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Brecon Cathedral

Brecon Cathedral
Most visitors to Brecon come here for the annual Summer Jazz festival, one of the largest musical gatherings of its kind in the world, but we are here on a different mission. Brecon's Welsh name is "Aberhonddu" (Aber Hon Thee: head of the River Honddu). It is a pleasant market town with a population less than 10,000.

Briefly, the town dates back to the Roman occupation of Britain. It was the fifth century headquarters of the Welsh chief Brychan, the site of a Norman castle and was attacked by Prince Llewelyn the Last and Owain Glyndwr. It became an important centre of the woolen industry in the 15th century, was the birthplace of Sir David Gam of Agincourt fame, the model for Shakespeare's Fluellen, and gave us the founder of Jesus College, Oxford (Dr. Hugh Price). It also gave us the founder of the American Methodist Episcopal Church (Dr. Thomas Coke, a pair of famous actors (Charles Kemble and his sister Sarah Siddons and a poet (Henry Vaughan, the Silurist). Opera lovers may also note that Dame Adelina Patti married her third husband here in 1898.

As Welsh cathedrals go, the one at Brecon is not ancient, dating back only to its founding as the Benedictine Priory of St. John the Evangelist at the close of the 11th century. Giraldus Cambrensis was Archdeacon here in 1172, though not much remains of the church in which he officiated. Much of the present building dates from the 13th and 14th centuries, with Sir Gilbert Scott responsible for the extensive 19th century restoration.

Like St. Woolos Cathedral at Newport, St. John's church was granted cathedral status very late in its life. The honor was granted in 1923 when the diocese of Swansea and Brecon was created as part of the new Church in Wales after its separation from the Church in England. Further restoration then took place, including the rebuilding of the chapel of St. Lawrence after more than 300 years of neglect and the restoration of the Harvard Chapel.

Inside the cathedral, small by English and European standards but interesting nevertheless, are found various items deserving of notice. Before the damage caused by the Reformation, the nave was divided in two by a rood screen, one half being used by the Benedectine monks and the other part being used as a parish church. Above the screen was suspended the Crog Aberhonndu (Krogg Ab err Honthee: Brecon Cross), which was much celebrated in 15th century Welsh poetry for its miraculous healing powers.

Destroyed during the Reformation, the Cross or Golden Rood made the cathedral an important place of pilgrimage throughout the late Middle Ages. The Norman font, the largest in Britain is also unique for its stone crest with 30 cups. Many of the burial slabs are decorated with medieval floreated crosses, a feature common to the region.

In 1537 the Priory of Brecon was dissolved, but fortunately the main edifice survived as the Parish Church of Brecon, remaining so until its elevation to cathedral status. Often visited for its beautiful choir vaulting, the cathedral also houses the Harvard Chapel, the regimental chapel of the South Wales Borderers, who won renown and 11 Victoria Crosses at the Battle of Rorke's Drift in the so-called Zulu War (depicted in the movie "Zulu"). The chapel also holds the Queen's Color of the 1st Battalion, thus commemorating the battle of Isandhlawana of 1879.

The cathedral also contains a rare Breeches Bible. After being silent for over 200 years, the 18th century ring of six bells was replaced in 1995. The 16th century tithe barn is now used as a Heritage Centre and craft shop. A restaurant is also available on the cathedral grounds.

It is now time to leave Brecon Cathedral and its more than 900 years of history and travel northwestwards to the town of Builth Wells and the tiny village of Cilmeri.

Next Stop: Cilmeri
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