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24 October 2014
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Capel-y-ffin

The little village of Capel-y-ffin (the chapel on the boundary) has a tiny church described by Kilvert as ‘the old chapel, short, stout and boxy, with its little bell turret, squatting like a stout grey owl among its seven great yews’.

More about the church and parish, and pictures of the church, on the parish web site.

Capel-y-ffin is also the home of the Anglican monastery of Llanthony Tertia, founded in 1870 by the eccentric Joseph Leycester Lyne, who took the religious name of Father Ignatius.

Lyne was an Anglican lay reader who was inspired by the monastic revival of the late nineteenth century and determined to found an Anglican Benedictine religious order. There was a great deal of opposition to his ideas, and he found it impossible to persuade any of the Anglican bishops to ordain him as a priest or to support him in any way. Eventually, he managed to buy some land in Capel-y-ffin and settled here with a small group of professed monks and novices. Masons were hired to build the domestic buildings, but the monks did much of the building work on the church themselves.

Unfortunately, their enthusiasm was not matched by their skill. The domestic buildings still stand and are occupied as a private house, but the church has long been in ruins. The structure is unsafe and part of it will probably have to be demolished to save the rest.

The daily ritual of the monastery at Capel-y-ffin was bizarre and harsh in the extreme. The monks had to take it in turns to be led into the cloister with a halter, to be spat on and walked over by the rest of the community and to beg their bread for the day. There was no intellectual life; all reading except for the Bible was discouraged. 'We never allow ourselves to think', Father Ignatius wrote. ‘It is all decided for us’. There was in any case little time for study. The monastery had no estates to live off, and the monks had to labour in the fields to grow their food. When Francis Kilvert visited the monastery in the spring of 1870 he described two of the monks digging in the garden,

dressed in long black habits girt round the waist with scourge cords knotted at the ends ... The black hoods or cowls were drawn over their heads leaving their faces bare, and their naked feet were thrust into sandals with which they went slip slop along as with slippers down at heel.

Kilvert’s conventional soul was perturbed by the lives these monks had chosen:

One could not help thinking how much more sensible and really religious was the dress and occupation of the masons and of the hearty healthy girl washing at the Chapel House, living naturally in the world and taking their share of its work, cares and pleasures, than the morbid unnatural life of these monks going back into the errors of the dark ages and shutting themselves up from the world to pray for the world
Ignatius was a charismatic and eloquent preacher and much of the money for the new foundation was raised by his preaching tours. Women in particular were susceptible to his powers of persuasion and pulled off their rings and bracelets to give to him. But he was not without his critics, and Kilvert was not alone in his concerns. The owner of the medieval abbey apparently confused the proposed new abbey with the ancient priory and protested publicly against the collection of subscriptions, threatening that he ‘would not allow any monks to skulk about his property’. Even Ignatius’s own father attacked him, calling him a ‘self-created monk’ and accusing him of using the monastic habit as a ‘shell of the religion he does not represent’.

Ignatius died in 1908: his community did not long survive him. The last few monks transferred to Caldey, then an Anglican community under the leadership of another charismatic figure of the Anglican monastic revival, Aelred Carlyle. Within a couple of years, the Caldey Island community converted to Catholicism and in 1928 they moved to Prinknash, leaving their island fastness to the Trappist Cistercian monks of Chimay who we met in the early stages of our journey.

The house above the lane is private, but the church can be visited. At the time of writing it can only be viewed from the outside, as the structure has become so unsafe. In the car parking area in front of the house is a statue of the Virgin Mary, commemorating Wales’s answer to Lourdes, Fatima and Marpingen. In 1880, visions of the Virgin were seen, first in the church, by a monk and an associate sister of Father Ignatius’s order, then in the meadows above the monastery by several monks and some of the choir boys. The point from which they saw the vision is marked by the calvary or carving of the Crucifixion on the lane up to the monastery. Father Ignatius’s account of the events was concerned to emphasise their everyday context: We had been going on in our own practical, matter of fact way at the Monastery ... Brother Dunstan went as usual into the church to take his watch before the Blessed Sacrament ... He had been half an hour at his watch when he raised his eyes and saw in front of the Tabernacle a kind of blue mist playing ... In the evening after Vespers, the choir boys were in the meadow playing and were having a very noisy game. All at once, the noise of the game stopped, and one of the boys came running up to my cell, soon followed by the others, saying, ‘Father, we have seen such a beautiful spirit in the meadow.’ Eventually, the vision was seen by Father Ignatius and a group of choir boys accompanied by two local farmers and a student from Keble College, Oxford. Leaves from the field where the vision had been seen were claimed to be able to heal a range of illnesses. Father Ignatius obviously took the experience as a validation of his chosen way of life at Capel-y-ffin and of the sacraments of the Anglican church. Local groups still go on pilgrimage from Cwm-iou and Llanthony to Capel-y-ffin on the nearest weekend to 30 August, the date of the first vision. After the monks left, the house was acquired by Eric Gill, the Arts and Crafts artist and graphic designer. More about Eric Gill and Capel-y-ffin on the BBC web site.
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The monastery at Capel-y-ffin

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