Remnants of Tintern Abbey
Today Tintern is one of the most picturesque and romantic tourist sites in Wales. There are substantial remains of the former monastic buildings and the abbey church, now roofless, stands virtually complete.
The great Gothic church was begun in 1269 and replaced an earlier Romanesque structure. It survives almost in its entirety although it is roofless and the north arcade has collapsed. The west front with its large central doorway and magnificent seven-light window is striking and would have been an impressive sight for visitors to Tintern and an appropriate processional way for the monks. Much of the tracery survives for the west window and gives a real sense of how it would have looked in the Middle Ages with its trilobe and dagger pattern. In the fifteenth century the west facade was fronted by a porch or narthex indicated by a surviving column base.
The church was cruciform in design with an aisled nave, side transepts and presbytery in the east. Surviving remnants reveal that the interior was white lime-plastered with mock masonry lines drawn in red. The flooring would have been mixed and was ornate in the more important places such as the presbytery, choir and perhaps also the transepts, where brown glazed tiles bearing heraldic, symmetrical and naturalistic designs were used. Over thirty of these tiles are known from Tintern. See an example.
The cloister at Tintern was north-facing with the domestic ranges arranged around a central garth on the east, north and west. These were reconstructed in the mid-late thirteenth century when two rows of columns were built to support trefoil-head arches. There were further changes in the fifteenth century when the claustral alleys were walled and roofed.
The south alley ran alongside the church and was used for reading and study. The monks would have sat one behind the other at desks or carrels. The community also gathered here before Compline to hear the Collation reading and remnants of the canopied chair where the abbot sat on these occasions can be seen.
The east range
The east range extends over fifty metres and comprised on the ground level the sacristy, chapter house, parlour and day room, with the monks' dormitory above.
The sacristy adjoined the church and could be accessed from the north transept and also from the cloister; the early fourteenth-century door survives and is ornately-carved with a central mullion. The room was originally divided by a wall to form two chambers - a book store (armarium) fronted on to the cloister while the sacristy (or vestry) was at the rear; there was a treasury above. The floor of the sacristy was tiled and the roof vaulted; a large aumbry survives in the south wall.
The chapter house stood next to the sacristy and was an impressive building. It was accessed from the cloister through three 'richly-clustered arches' (Robinson) but unfortunately little now survives of these. The floor was tiled and several of these can be seen at the edge of the room. The rib-vaulted roof was supported by eight columns which divided the chapter house into bays - there were three across and five lengthwise. Of the latter, the three westernmost bays formed the vestibule which was unlit; the remaining two bays projected eastwards and constituted the actual chapter house where the monks sat on benches around the walls and business was conducted. This eastern part was an extension and was grander than the vestibule; moreover, as it carried on beyond the range the height was not curtailed by the dormitory above.
The doorway beside the chapter house led to a narrow room that was lit by a widow at the east end. This was the parlour and was the one place where a little necessary conversation was permitted; elsewhere communication was made through signs. A passage to the north of the parlour linked the cloister and the infirmary and a door in the north wall led to the monks' day room which occupied the north end of the east range.
This was evidently an impressive room. It was begun in the twelfth century and the first three bays represent the original building which was then enlarged in the early thirteenth century when another three bays were added. The round-headed windows at the north end date from the time of this extension. Remains of the main drain can also be seen here, as an open channel. There are traces of the fireplace in the southern part of the room, beneath two lancet windows, and Robinson suggests that this may have been the twelfth-century warming house which was moved when the cloister was remodelled.
Dormitory and latrines
The monks' dormitory ran over the east range. It was a huge room, extending over fifty metres in length and could have accommodated up to a hundred monks. Little now remains of the dormitory but the line where its gabled roof hit the twelfth-century church can be seen on on the north transept wall. The latrine block (reredorter) could be accessed directly from the monks' dormitory. It was a two-storey structure built at right angles to the day room. The privies were on the first floor and ran over a sewer. A chamber on the ground floor, in the southern part of the building, looked on to the infirmary cloister and (Robinson) was perhaps used by novices; it had a door, window and latrine.
The north range ran parallel to the church and accommodated the monks' refectory and the kitchen which served both the monks and the lay brothers. An archway at the east end of this range housed the day stairs which provided access from the cloister to the monks' dormitory; originally the stairs were on the east range. The doorway beside this led to the warming house (calefactory) where a fire burned from 1 November until Good Friday.
The square pillar that survives in the warming house is one of four that would have supported the large fireplace here, of which there are a few remnants. Later in the Middle Ages this fireplace was seemingly blocked and a smaller one was built in the northern part of the room. Fuel was probably stored in the yard outside.
There were two chambers above the warming house. One was perhaps a muniment room where important documents were stored; the heat rom the fire below would have kept the room dry. The larger of the two rooms may have been used by the prior for his private quarters. In the later Middle Ages another level was built above in the Tudor style. Several of the square-headed windows survive. This perhaps provided lodgings for one of the monastic officials (obedientiaries).
The large and ornate doorway in the centre of the north range was the entrance to the monks' refectory. Recesses on either side would have held basins or troughs for the monks to wash their hands before entering the refectory; and they were also used for the weekly Maundy, the ritual washing of the monks' feet in imitation of Christ's washing of the Apostles' feet. The refectory would have been an impressive room. It was large and well lit having elegant windows. A monk would read to the brethren while they ate; the stairs leading to the reader's pulpit were in the west wall. The door in the south-east corner of the refectory led to a vaulted storeroom. Just to the west of this door are two recesses; one has a drain and a shelf and would have been used to wash the plates and spoons; the other was a cupboard. There was a serving hatch on the west wall, at its southern end, and beside this a recess for a drop-down table where dishes from the kitchen could be rested.
The kitchen stood at the west end of the north range, between the monks' refectory and the lay brothers' refectory, so that food prepared there could be easily served to both groups. Following the Dissolution a cottage was built on the site of the former kitchen which means that it is now extremely difficult to understand the original medieval layout. It seems that the kitchen was divided into two rooms. The smaller chamber in the east was a servery whilst the larger chamber was the kitchen proper. The kitchen had doors to the cloister, the lay brothers' refectory and yard.
The west range
The range was long and narrow and was originally larger, running further westwards than it does today. It primarily housed the lay brothers who formed the resident workforce. Their refectory was on the lower level of the north part of the range with their dormitory above. With the demise of the lay brothers in the later Middle Ages the northern part of the range may have been put to another use or even dismantled.
The southern end of the range was used for cellarage and there was also a parlour which stood at the end of the range and was entered via a thirteenth-century porch. The porch controlled access to the monastery - visitors first passed through here and might then be allowed to proceed further, to the parlour. A stone bench survives in the south wall of the porch. The outer parlour was vaulted and here the cellarer might speak with merchants and traders, and the monks might meet with family and friends. A wide doorway gave access to the cloister and a small door led to an upper level comprising two chambers - the cellarer's private quarters. The small court which lay to the south of the parlour may have been the lay brothers' cloister; remnants of a water tank can be seen in the north-east corner.
The infirmary complex and abbot's lodgings
The cluster of buildings to the north-east side of the cloister does not survive to any great height but shows the layout of the infirmary complex and the abbotâ€™s lodgings. The infirmary hall formed the heart of this complex and was clearly a large and impressive building, comparable to a church with its aisled navel that was lit by lancet windows. A striking fourteenth-century doorway provided access to the hall from the cloister. Initially the hall was open plan within - beds were arranged in the aisles. In the fifteenth century, however, privacy became of greater importance and screen walls were built to separate the aisles from the nave and to form individual cells in the bays. Each bay had its own fireplace and locker. The large room in the north-east part of the hall may have been for the infirmarer; certainly by the later Middle Ages this chamber had its own fire. In the room opposite, in the north west of the hall, there is a drain which suggests this may have been the infirmary latrine. A fifteenth-century visitor to Tintern mentioned the infirmary chapel and given that there's no structural evidence for this it may have been contained within the hall.
The infirmary complex was almost a miniature monastery and had its own cloister with arcade columns. Those who were sick or recuperating could have sat out here and enjoyed the fresh air to restore them. The infirmary complex also had its own kitchen area which was in the north-east corner. A room with slabbed flooring and a fireplace was later connected to a second kitchen on the east. This had two fireplaces and led to a scullery on the south. There was perhaps also a misericord here, a room where the monks might eat meat when this was permitted in the later Middle Ages.
The abbot's quarters originally stood to the north of the infirmary complex and were connected to the monks' dormitory via the toilet block. By the fourteenth century, however, the abbot had relocated and his former lodgings were separated from the monks' quarters and used by senior monks or corrodians; the ground floor now comprised two chambers, one with a fire. The abbot now moved further north, to a two-storey building that had perhaps served as the visiting abbot's lodgings from when it was built in the thirteenth century. This comprised a vaulted undercroft with a living room (camera) above. The building was significantly reworked in the fourteenth century to provide impressive and comfortable lodgings for the abbot of Tintern who was now akin to a great lord and who had his own household and entertained on a large scale. Comfort, style and ostentation were all important. The new lodgings consisted of a first-floor hall and whilst little of this survives today it was evidently a splendid and ornate structure, oozing quality and cost. A chapel block was added to the south; remnants can be seen of a piscina in the south wall and two lights of the east window. A lobby to the east of the hall may have led from a private landing stage on the river (Robinson); just to the east of this the foundations of a circular dovecot were uncovered.
The excavated foundations of the communal guest hall and other inner court structures can be seen to the west of the abbey church. 
 This draws primarily on D. Robinson, Tintern Abbey Welsh Historic Monuments (4th edn, Cardiff, 2002). See also D. Robinson, The Cistercians in Wales: Art and Architecture 1130-1540, Society of Antiquaries of London, Research Committee Report (London, 2006); Cadw (http://cadw.wales.gov.uk/daysout/tinternabbey/?lang=en); Coflein database (http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/359/details/TINTERN+ABBEY/)
Monastic sites related to this articleTintern, Monmouthshire(Abbey)
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