CISTERCIANS IN WALES: THE ABBEYS
Of monks and mountains…..
Situated just outside the town of Dolgellau in Gwynedd, and signposted from the A470, this is a jewel of a place. Not so easy to find, hidden now behind a caravan park, but worth the effort, and free to visit. The Cistercians liked to build in beautiful isolated and hidden places after all!
There are the remains of a small but beautifully built Abbey church, with curved archways and tall windows still visible. There is also the stone foundation of the square cloister visible, and the remains of a culvert, built by the monks to divert river water into the Abbey precinct for their daily use. The Cistercians were known for their engineering skills and progressive agricultural techniques, getting the best out of the natural resources at their disposal. Abbey Cymer was founded as a daughter house of Abbey Cwmhir, in around 1198. It was never a large or wealthy community, but made enough to survive from wool sales and horse breeding programs. By 1388, there were only six monks left there, and the Abbey was dissolved in 1536. Abbey Cymer appears in The Healing as Brother Hywel’s home, and where Philip discovers a new life.
For more information about Cymer, this is an interesting web page:
The remains of the Abbey can be found on the outskirts of the pretty village of Abbeycwmhir, in Powys. Situated in a lush green wooded valley, like many of the Cistercian Abbeys, it is not easy to find, but so worth it when you do, just for the sheer peace and beauty of the place. It is free to visit, and there is a useful information centre provided in the home farm stables. Very little of the Abbey is visible, but what remains of the footprint of the huge nave of the Abbey church (the longest in Europe when it was built) is an indication of how magnificent the buildings must have been. There are also a few remaining bases of pillars, and some of the arches they supported can still be seen in the parish church at Llanidloes, to where they were removed at the time of the dissolution. The cloister was likely to have been situated between the church and the Brook Clywedog, which was more of a river than a brook!
Founded in 1176 by Cadwallon ap Madog, it was monks from Whitland Abbey who formed the first community at Cwmhir. The cathedral- like Abbey Church was likely built later, possibly in the time of Llewellyn the Great. Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, the Great’s grandson, was killed at nearby Builth, during his revolt against Edward I. His body (minus the head) was said to have been buried at Cwmhir. A modern memorial stone marks his ‘grave’.
Cwmhir was a relatively successful abbey, and there is evidence that important works of welsh history were scribed there. In The Healing, I have made Abbey Cwmhir Brother Hywel’s spiritual home, and where Philip receives his first education in Cistercian life.
For more information about Abbey Cwmhir, and the people preserving it see here:
The impressive remains of Tintern Abbey are situated in the beautiful Wye Valley, on the picturesque A466. The Abbey sits on a wide plateau alongside the wide river, and there is much to delight anyone with the slightest interest in history. It is a CADW owned site, so there is an entrance fee, but it is well worth it.
Tintern was founded in 1131, as a daughter house of L’Aumone, which was in turn a daughter house of Citeaux, the Cistercian mother house in Burgundy. It was the first Cistercian house to be founded in Wales. With a series of wealthy and influential noble patrons, visionary Abbots, and a host of readily available natural resources, Tintern developed into a hugely successful and wealthy community.
Built originally in wood, a stone church and buildings were erected by 1150, but the impressive church, the remains of which still inspire today was not built until after 1269. Tintern is one of my favourite historic sites, and has deep family connections, as my forbears came from just down the river. But it is not my favourite Cistercian site in Wales. The ostentation of the buildings, and the obvious wealth available to the Abbey, seem for me a long way from the simplicity of life and faith the Cistercians espoused.
Brother Hywel and Philip visit Tintern only very briefly in The Healing. But I may not be done with Tintern yet…
GRACE DIEU ABBEY
Grace Dieu, although not very many miles from Tintern, is a million miles apart from it’s impressive near neighbour.
Situated in rural Monmouthshire, close to the village of Llangattock Vibon Avel, there are absolutely no remains left of the beleaguered Abbey. Founded in 1226, by monks from Dore Abbey, across the border in Hereford, it was never successful. The local Welsh did not welcome the community, and no Welsh prince supported them. There were constant attacks on their land, livestock and the Abbey buildings themselves.
You can still visit the site, which is located on farmers land, but on a well marked footpath. The River Trophy, beside which the Abbey was built, is now little more than a muddy stream. It is unlikely that any stone buildings were ever finished and the Abbey moved location more than once. But it is worth a visit, just to honour those poor brothers who stuck it out in such an inhospitable climate. I contrast Grace Dieu with Tintern in The Healing, and Brother Hywel and Philip stay there for a night. Grace Dieu, and the story of her miserable existence, has found a place in my heart, and I definitely haven’t finished with her yet…
This website provides interesting historic information about all the monastic sites in Wales. This links to the page concerning Grace Dieu: https://www.monasticwales.org/site/28
On ‘The Healing’…
‘Thirteenth century France and Wales form the backdrop to this well-researched tale of a world-weary knight and his newly-found Cistercian friends. Interspersed with provocative and thought-provoking bible-verses, we are carried into a world of peace, rest and service, along with the constant worry of discovery and betrayal. A feel-good exploration of forgotten times that leaves a final lump in the throat.‘
Ian Hampson, Lay Reader, Church in Wales