The Cathedral Church of St John the Evangelist Brecon is without doubt one of the finest church buildings of its type. The origins of the present building date back to the year 1093 when Bernard de Neufmarche made a grant of ‘the Church of St John the Evangelist without the walls’ to one of the monks of Battle Abbey. This grant led to the foundation of a Benedictine Priory and the beginning of the construction of a Priory Church on the present site some 900 or more years ago. Few parts of that building remain to the present day; most of what is now visible having been built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Although changes to the interior of the Cathedral have taken place down the ages, its overall plan has remained virtually unchanged for the last 600 years. It is thought, for a number of reasons, that the Priory may have replaced an earlier Celtic church.
The Cathedral, which stands in an attractive Cathedral Close and to which there remain attached parts of the ancient monastic buildings, possesses a chancel which, in spite of the extensive reconstruction and restoration by Gilbert Scott in the 1860’s, is still described as one of the finest examples of Early English Gothic architecture to be seen. The nave of the Cathedral is something of a contrast and built in the later decorated style.
Among the items which link the Cathedral with its very earliest history is the ancient font, the carvings on which are thought to be of Celtic origin, and this can be found at the west end of the Cathedral. Also to be seen is the largest preserved cresset stone in Wales. The cresset stone was used for holding cups of oil for lighting.
In the late 15th and early 16th centuries the Priory Church, became a place of pilgrimage largely because of the breathtaking golden rood screen which separated the nave from the chancel. There is no accurate record of the precise design of the screen though several sketches, based on Welsh poetry from the period depicting what it might have looked like, are in existence. The poetry testifies to the scale and beauty of the rood. At the end of the nave above the pulpit and on the wall opposite can be seen the doorways which would have given access to the top of the screen and these together with the stone corbels which were used to support the beams on which the rood hung give a clear indication of its scale and size.
The Havard Chapel contains extensive items of militaria including in particular the colours from the battle of Rorkes Drift in the Zulu War of 1879.
The Priory, as such, ceased to exist in 1538 on the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but the church continued to fulfil a role as Parish Church for the people of Brecon. Despite the extensive restoration carried out by Scott in the mid to late nineteenth century, the building later fell into considerable disrepair as did the surrounding buildings and The Close.
With the disestablishment of the Church in Wales - its separation from the Church of England and its becoming a separate province of the Anglican Communion in 1920 - arrangements were made for the creation of two new Dioceses in the Province, one of which was the Diocese of Swansea and Brecon, and in 1923 the Priory Church was chosen to become the Cathedral Church of the new Diocese.
Though historically interesting and architecturally very beautiful we must not make the mistake of thinking that this wonderful building is merely a museum and monument to the past. It remains a place of regular prayer and worship, a place where music and drama are presented and where its long and varied history blends with the living body of Christ today.
Visitors to the Cathedral, its Close, Heritage Centre and restaurant are always welcome, and guided tours can be arranged through contact with the Cathedral Office