Trust hopes to save historic Welsh house with secret Catholic chapel

A 17th century mansion with a secret Catholic chapel in south Wales faces an uncertain future after a bid to secure restoration funds remains in the balance.

Plas Gunter Mansion, on Cross Street, Abergavenny, is in the hands of the National Lottery Heritage Fund after a bid for £3.1 to cover renovations was submitted in mid August.

Plas Gunter Mansion is a Grade II listed building of national – and international – significance. It is the only known recusant chapel that exists in Wales and one of the best surviving examples in the whole of Britain.

This is largely down to its role in the political and religious struggles of the 1670s.

In 1907 a local builder acquired Plas Gunter Mansion and during alterations the hidden attic was discovered. A painted altarpiece showing the Adoration of the Magi was revealed along with several wall markings, including a number of important Jesuit symbols. Papers belonging to Thomas Gunter were also found under the floorboards.

The altarpiece was also removed so it could be preserved and can now be seen at Abergavenny Museum.

What’s more, the priest who led the secret Catholic services in the attic chapel was the son of the first Headmaster of King Henry VIII Grammar School.

Father David Lewis was denounced to Parliament by priest-hunter, John Arnold of Llanfihangel Court, near Abergavenny:

“…that he had seen a Publick chapel near the house of Mr Thomas Gunter, a papist convict, in Abergavenny, adorned with the mark of the Jesuits on the outside, and is informed that Mass is said there by Captain Evans, a reported Jesuit, and by the aforesaid David Lewis in that very great numbers resort to the said chapel and very often at Church time, and he hath credibly heard that hundreds have gone out of the said chapel when not forty have gone out of the  said church, that the said chapel is situate in a publick street of the said town, and doth front the street’ .*

* Civil War and Restoration in Monmouthshire by Jeremy Knight (Logaston 2005)

Lewis was arrested, hanged, drawn and quartered at Usk on 27th August 1679.

Later canonised, Saint David Lewis was Wales’ last Catholic martyr.

After being boarded up and hidden from sight for more than two hundred years, the chapel and a fine ornate plaster ceiling were uncovered in 1907.

However, the house remains in a poor state of repair.

The trust believe it is “only a matter of time before the decline is irreversible”.

“We’ve always known it would take several years to research and involve a broad range of local stakeholders in shaping our restoration plans,” Owen Davies, chair of the PGM Trust, said.

The renovation of PGM is planned to come in four parts:

  • A welcome space on the ground floor leading to an exhibition on the first floor where the ornate plasterwork ceiling is located and up to the secret chapel in the attic
  • First floor flexible office/meeting room space available for hire or for Trust activities
  • Two upgraded ground floor commercial units for local businesses which will generate an income and help the building become financially sustainable

Because of the dilapidated state of the building, it isn’t yet possible to open the historical parts of the house to the public, but an exhibition space on the ground floor currently opens on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10.30am to 4pm.

The Trustees should know by December whether their bid has been successful.

To find out more, or to offer your support to the project: