Image of 'Brecon Collegiate Church and School' in script across the top


There are six individuals named in the document itself. Two are movers of the events; one is mentioned; and three are bureaucrats who created and processed the document. We also know the names of a number of antiquaries and collectors who owned or used copies of the Statutes of St Davids - the main work to which our document appears as an appendix.


Henry VIII (1491-1547; crowned King of England 24 June 1509). Henry's involvement in the history of Christ Church, Brecon begins with his desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. When the Pope refused to annul the marriage, Henry took matters into his own hands. In 1534, Parliament passed, and Henry signed, An Acte concernynge the Kynges Highnes to be supreme heed of the Churche of Englande & to have auctoryte to refourme & redresse all errours heresyes & abuses yn the same (26 Henry VIII c. 1). The act declared

that the Kyng our Soveraign Lorde his heires and successours Kynges of the Realme shalbe takyn accepted & reputed the onely supreme hede in erthe of the Churche of England callyd Anglicana Ecclesia, and shall have and enjoye annexed and united to the Ymperyall Crowne of this Realme aswell the title and style thereof, as all Honours, Dignyties prehemynences jurisdiccions privileges auctorites ymunyties profits and commodities to the said dignytie of supreme hede of the same Churche belonging and apperteynyng.[1]

This Act provided not only the source of royal authority to reorganise the English church but also the title 'in terra Supremum Ecclesiae Anglicanae caput' - Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England - in the heading of the Letters Patent presented here.

Henry set about dissolving all of England's monastic institutions over the following years. In many cases, their property was 'alienated from the church', meaning that it was sold to secular persons for their own uses. Some church buildings and properties, however, were given new ecclesiastical uses, including as cathedrals. Nine of England's great monasteries - Bath, Canterbury, Carlisle, Coventry, Durham, Ely, Norwich, Rochester and Winchester - were already cathedrals. These were converted into 'secular' (non-monastic) churches, retaining their cathedral status. Their new complements of secular clergy were often former monks of those same churches who had renounced their monastic orders. Several other dioceses were divided and existing monasteries were raised to cathedral status in 1540 and 1541: Bristol, Chester, Gloucester, Oxford, Peterborough, and (from 1540 to 1550) Westminster Abbey, all of them former monastic churches, now became secular cathedrals.[2]

Henry was also engaged in civil policy with regard to Wales. In 1536, Parliament passed An Acte for Lawes & Justice to be ministred in Wales in like fourme as it is in this Realme (27 Henry VIII c. 26), which began the process of folding Wales into the English state. In Henry's view, a congruence of laws would also require a congruence of language: the Act complained that

the people of the same dominion have and do daily use a speche nothing like ne consonant to the naturall mother tonge used within this Realme... His Highnes therfore of a singuler zele love and favour that he beareth towardes his Subjectes of his said Dominion of Wales, mynding and entending to reduce them to the perfecte order notice & knowlege of his lawes of this his Realme, and utterly to extirpe alle and singular sinister usages and customs, Hath... ordeyned enacted and establisshed that his said Countrey or Dominion of Wales shal be... incorporated united and annexed to and with this his Realme of Englande.[3]

The same law established two royal administrative centres in Wales, one in the North at Denbigh and one in the South at Brecon. The process of legal unification was completed in 1543 with An Acte for certaine Ordinaunces in the Kinges Majesties Domynion and Principalitie of Wales (34 and 35 Henry VIII c. 26).[4]

Henry's Letters Patent removing the medieval collegiate church at Abergwili to Brecon (Brecknock, as it was then called) in 1541[5] should be seen as part of these same momentous initiatives of ecclesiastical restructuring and state building. The connexion is made explicit in the arenga, the clauses towards the beginning of the letter that explain why the king was making this grant. Likewise explicit is the fact that he did so in response to a request from our next person of interest, William Barlow.

William Barlow (d. 1568; Bishop of St Davids, 1536-1548). Even before Henry's break with Rome, when Barlow was an Augustinian Canon, he was a precocious advocate of many of the ideals of the Reformation. Henry nominated him as bishop of St Davids around March of 1536; the cathedral canons were then obliged to elect him their bishop. His reforming zeal quickly brought him into conflict with his diocesan clergy, including those of his own cathedral, whom he regarded as both superstitious and stubborn. Feelings ran so high that one point he and Thomas Lloyd, the cathedral's precentor and thus highest-ranking priest, actually came to blows.[7]

Barlow wrote a letter to Thomas Cromwell, Henry's chief minister. It is dated 16 August; the year is unknown but it must have been 1539 or 1540. This is because it was written after May 1538, the date of an event referred to in the letter, but before Cromwell's loss of office on 10 June 1540 (and loss of his head the next month). In this letter Barlow recited a litany of complaints about his diocese and proposed two specific remedies:

the translacyon of ye See to Kermarddyn, & transposinge of Abergwilly College to Brecknock, the principall townes of South Wales, where, provision had for lernynge as well as in grammar, as yn other sciences, & knowledge of Scripture, ye Welsch rudenesse wold sone be framed to English cyvilitie, & their corrupte capacyties easely reformed with Godly intelligens...[8]

In his letter, Barlow acknowledged that the translation of the see to Carmarthen - which would mean shutting down St Davids Cathedral entirely and re-establishing a cathedral in another part of the diocese - would be expensive, as it would require the construction of a new building, which Barlow hoped Henry would finance.[9] No doubt this is why the king did not pursue the project.[10]

Brecon, however, had not one but two recently-vacated monastic structures: the Benedictine house known as St John's Priory, dissolved in 1536,[11] and that of the Dominican Friars (also known as the Friars Preachers), dissolved in 1538.[12] The nave of the Benedictine church was already in use as the town's parish church, and the parish was permitted to take the choir and chancel as well.[13] In the documents studied in this project, Henry gave the Dominican house for the purpose of moving the secular collegiate foundation from Abergwili to Brecon. The now-empty church at Abergwili was given to the bishopric; Barlow established it as his bishop's palace.[14]


Brother Richard David (Prior of the Dominican house at Brecon to 1538). Prior Richard was not a participant in the transactions establishing Christ Church Brecon. He appears in the Letters Patent only as the former prior for the purposes of giving the new foundation all of the property that had belonged to the priory in his day. He and his nine brethren had surrendered their monastic property to Richard, Bishop of Dover, the king's officer closing down the houses of friars in this region, on 29 August 1538. The property was described at the time as consisting of well-built structures and 'certain meadows and orchards worth 40s. by year, none chalices ner [sic] jewels.'[15] The lack of valuable plate probably reflects both the poverty of the Dominican order, which discouraged excess, and the poverty of Wales compared to England.[16] Since they must have had the necessary implements to conduct daily mass, however, the visitor must have meant that their plate was so modest that it was not worth bothering about it.

Because Richard (or Rhys) David (or Davis, Davies, or ap David) was a very common name for Welshmen, it is difficult to identify other records as referring to him. A Richard David from St Davids diocese was ordained acolyte and subdeacon in 1502.[17]


Thomas Bevans appears to have been the drafter of the document; Humphrey Harris checked the original against the roll copy that would be kept on file (The National Archives, C66/709; our Witness R). It may or may or may not be significant that both men had Welsh names. Some of the copies (including Witness C and ???) also include the name S: Petre, who would appear to be the official who authenticated the document by sealing it with the Great Seal.

People instrumental in the later transmission of the document

Most of the later copies of the Letters Patent are anonymous. However, we do know the names of some individuals involved in circulating the copies. It is simplest to identify the individuals by the manuscripts with which they are associated. Further information on the manuscripts themselves can be found at [link to MSDESC page].

Witness O (British Library, Harley MS 1249) was part of the collection of the father-and-son manuscript collectors Robert Harley, First Earl of Oxford (1661-1724) and Edward Harley, Second Earl of Oxford (1689-1741). It may have been acquired for them by their librarian, Humphrey Wanley (1672-1726), who worked for them from 1708, acting as both purchasing agent and cataloguer. However, there is no reference to this manuscript in Wanley's published letters or his extant diaries, so exactly how, when, or from whom the Harleys acquired the volume is unclear.[18] It must have been before 1723, however, since Bishop Adam Ottley (Bishop of St Davids 1713-1723) borrowed it from them, as did his successor Bishop Richard Smallbrook (Bishop of St Davids 1724-1741) in 1729.[19]

Witness C (St John's College, Cambridge, MS 279) was given to that college by Bishop Thomas Watson (bishop of St Davids 1687-1699), a benefactor of the College.[20] Watson was a colorful character. He was deprived of his bishopric in 1699 for simony; he was still appealing the case at least as late as 1702, and a successor was not appointed until 1705.[21] This manuscript received a few annotations in the highly distinctive hand of Thomas Baker (1656-1740), an antiquary who had been a Fellow of St John's College until he lost that position in January for refusing to take the required oaths of allegiance to King George I. Baker managed to retain his rooms in the college, however, and continued his work in Cambridge libraries.[22]

Witness D (National Library of Wales, MS SDCh/B/22) was once owned by John Davies (Chantor or Precentor of St Davids, 1717-1732).

Both Witness C and Witness I (National Library of Wales, MS SDCh/B/25) were used by the preeminent antiquary of the Diocese of St Davids, Edward Yardley (archdeacon of Cardigan, 1739-1769). He drafted a book entitled Menevia Sacra (Menevia being the medieval Latin form of Mynyw, the Welsh name for St Davids). It was not published until 1927.[23] Yardley's notes fill three volumes, National Library of Wales SDCh/B/29, /30, and /31. It is possible to determine which manuscripts he consulted because he cited the page numbers in the margins of his manuscripts (rendered as footnotes in the printed edition). He included a partial transcription of the foundation charter of Christ Church, Brecon, copied from Witness I. It is not clear why he did not finish his transcription.

Browne Willis (1682-1760) was a gentleman-antiquary with a particular interest in ecclesiastical institutions. Willis published a series of 'surveys' of the English and Welsh cathedrals in the late 1710s and early 1720s. While his A Survey of the Cathedral Church of St Davids (London, 1717) did not include the Brecon charter, though Brecon was in St Davids diocese, he printed it two years later in An History of the Mitred Parliamentary Abbies, and Conventual Cathedral Churches, vol. II (London, 1719), collated in our project as Witness W. Willis may not have seen any of our other manuscripts first-hand prior to this publication: he corresponded more than he traveled, and it is likely that he was working from a transcript provided to him by one of his many correspondents. His collected papers, bound into more than one hundred volumes, are in the Bodleian Library in Oxford under the manuscript class MS Willis. The transcript from which he worked may well survive in this collection.


[1.]; also, pp. 492-499.

[2.] (see volumes III, V, VII, VIII, X and XI).

[3.], pp. 563-569.

[4.], pp. 926-937.

[5.] There is some disagreement about the date of the grant. Some of the copies date it 19 January in the 32nd year of Henry's reign; some date it 19 January in the 33rd year. The source of this confusion is easy to find. The document was clearly drawn up in the 32nd year, which would place it in January 1541. This can be determined from the fact that the warrant to prepare the document was issued on 17 January in the 32nd year, but the roll copy (our Witness R) and a few other Letters Patent from the 32nd year were copied into a roll otherwise containing Letters Patent of the 33rd year: at 503 (30); at 71 (21). The Commissioners on Chantries in South Wales in 1548 also identified Christ Church Brecon as having been founded in 32 Henry VIII:


[7.] J. Wyn Evans, 'Reformation and St Davids', 4-8; more broadly, see G. Williams, Renewal and Reformation: Wales c. 1415-1642 (Oxford, 1993), 283, 305-6.

[8.] The earliest copy of this letter is in British Library, MS Cotton Cleopatra E iv, no. 171 (see also relevant docs. 66, 75, 78 and 172): . An eighteenth-century manuscript copy can be found in Bodleian Library, MS Willis 108, ff. 249r-250v. It is also printed in (and quoted here from) F. Green, ed., Menevia Sacra: by Edward Yardley, S.T.B., Archdeacon of Cardigan, 1739-1770 (London, 1927), pp. 388-390.

[9.] There was an Augustinian priory at Carmarthen, dissolved just a few years before; either the property had already been assigned to someone else, or it was deemed of insufficient size for a cathedral. Archaeological investigations showed that the church building was about 55 meters (about 200 feet) in length: . For comparison, St Davids Cathedral is 90 meters in length:

[10.] There was, however, a bill in Parliament to move it to Brecon in 1585, apparently to the former Benedictine priory there:





[15.], at nos. 200, 215.

[16.] The Dominican priory's very modest income was detailed at the Dissolution: On the Welsh friars in general, see

[17.], pp. 734, 735, 742.

[18.] P. L. Heyworth, ed., Letters of Humphrey Wanley, Palaeographer, Anglo-Saxonist, Librarian 1672-1726 (Oxford, 1989); C. E Wright and R. C. Wright, ed., The Diary of Humfrey Wanley, 1715-1726 (2 vols: London, 1966).

[19.] Letters from both bishops regarding these loans are now pasted in to the foreleaves of MS Harley 1249 itself.

[20.] F. Green, ed., Menevia Sacra: by Edward Yardley, S.T.B., Archdeacon of Cardigan, 1739-1770 (London, 1927), 118-19, 384.

[21.] On this complex case, see S. Handley, 'Watson, Thomas (1637-1717)' in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004), and W. H. Campbell, John Le Neve: Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae, 1541-1857 vol. XIV: The Welsh Cathedrals (forthcoming).

[22.] F. Korsten, 'Baker, Thomas (1656-1740)', in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).

[23.] F. Green, ed., Menevia Sacra: by Edward Yardley, S.T.B., Archdeacon of Cardigan, 1739-1770 (London, 1927). Despite the date 1770 in the title, Yardley died in December 1769.