Belmont Abbey, Hereford, HR2 9RZ
Image copyright Alex Ramsay
Image copyright Alex Ramsay
Belmont was established as the Central Novitiate for the English Benedictines, a function which it fulfilled from 1859 until 1917. From 1859 to 1916 it was also the pro-cathedral of the Diocese of Newport and Menevia. Bishops Brown and Hedley, the first and last bishop/abbots, both have splendid tombs in the north transept (although Bishop Hedley is buried elsewhere). The abbey church is one of the principal works of Edward Welby Pugin, completed by his brother Peter Paul, and illustrates the development of their style over the course of the later nineteenth century. It contains many furnishings of high quality, including carved stonework by Boulton of Cheltenham and stained glass by Hardman, and with the monastic buildings is one of the finest evocations in England of Pugin’s Gothic ideal of Catholic monastic life restored. The building was destructively reordered after the Second Vatican Council but a second reordering in 1978-9 made good some of the damage. The church forms part of a group of buildings including the monastery, almshouses, school and teacher’s house, all commissioned by the donor, Francis Wegg-Prosser, a convert and important benefactor to the Catholic Church.
Belmont was established as the Central Novitiate for the English Benedictines, a function which it fulfilled from 1859 until 1917. From 1859 to 1916 it was also the pro-cathedral of the Diocese of Newport and Menevia (the first bishop, Thomas Joseph Brown, was Benedictine monk of Downside). A bird’s eye view of the priory church and monastery, dated 1878 shows the ambition of the architects’ vision.
The story begins in 1852, with the conversion to Catholicism of Francis Wegg-Prosser, owner of the Belmont Estate. Prior to his conversion, Wegg-Prosser was the Member of Parliament for Herefordshire, and built almshouses and a chapel on his estate, designed by the Gothic Revival architect R. C. Carpenter. After his conversion he built a school with attached chapel and schoolmaster’s house to the southeast of his own house, his architect this time being the Catholic Edward Welby Pugin. This was followed by the building of the priory church, again with E. W. Pugin as architect. Other major funders were Mrs Helen Brymer of Bath and the Marquess of Bute. Local sandstone was used for the external walls, Bath stone for the interior. The foundation stone was laid on 15 February 1854. The nave and aisles were built first, and appear to have been finished by February 1856, while a short sanctuary with side chapels was completed by 4 September 1860, when the priory church/pro- Cathedral was consecrated by Bishop Brown.
The sanctuary was further lengthened by two bays and a new high altar consecrated on 24 December 1865. Further work at the east end included the installation of the reredos in 1866 and the raising of the roof in 1869 – when wall paintings of the four archangels were added – aligning the chancel ridge with that of the nave. Also in 1869, the chapel of St Benedict (which had been added on the south side in 1862) was lengthened. The south porch, which had been finished by 1854, was moved to the north side in 1863 and a chapel built in its place (this later became the First World War memorial chapel of the abbey school).
After the death of E. W. Pugin in 1875, further work was carried out by the successor practice of Pugin & Pugin, under the direction of Peter Paul Pugin, Edward’s younger brother. This included extensions to the north transept in 1882, to create St David’s chapel, divided by a metal screen to form a chantry. The organ chamber and confessional, which project on the east and west sides of the north transept, appear to have been added at the same time, and the tomb of Bishop Brown was set in a niche on the eastern wall of the transept.
Later work included the completion of the tower and the joining of the south transept to the monastery. Nine bells were installed in the tower in 1884 and the choir stalls and the organ, with a case designed by P.P. Pugin, were installed in 1889. The stone screens behind the choir stalls were designed by Cuthbert Welby Pugin.
Following the death of Bishop Hedley in 1915, the cathedral and curia were relocated to Cardiff. Belmont became an independent Benedictine community in 1916, and was raised to the rank of an abbey in 1920. The abbey school was established in 1926 (it closed in 1994).
In 1917 a table tomb to Bishop Hedley, the last prior/bishop, had been placed in the centre of the choir in 1917. Deemed an obstruction, this was moved in 1934 to St Joseph’s chapel and again shortly afterwards to its present position in the north transept. Abbot Alphege Gleeson (1953-55) altered the furnishing of this transept by removing the altar and screens of St David’s chapel and placing the tomb of Bishop Brown beneath the north window.
Soon after the Second Vatican Council, in 1966-67, the interior underwent a radical reordering. Cuthbert Pugin’s masonry screens in the choir were removed, as were the abbot’s throne and the metal railing dividing the choir from the crossing. The old high altar was dismantled and a new altar set up under the crossing (not at the west end, as stated in the list entry). The monks’ choir was relocated to the nave, while the abbey school pupils and other members of the congregation were now placed in the former choir and chancel.
A further reordering took place in 1978-9 under Nigel Dees of McLennan, Johnson & Blight of Hereford. The floor levels were changed, and limestone floors installed to replace the original encaustic tiles (the list entry states that these changes took place in 1966-7, but that reordering appears to have been experimental and reversible in nature, whereas that of 1978-9 was intended to be more permanent). A new stone altar was installed under the crossing, while the tabernacle was placed on the site of the former high altar in a new Blessed Sacrament Chapel at the eastern end of the sanctuary. The monks returned to the old choir, in new stalls adapted from the old ones. New benches were provided for the congregation in the nave and north transept. The new altar and Blessed Sacrament Chapel fittings were designed by Patrick Feeny of John Hardman Studios.
In circa 2007 the abbey church was re-roofed and repaired with Heritage Lottery Fund grant aid. This work included a new glazed porch on the south side (architects Hook Mason of Hereford).
The church is an important example of nineteenth century Gothic Revival architecture by E.W Pugin and Pugin & Pugin, with many furnishings of note, including carved stonework by Boulton of Cheltenham and stained glass by Hardman of Birmingham and others. The building is described fully in the list entry (below), and repetition is unnecessary. One or two inaccuracies in the list entry are mentioned above, and the list description might be amended to take account of the glazed porch addition of circa 2007. Features not mentioned, or not described in detail in the list entry are:
Name: ABBEY CHURCH OF ST MICHAEL AND ALL ANGELS
List entry Number: 1099699
Location: ABBEY CHURCH OF ST MICHAEL AND ALL ANGELS
County: The building may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
District: County of Herefordshire
District Type: Unitary Authority
National Park: Not applicable to this List entry.
Date first listed: 22-Oct-1986
Date of most recent amendment: 17-Dec-2012
Summary of Building: An abbey church, designed in the Gothic Revival style and built by the prominent Roman Catholic architect Edward Welby Pugin and completed by his brother Peter Paul Pugin, between 1854 and 1886, initially for the patron Francis Wegg-Prosser, and latterly for the Benedictine community. The church forms the most prominent part of a complex of abbey buildings which were built on land which was given by Wegg-Prosser and formed part of his Belmont estate to the west of Hereford.
Reasons for Designation: The Abbey Church of St Michael, Ruckhall Lane, Belmont, Herefordshire, is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:
History: In 1852 Francis Wegg-Prosser converted to Roman Catholicism. He was a landowner, who had inherited the Belmont estate to the south-west of Hereford, and had acted as MP for Herefordshire from 1847 until his conversion. He had already commissioned church work from Anglican architects, including a set of almshouses and chapel on his land designed by RC Carpenter. Following his conversion he decided to build a school with attached chapel and schoolmaster’s house to the south-east of his own house. The architect was Edward Welby Pugin, and Wegg-Prosser would have known his father, AWN Pugin, through his father-in-law, Earl Somers, who had commissioned J.G. Crace to remodel his house with Pugin’s assistance.
Within two years of this first commission Wegg-Prosser had started to build the abbey church at Belmont and again employed EW Pugin as his architect. The foundation stone for the abbey church was laid in 15 February 1854, before the Benedictines had made their final decision to settle at Belmont in July of the same year. The nave and aisles appear to have been finished by February 1856, when they were described in the Hereford Times. This first church had a chancel of a ‘parish’-type, which was doubled in length before the blessing of the building in 1859. The following year a new sanctuary with side chapels was built to create the choir of the church. This formed part of the church which was consecrated in September of 1860. The sanctuary was further lengthened by two bays and the high altar was consecrated in this extended building on 24 December 1865. Further work at the east end included the installation of the reredos in 1866 and the raising of the roof, in 1869, so that the ridge of the chancel is uniform with the nave.
In addition to this push eastward, the church expanded to its sides; the chapel of St Benedict, which had been added on the south side in 1862 to serve as a chapel for the novices of the abbey, was lengthened in 1869. The porch on the south side of the nave, which was finished by 1854, was then moved to the north flank in 1863 and a replacement chapel was built in its place, which later came to house the war memorial of the abbey school after the First World War. Following the death of Edward Pugin in 1875, later work was carried out by his brother, Peter Paul. This included extensions to the north transept in 1882, which allowed the creation of the St. David chapel, divided by a metal screen to form a chantry. The organ chamber and confessional, which project on the east and west sides of the north transept, appear to have been added at the same time, and the tomb of Bishop Brown was set in a niche on the eastern wall.
Further later work included the completion of the tower and the joining of the south transept to the monastery. The nine bells were installed in 1884 and the choir stalls and the organ, with a case designed by PP Pugin, were fitted in 1889. It was extended into the north transept in 2009 with a separate division for the accompaniment of the congregation marked by a rank of pipes in the eastern wall, above Bishop Hedley’s tomb. The stone screens behind the choir stalls were designed by Cuthbert Welby Pugin, according to a drawing in the possession of the abbey.
In 1917 a table tomb to Bishop Hedley, the last bishop-abbot, was placed in the centre of the choir. It was in early-Renaissance style and probably designed by FA Walters.
Later decades of the C20 saw considerable alterations; in 1934 Abbot Leonard removed Bishop Hedley’s table tomb from the centre of the choir, where it was believed to obstruct the ceremonial. It went firstly to St Joseph’s chapel and then to its present position in the northern transept. Abbot Alphege Gleeson (1953-55) altered the furnishing of the north transept by removing the altar and screens of St David’s chapel. The tomb of Bishop Brown was placed beneath the north window and Bishop Headley’s tomb was placed against the east wall.
In 1966-67, in response to the perceived requirements of the Second Vatican Council that the celebrant should face the congregation, the high altar was dismantled. This was formerly positioned against the eastern wall. The mensa, or altar top, was re-set as part of the flooring. In addition, the need for all members of the congregation to take an active part in the mass, led to a reversal of the liturgical orientation; the altar was moved to the western end and the monks now sat in a choir in the former nave, while the boys of the abbey school and other members of the congregation, sat at the east end. At the same time, all of the Victorian floor heights were altered and the encaustic tiles by Godwin’s were removed and replaced with limestone flags by the Hereford practice of McClennan, Johnson. The delicate masonry screens that divided the choir from the side aisles, which had been designed and installed by Cuthbert Pugin in the 1880s, were also removed in the interests of improved vision of the altar and the scars left by their removal can be seen in the masonry of the aisles. The abbot’s throne and the metal railing that divided the choir from the crossing were also removed.
In 1978 the building was returned to its former plan. A central altar was placed beneath the crossing tower and a tabernacle was installed on the site of the former high altar at the eastern end of the sanctuary.
The abbey was established with the intention of being the Central Novitiate for the English Congregation of the Benedictine Order, a function which it fulfilled from 1859 to 1917. The importance of this dual function is reflected in some measure by the lavish architectural treatment of the church and monastery buildings, and a bird’s eye view of the church and monastery, dated 1878, by the Pugin practice, shows the intention to create a group of buildings which would fully reflect the importance of the Benedictine order by a considerably more elaborate treatment, including a longer nave with western towers, three spires and more extensive monastery buildings, including a cloister and a guest wing. Between 1859 and 1916 the abbey church was also the cathedral for the diocese of Newport and Menevia. However, following the death of Bishop Hedley in 1915, the cathedral was moved to Cardiff and in 1920 the abbey became an independent Benedictine community.
MATERIALS: sandstone, laid in diminishing courses, with dressings of Forest of Dean stone and a tiled roof.
PLAN: the building has an aisled nave of three-bays with crossing tower, transepts, aisled choir of four bays and sanctuary. There are side chapels to the south of the nave and at the east end of the chancel aisles.
EXTERIOR: the west front has a central doorway with colonettes at either side and richly-moulded arch with hoodmould. Above it is a tall, five-light window with a tracery rose to its upper body with trefoils and hexafoils and a large cross in the tracery. To the top of the gable is a cluster of three trefoils below a hoodmould. At either side are buttresses with offsets and gabled caps and beyond these the aisle windows are each of two lights with mouchettes and quatrefoils to the apex. Behind this front rises the crossing tower, which has two recessed belfry openings to each face, with two louvered lights to each. There are angle buttresses and a crenellated parapet. The north and south faces each have a clock face below the belfry stage.
The nave flanks each have six clerestory lights of two lights, joined as pairs by a common hoodmould and separated by buttresses. The aisles have lean-to roofs and their windows are of five lights with mouchettes and cinquefoils to each apex. Projecting at the centre of the north aisle is a porch, moved here in 1863 from the south side. This has a statue of the Virgin and Child in a canopied niche to the gable above the door and two-light windows to each flank. The side chapel, built after 1863 on the site of the porch removed from the south side, is less deep and has a three-light window.
The northern transept projects further than that on the south. It has a four-light window to its gable end, above which are two quatrefoils in the gable, all with hoodmoulds. A recessed marble plaque in the wall below the window records ‘+ HIC JUXTA ALTARE S. DAVID MEREVEN. / REQUIESCIT R.R.D.D. THOMAS JOSEPH BROWN O.S.B. / EPS NEOPORTEN ET MEREVEN. OB 12 APR 1880’, in commemoration of the chantry chapel which stood at this end of the transept. The west flank has a two-light window and below this the rectangular form of the confessional projects with two lancet lights. The east flank is adjoined by the organ chamber. The south transept has a similar gable end to that on the north transept. In the lower walling is a doorway which leads, via a late-C20 addition to the monastery building (which is separately listed). The choir has a complex outline, with side aisles, which are in turn flanked by the side chapel of St Bernard on the south and the organ chamber to the north. The aisles are close in height to the choir itself and have pitched roofs, as opposed to the lean-to roofing of the nave aisles. The clerestory lighting of the choir is therefore placed in gabled dormers which rise above the level of the aisle roofs. The aisles have three-light windows to their eastern ends and the chapel of St Bernard has two three-light windows to its south flank, surmounted by gablets, and a rose window to its eastern end. The organ chamber includes a projecting wing with small rose window to the gable and a turret with a steeply-pitched, hipped roof. The flank of the north aisle has a blocked arch at its eastern end, and keyed stonework which mark the site of the intended chantry chapel for Francis Wegg-Prosser and his family. It is shown on the perspective drawing of 1878 as having a canted, eastern apse.
The chancel has the reset eastern window which dates from 1856 or 1859. This is placed high in the gable wall to allow for the reredos below. The chancel flanks each have pairs of three-light windows, which project from the body of the building in square bays and have gables which cut up through the parapet. Below each chancel window is a hooded quatrefoil in which an angel holds a shield.
INTERIOR: the nave has rich carving which may be by Wall of Cheltenham, including foliate capitals to the arcades, Green man masks as label stops and angel corbels which support clustered colonettes that climb the wall to support the roof trusses. The nave roof has two ranks of purlins and arched wind braces. The crossing piers also have carved capitals and, to their inward angles, bosses carved with the signs of the Evangelists which support a lierne vault of stone beneath the tower. The choir and sanctuary have a continuous, panelled roof. The choir has an arcade of four stilted arches to each side. Beneath the dormer windows of the clerestory are set four panel paintings which were given to the church in 1881.
At either side of the sanctuary are tall columns of alternating blocks of alabaster and limestone (now painted) which have simply moulded capitals. The recessed bays behind them have alabaster panelling to their lower bodies. Attached to the lower body of the east wall are panels of carved slate, in front of which is a square, stone pillar, bearing the tabernacle, both dating from 1972. Above, is the original reredos to the former high altar, which has three panels in high relief, showing a crown borne aloft in the centre, flanked by panels showing winged angels playing musical instruments.
Both the Lady Chapel in the south choir aisle and the Chapel of St Joseph in the north choir aisle also have a carved reredos with a carved altar front. The chapel of St Benedict is divided from the south choir aisle by a stone screen with glazed panels. It has a further carved reredos and altar front, and between the windows of the south wall is a reliquary with enamelled, metal door, set in a marble surround.
STAINED GLASS: throughout the building there are stained glass windows of considerable quality. These are present in the nave aisles (showing English Martyrs) and western end (the life of St Thomas of Hereford); the eastern walls of the sanctuary (St Michael and the Nine Choirs of Angels); the chapel of St Benedict; the Lady chapel and the chapel of St Joseph. The great majority were made by Hardman and Co. and some, such as the east window, show the style or influence of JH Powell of that company, but those in the St Joseph chapel (Cox and Buckley) and the eastern window in St Benedict chapel (French or Belgian) are exceptions.
TOMBS: there are two prominent tombs in the north transept. That of Bishop Brown is set against the north wall and has marble pillars supporting a gabled stone canopy with angel finials and a miniature vault. The recumbent figure of the bishop lies on a panelled tomb-chest with figures of angels to his feet and head and there are traceried panels to the wall.
The tomb to Bishop Hedley is carved of black and white marble in an early-Renaissance style and set against the east wall. The vested bishop lies on a carved semblance of a straw burial pallet and the tomb-chest has coats of arms to its sides. Attached to the south-western crossing pier is a stone tablet with armorial, which commemorates Francis Wegg-Prosser, probably to the design of FW Walters.
This List entry has been amended to add the source for War Memorials Register. This source was not used in the compilation of this List entry but is added here as a guide for further reading, 27 October 2017.
Books and journals
Catholic Encyclopedia, (1911), 576
Brooks, A, Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: Herefordshire, (2012), 98-99
O’Donnell, R, Berry, A, The Pugins and the Belmont Abbey Church and Monastery; History and Architecture in ‘Belmont Abbey, celebrating one hundred and fifty years’, (2012), 125-144
O’Donnell, R, Berry, A, The Pugins and the Belmont Abbey Church and Monastery; History and Architecture in ‘Belmont Abbey, celebrating one hundred and fifty years’, (2012), 125-144
Whelan, D B OSB, The History of Belmont Abbey, (1959)
War Memorials Register, accessed 27 October 2017 from http://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/32733
The following are also listed (all Grade II):
School, Chapel of St Peter and St Paul and house about 80m S of the monastery buildings
Statue of St Michael about 80m SW of the west front of abbey church
Gates and gate piers about 30 yards east of the abbey church
Lych gate, walls and piers to north of graveyard
Architect: E. W. Pugin; Pugin & Pugin
Original Date: 1860
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Grade II*