and dignified object in the church. Handsome altar frontals and vestments were donated and seven lamps positioned before the altar, replicas of those at St Albans Holborn.
Reproduced with kind permission of Mr John Adams
In 1537, Mansel first leased, and then in 1540 purchased, the abbey buildings and some of its former granges. In three further transactions he secured most of the abbey’s former possessions. Margam now replaced Oxwich as the Mansels’ main residence. The house based on the domestic ranges of the abbey was added to in a variety of architectural styles by succeeding generations to form a rambling mansion with formal gardens, orchards and an extensive deer park.
Continuity of worship within the abbey church appears to have been broken for a short interval but in 1542, the church had been converted for parochial use and served by a priest. The Mansels treated the Abbey Church with scant respect. As the building was far too large to serve the limited population of Margam, over the next two centuries the eastern sections were largely allowed to deteriorate, with the church used at one time as a coach house. Meanwhile, the chapter house was used for storing coal and its vestibule for brewing beer. The present church is formed by the remaining six western-most bays of the monastic nave.
The Mansel line became extinct with the death of Bussey, fourth Lord Mansel in 1750, the vast Margam and Penrice estates passing though the female line to the Revd. Thomas Talbot of Lacock Abbey. In 1768, Thomas Mansel Talbot inherited his father’s estates but disliking Margam, decided to abandon and demolish the decaying historic home of his Mansel ancestors. He preferred Penrice where he built a villa close to the old family seat at Oxwich. At Margam he developed the pleasure gardens and built a magnificent Orangery to house a famous collection of orange trees with statues and other antiquities collected on the Grand Tour. The church however, continued to be neglected.
During the second half of the 18th century, as a result of general decay and apathy, the church was in a lamentable condition and fast becoming ruinous. By late 1760’s the Margam parishioners, alarmed at the state of the crumbling edifice, petitioned Thomas Mansel Talbot to effect repairs, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. A suggestion that funding might become available if the parishioners agreed to the dismantling of the south aisle, thereby enlarging the gardens was thankfully rejected. By 1787, the church was described as being like too many other country churches – “in a very slovenly state, unpaved and without railings”.