Monastic Wales.

‘Transient’ religious houses and those of uncertain existence: Nefyn, Trawscoed, Pendâr, Clynnog Fawr and Llansanffraid

Dr David Stephenson, School of History, Welsh History and Archaeology, Bangor University

It is surprisingly difficult to calculate the exact number of monastic foundations in medieval Wales. This is because some houses had only a very short life, while others are mentioned only in sources that, though sometimes contemporary, are enigmatic or do not command the confidence of historians. Examples of short-lived, and little recorded, institutions are the Augustinian priory of Nefyn and the Cistercian houses of Trawscoed and Pendâr.

Nefyn, Trawscoed and Pendâr
The church of Nefyn, in the Llŷn peninsula was granted to the Shropshire abbey of Haughmond at some point in the middle decades of the twelfth century by Cadwaladr ap Gruffudd (d. 1172), brother of Owain Gwynedd. It is clear that the church had developed into a priory dependent on Haughmond by the middle of the thirteenth century: one of the witnesses to a document of 1252 relating to Llŷn was William, prior of Nefyn. [1] The existence of a priory is further suggested by a document of 6 November 1301, preserved in the cartulary of Haughmond. [2] In this David son of Madog, capellanus of Nefyn, describes himself as lignis [we should read ligius] homo domini abbatis et conventus de Haghmon, [liege man of the lord abbot and convent of Haughmond] and notes that he was brought up in domo ipsorum apud Nevyn cum canonicis ibidem commorantibus qui vero rectores sunt eiusdem ecclesie de Nevyn. [in their house at Nefyn, with the canons resident there who are the true rectors of that church of Nefyn]. [3] A document of 1342 suggests that the house was derelict by that date; in it Gruffudd ap Dafydd ap Madog [presumably the son of the capellanus of 1301] leases land in Nefyn from Haughmond, and promises to build houses on the land, capiendo lapides pro parietibus de domos dictorum virorum religiosorum pro edificacione predicta.... [taking stones for (making) walls from the houses of the said men of religion, for the aforesaid building work]. [4]
The situation at Nefyn is discussed in Historic Landscape Characterisation (HLC) by Gwynedd Archaeological Trust[5] which also makes reference to grants to Haughmond issued by Dafydd ab Owain and Llywelyn ab Iorwerth. [6] The HLC suggests that ‘in these charters and grants we may be witnessing an early instance, in North Wales, of the transition from ancient clas church to its replacement by one of the ‘modern’ pan-European orders; in this case, an Augustinian priory.’ The same survey notes the 1301 renunciation by David son of Madog (Haughmond Cartulary no. 801) of any claim to the church of Nefyn and concludes that ‘the only explanation for anyone to think that there might be such an issue would be that a residue of the old clas continued, in some way, to serve the church.’
The second ‘transient’ monastery, Trawscoed Abbey, was sited near Llandefalle, in Cantref Selyf, Brycheiniog. In the period 1172-74 Walter de Clifford, lord of Cantref Selyf, granted lands in that cantref to Dore Abbey, for the building of an abbey. Clifford insisted ut Canterselif cum abbate at conventu in perpetuum fixa permaneat [that the abbey, set up with an abbot and convent, should remain in perpetuity in Cantref Selyf]. [7] That an abbey was indeed founded at Trawscoed in Cantref Selyf is shown by Gerald of Wales who remonstrated with his old friend Cynog [Canaucus], abbot of Cwmhir, for failing to visit Gerald even though Cynog had visited the monastery of Trawscoed and knew that Gerald was nearby, at his residence at Llanddew.[8] Gerald did, however, later note that Trawscoed had been reduced to the status of a grange of Dore, and suggested that Trawscoed’s failure was caused by the greed of Abbot Adam of Dore.[9] This passage is in Gerald’s Speculum Ecclesiae, probably composed in the period 1216-20.[10] Trawscoed continued as a grange until the Dissolution of the religious houses in the sixteenth century. [11]
Another failed Cistercian house was that of Pendâr, founded in the twelfth century as a daughter-house of Margam Abbey, and located in the uplands of Glamorgan, in the lordships of Senghennydd and Meisgyn. The new house failed to prosper, and much of its land was ultimately taken over by the abbey of Llantarnam (Caerleon). [12]
The short histories of Nefyn, Trawscoed and Pendâr suggest that, in spite of the optimistic declarations of founders and benefactors that their endowments were to endure in perpetuity, some, at least, of the monastic houses suffered a fraught and precarious existence. Though some succumbed, others managed to weather the storms that they faced: this was the case with the Premonstratensian house of Talley, north of Llandeilo, which narrowly survived the attempts of the abbot of Whitland to appropriate its lands and lure away its monks in the late twelfth century; the Benedictine priory of Cardiff, a daughter-house of Tewkesbury Abbey, faced a rather different threat: in 1220 its monks were forced by political turbulence to abandon their house for several years, only returning in 1233.[13]

Clynnog Fawr and Llansanffraid
On occasion the very existence of a monastic house is in some doubt: this is certainly the case with the alleged Cistercian abbey of Clynnog Fawr. The church there is well-known as an ancient clas, subsequently a portionary church, dedicated to the seventh-century saint, Beuno; but in the sixteenth century the antiquary, John Leland (d. 1552), noted that Clynnog Fawr had once been the location of a ‘house of white monks’ - i.e. a Cistercian monastery.[14] There is no other evidence for the existence of this ‘monastery’, and it is tempting to speculate on possible confusion between Clynnog Fawr and Rhedynog Felen, which was the original site of Aberconwy Abbey and lies some five miles to the south of Clynnog Fawr.

Another religious house known only from a single source is the Cistercian nunnery of Llansanffraid in Elfael (now in central Powys). This is referred to only by Gerald of Wales, in the context of a rather racy story. Gerald recounts that the nunnery was a daughter-house of the abbey of Strata Marcella, and was established by the abbot of that house, named Enoch. The events that Gerald describes apparently took place in or before 1174, for in one account he notes that the story was told by the seer Meilir of Caerleon, whom he reports as having died in that year. According to Gerald, Enoch was responsible for making several of the women of the nunnery pregnant, and finally ran off with one of the nuns. The abbot returned to his monastery, however, chastened and repentant. Still, there are inconsistencies in Gerald’s accounts of the episode, and there must be some suspicion that he fabricated the whole story, nunnery and all.[15]
In an even more doubtful case, the mention by the chronicler Roger of Wendover of the destruction by English forces of a habitaculum albi ordinis [an establishment of the order of white monks] in the course of the Anglo-Welsh war of 1228 in Kerry/Ceri (in the middle march) has been regarded by some historians as a possible reference to an unknown Cistercian abbey - or alternatively to the abbey of Cwmhir in nearby Maelienydd.[16] But habitaculum is an imprecise term and certainly need not - and probably does not - refer to an abbey; it likely indicates Cwmhir’s grange at Gwernygo in Kerry.
One point emerges strongly from the cases discussed above: we should be wrong to picture medieval religious houses as islands of quiet and tranquillity immune from the turbulence of the secular world. In the often disturbed conditions of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the histories of some monasteries were certainly cut short or interrupted, and others were plausibly believed to have suffered the same fate.

[1] Huw Pryce (ed.), The Acts of Welsh Rulers 1120-1283 (Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 2005), no. 440.
[2] Una Rees (ed.), The Cartulary of Haughmond Abbey (Cardiff, Shropshire Archaeological Society and University of Wales Press, 1985), no. 801, p.163.
[3] In her note to this document (ibid.), Rees comments that ‘this proves that a house of canons existed at Nefyn in the 13th cent.’
[4] Ibid., no. 802.
[5] Accessed at
[6] The dates ascribed to these charters require slight modification in the light of Pryce’s dating in Acts of Welsh Rulers.
[7] Dugdale’s Monasticon Anglicanum, V p. 555b; for the date see James Conway Davies,Episcopal Acts and Cognate Documents relating to Welsh Dioceses, 1 (Historical Society of the Church in Wales, 1946), p. 276 (D.179).
[8] Giraldi Cambrensis Opera, ed. J. S. Brewer, J. F. Dimock and G. F. Warner, 8 vols (Rolls Series, London, 1861-91), I, p. 241.
[9] Ibid, IV, p. 206.
[10] See Robert Bartlett, Gerald of Wales (Stroud, Tempus Publishing, 2006), p. 179.
[11] David Williams, The Welsh Cistercians (Leominster, Gracewing, 2001), pp. 3-5, 21, 104, 133-34, 160, 186, 228, 253. For further references to Trawscoed see David M. Robinson, The Cistercians in Wales. Architecture and Archaeology 1130-1540 (London, Society of Antiquaries of London, 2006), pp. 26-28, 48, 51-52, 239-40. O.S. co-ordinates for Trawscoed of 084346 are given by David H. Williams, Atlas of Cistercian Lands in Wales (Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1990), p.43.
[12] For Pendâr see F. G. Cowley, The Monastic Order in South Wales 1066-1349 (Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1977), pp. 23-24, 27. The foundation and development of Pendâr are currently being researched by Paul Anthony Watkins (University of Wales Trinity Saint David).
[13] For events at these houses see Talley and Cardiff.
[14] By 1291 the house was a collegiate church and occupied by five prebendaries, Medieval Religious Houses, England and Wales, ed. R. Neville Hadcock and David Knowles (Harlow 1971), pp. 112, 117; Dugdale, Monasticon online - Clynnog-Fawr.
[15] Opera, II, p. 248; IV, pp. 168-69; and VI, p. 59. For discussion see Jane Cartwright, Feminine Sanctity and Spirituality in Medieval Wales (Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 2008), pp. 263-66.
[16] Rogeri de Wendover....Flores Historiarum, ed. Henry G. Hewlett, 3 vols., (London, Rolls Series, 1886-89), II p. 349. See the comments of David H. Williams, ‘The White Monks in Powys, I’, Cistercian Studies XI, 2, (1976), pp. 73-101 (77).

Monastic sites related to this article