Monastic Wales.

The Cistercians in Wales

Professor Janet Burton

The Cistercians, or White Monks, constituted the most successful new monastic group to grow out of the period of intellectual and religious ferment which hit Europe at the end of the eleventh and into the twelfth century. The Cistercian movement began with the foundation of the monastery of Cîteaux in Burgundy in 1098. Although the sources for that foundation and indeed for the emergence of the Cistercian order are difficult to interpret and continue to be subject to scholarly debate and controversy, we may say that what characterized Cistercian monastic observance was a concern for the primitive. The Cistercians strove for the strict observance of the Rule of St Benedict, the basis of western monasticism. Moreover their writings are peppered with phrases that associated them with the ‘desert’, a word that recalled the very origins of the monastic life in Egypt and the Holy Land. It is a word that was also used by the Cistercians to explain the kind of sites they favoured for their monasteries. From 1113, just fifteen years after its own foundation, Cîteaux began to send out daughter houses, initially within a fairly small geographical area, but then throughout western Europe. By 1152 the General Chapter of the Order thought it wise to try to halt new foundations, and by the following year - the year of the death of the most famous of first-generation Cistercians, St Bernard - the Cistercian order numbered nigh on 350 monasteries.

There were in total fifteen Cistercian houses in medieval Wales of which two, Basingwerk and Neath, were founded in the early 1130s as members of the order of Savigny, another of the reformed orders which in 1147 merged with that of the Cistercians. Two - Llanllyr and Llanllugan- were houses of nuns. Of the eleven remaining, three were founded from continental mother houses. Tintern, only the second Cistercian house in Britain, was founded in 1131 from L’Aumône in the diocese of Chartres by Walter fitz Richard de Clare, lord of Chepstow. Whitland was established in 1140 from St Bernard’s own abbey of Clairvaux, and Margam, also from Clairvaux, in 1147. However, the main Welsh expansion came from the mid 1160s onwards and was internal, that is, new foundations were made from existing Welsh houses. These comprised Strata Florida in 1164, Strata Marcella in 1170, and Abbey Cwmhir in 1176, and the next generation between 1179 and 1201.

A question to begin with might be: where did these connections between Wales and the continental church, specifically with continental Cistercian monasteries, and in particular Clairvaux, come from? The founders of Clairvaux’s two Welsh daughters, Whitland and Margam, were well placed to be receptive to ideas from the continent. The founder of Whitland, Bishop Bernard of St Davids was a curialis, a clerk in the court of Henry I, and chaplain to the queen. It is not surprising, therefore, that Bernard founded a Cistercian house to sit alongside those established by his fellow bishops of Winchester, York, Coventry, and Lincoln. The second man to bring monks direct from Clairvaux to Wales was Robert, earl of Gloucester, an illegitimate son of Henry I, who obtained from his father the hand in marriage of the heiress of Robert fitz Hamo, and with her fitz Hamo’s estates in Glamorgan. Margam was one of a number of foundations dating from 1147, the year of the Second Crusade. Robert granted ‘to the monks of Clairvaux’ land between the Afan and Kenfig, for the foundation of an abbey, with the consent of Mabel his wife of whose inheritance the land formed part. The ceremony which marked Margam’s formal establishment was attended by Robert’s two sons, Hamo and Roger, and by Nivard, brother of St Bernard himself, who received the alms in his own hand; it took place in Bristol shortly before Robert’s death.

The way in which these three houses were founded reminds us that the Cistercian order was a truly international movement. In taking colonies from L’Aumône in the case of Tintern, and Clairvaux in the case of Margam and Whitland, their founders tied their communities to an ongoing relationship with a continental reform movement. The Cistercian statutes demanded that each year the abbot of a mother house, that is, the house from which a colony was founded, was to visit its daughter houses to make sure that all the particular Cistercian observances were being followed. And each year the abbots of all daughter houses were to attend the Annual General Chapter at Cîteaux. In theory at least - though how far these rules operated in practice and over a four hundred year period is more difficult to say - the Cistercians within Wales of the first generation had strong links with continental reform movements.

Of these three mother houses Margam never spread further. It had no daughter houses. Tintern sent a colony to Kingswood in 1139, and then at the end of the twelfh century to Tintern Minor in Ireland. It was Whitland that was to be the head from which all other Welsh houses ultimately derived. Arguably the most significant foundation was Strata Florida, where a group of monks were established by the Norman, Richard de Clare, lord of Cardigan Castle in 1164. However it was under the patronage of Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd of Deheubarth, who in 1165 took Ceredigion and with it the patronage of Strata Florida, and in time that of Whitland, that Strata Florida flourished. Further foundations from Whitland followed.

It has been traditional to divide the chronology of the Cistercian settlement of Wales into two phases, one dominated by the Anglo-Norman settlers of the south and the marches, and the second by the native Welsh princes, and in this context the take over by the Lord Rhys of the patronage of Strata Florida and then of Whitland is seen as the turning point. Tintern, Margam and Neath were founded in marcher lands and their strategic placement is clear. Neath was situated near to the founder’s castle on the west bank of the river Neath; Tintern lay only about three miles from the Clare castle at Chepstow. In the same way as the founders of Benedictine priories before them the founders of Tintern, Margam and Neath saw their religious houses as markers of conquest and colonization.

Traditionally, then, historians have seen two distinct groups of Cistercian houses in Wales and two distinct phases of expansion, the second clearly supported by the Welsh princes, allowing Cistercian expansion into central and north Wales. But there has perhaps in the past been a tendency to draw too sharp a divide between the abbeys of the incomers and those later foundations made by the Welsh princes. As Huw Pryce has shown, Basingwerk, in North Wales, which was founded on border lands by the earl of Chester, received endowments from the Welsh princes, and in the south Margam Abbey was endowed by numerous Welshmen, among them Morgan ap Caradog of Afan, who began to grant lands to the monks from the 1180s onwards. Indeed Morgan and his brothers appear to have attempted to found a daughter house of Margam at Pendar in the mountain region of Glamorgan - hardly an indication that the Welsh were uniformly hostile to any monastery with an Anglo-Norman or English founder.

Despite these reservations, however, it is clear that the adoption - almost as their own - of the Cistercians by the Welsh princes marked a turning point in their expansion in Wales. In 1170 Whitland sent a group of monks to settle at Strata Marcella at the invitation of Owain Cyfeilog, ruler of southern Powys and in 1176 a third daughter house settled at Cwmhir. Strata Florida sent out colonies to Llantarnam (Caerleon) in 1170 and to Rhedynog Felen in 1186, the latter moving to Aberconwy, where it became the mausoleum of the dynasty of Gwynedd. All these houses became closely associated with the families and associates of their Welsh founders and patrons. The fortunes of the Cistercians in Wales to a large extent mirrored the political ups and downs of the dynasties to which they were tied, particularly in periods of political upheaval and unrest. Thus it was that in 1212 King John could refer to Strata Florida ‘which harbours our enemies’.

The Cistercian houses in Wales, as Cistercian houses throughout Europe, could be said to have had a dual identity. They were members of an international order, and their sense of identity as ‘Cistercians’ was maintained by two mechanisms. The first was the annual visitation, by father abbots, of all the daughter houses which had been founded from their own abbey. The second was the annual general chapter, held in September at Cîteaux, and attended (in theory at least) by all Cistercian abbots. Visitation and the annual chapter were designed to maintain levels of discipline and the uniformity which was characteristic of the order. On one level, then, the Welsh Cistercians would have been aware of their identity as members of an order that looked far beyond the borders of Wales to a wider monastic family. But Cistercian houses they were also local houses, operating within a local context. Historians are increasingly sensitive to the ways in which the Cistercians adapted to local environments. How was their relationship with their founders, patrons and benefactors, and with local society manifest?

First and foremost the Cistercians provided the Welsh princes with power houses of prayer. The desire which patrons and benefactors articulated in their charters for the intercessions of the monks for the salvation of their souls and those of their kin, was no mere formula. It was at the basis of the relationship between a monastery and its founder and patron. The spiritual benefits offered by the Cistercians might be extended for special friends and protectors. In 1280, for instance, the abbot of Aberconwy secured for Dafydd ap Gruffydd and his wife confraternity of the entire Cistercian order, ensuring him the level of intercession afforded to a Cistercian monk. Favours could also extend to burial within the confines of the monastery. This not only offered further security for the soul of the individual interred there, but cemented the relationship between the abbey and its special friends for the future as well as the present. Strata Florida became the burial place of the princes of Deheubarth and Aberconwy of the princes of Gwynedd, whose tombs were moved by Edward I when in the wake of conquest he relocated the monks to Maenan to make way for his castle at Conwy.

But did the Cistercians have anything else - non spiritual - to offer? The appeal of the Cistercians to their patrons and benefactors throughout Europe has often been seen in terms of their economic expertise, from which lay people might hope to benefit. The Cistercians are credited with nothing less than a revolution in agricultural practices, with the acquisition of unencumbered lands which they then administered and exploited through a series of granges using a veritable army of lay brothers. Historians are now less convinced of the ubiquity of this system, and more and more inclined to see Cistercians adapting to local conditions. Nevertheless there can be no doubt that the Cistercians did make a great contribution to the economy of Wales. One piece of evidence is the statement of Gerald of Wales when contrasting Cistercian thrift with Cluniac proflicacy: ‘… settle the Cistercians in some barren retreat which is hidden away in an overgrown forest: a year or two later you will find splendid churches there with fine monastic buildings, with a great amount of property and all the wealth you can imagine … The Cistercians pride themselves on their sobriety, parsimony, and planning for the future’. The second body of evidence lies in the contracts of merchants of Flemish and Italian merchants, who from the thirteenth century onwards paid good prices for high quality Welsh Cistercian wool.

In making and encouraging grants of land to the Cistercians the Welsh princes might see their revenues depleted through the loss of the renders that would have been due from non-monastic tenants. However they had more to gain than to lose. Not only could they hope to benefit from increased productivity on their lands, there were other advantages. Huw Pryce’s close analysis of the charters of the Welsh princes has confirmed in Wales a trend elsewhere - namely that many grants were in fact leases or sales, bringing in a yearly rent or an outright countergift. Welsh Cistercian houses were a source of cash for their benefactors.

The Cistercians interacted in many ways with the broader society in which they were located, and engaged fully with their neighbours, friends, and supporters. It was a relationship of mutual importance. The founders and patrons of Cistercian monasteries provided the resources to allow the monks to live a life of prayer, manual labour, and lectio divina according to the Rule of St Benedict. The Cistercians provided the laity with spiritual services, but also with places to stay on their travels, places to be buried, places for their sons to take their vows, places in which significant political ceremonies could be acted out, and places which reinforced the princes’ own secular, territorial and local power.

Monastic sites related to this article

Aberconwy 1, Conwy(Abbey)
Basingwerk, Flintshire(Abbey)
Cwmhir, Powys(Abbey)
Cymer, Gwynedd(Abbey)
Grace Dieu, Monmouthshire(Abbey)
LlanllÅ·r, Ceredigion(Abbey)
Llantarnam, Torfaen(Abbey)
Maenan , Conwy(Abbey)
Margam, Neath Port Talbot(Abbey)
Neath, Neath Port Talbot(Abbey)
Strata Florida, Ceredigion(Abbey)
Strata Marcella, Powys(Abbey)
Tintern, Monmouthshire(Abbey)
Valle Crucis, Denbighshire(Abbey)
Whitland, Carmarthenshire(Abbey)