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Monasteries & Abbeys in Wales

Of the three countries that make up Great Britain, it is Wales that probably has the longest history of uninterrupted Christian practice, one that stretches from the era of the Roman Empire right through to the present day. During the Middle Ages, Wales was home to a rich monastic tradition and while this was stamped out during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, many ruined religious houses survive as important reminders of Wales’ medieval heritage.

What Are Monasteries & Abbeys?

Monasteries and abbeys are both terms for religious houses, places where certain Christians devote themselves to celibate and ascetic lifestyles. Religious houses that are home to male monks are typically called monasteries, while those housing female nuns are more commonly termed convents or nunneries. When a religious house is under the control of an abbot or abbess, it is called an abbey, but when it is governed by a prior or prioress then the house is called a priory.

A Brief History of Welsh Monasticism

Between the 1st and early 5th centuries of the Common Era, the area that now comprises Wales was on the westernmost edge of the Roman Empire. It was in this period that Christianity first arrived in Britain, probably in the late 2nd century, although monasticism was not yet a common feature of British Christianity. It would only be in the 4th century that the idea of monks or nuns living together in a religious house spread to Western Europe, having been pioneered by some of the Christian “Desert Fathers” in Egypt.

The collapse of Roman administration in Britain resulted in the establishment of various Brythonic-speaking kingdoms across Wales, while many of the new kingdoms elsewhere in southern Britain came to speak Old English, a Germanic language probably introduced by migrants. This created the linguistic division from which England and Wales ultimately formed into separate nations. Unlike in the English kingdoms, where polytheistic religions apparently became dominant in the 5th and 6th centuries, Christianity persevered in various Welsh territories, retaining its presence from the Roman through to the early medieval period.

Later commentators described the Welsh Early Middle Ages as an “Age of Saints.” These saints were typically Christian ascetics who often formed their own monastic communities. One of the earliest of these figures was Saint Dyfrig, who in the early 6th century established a monastic settlement, or clas, at Hentland (modern Herefordshire, England). Other 6th-century clasau were established by Saint David, who stressed a monastic life of vegetarianism and hard physical labour, and who later became the patron saint of Wales. Operating in an era before every settlement had its own church, the Welsh clasau were early medieval religious houses responsible for administering pastoral care to the surrounding population, much like the English minsters. Welsh monks were also involved in spreading monasticism abroad, as can be seen in the example of Saint Samson, a Welsh-born monk who helped to establish monasteries in 6th-century Brittany.

As elsewhere in Europe, the monasteries of Wales were often important centres of learning and scholarship. It was possibly in a Welsh monastery that an ornate illustrated manuscript known as the Lichfield Gospels was created during the 8th century – certainly, the manuscript contains one of the oldest recorded written examples of the Old Welsh language. However, in large part due to their geographical distance from Rome, the Welsh Churches diverged from standard Roman Catholic religious practice in several areas, most significantly the date on which Easter was celebrated. This became a major area of contention in British Christianity, with the Welsh ecclesiastical establishment eventually accepting the calculation set by the Church of Rome in 768.

Various Roman Catholic monastic orders existed in the Middle Ages, but the one that ultimately became dominant in Wales was the Cistercian Order. Founded in France at the close of the 11th century, the Cistercians broke from the established Benedictine Order by placing a renewed emphasis on austerity. They soon reached England and from there spread to Wales. Here, new Cistercian monasteries were established in the first half of the 12th century by Anglo-Norman lords at places like Tintern (Monmouthshire) and Margam (Neath Port Talbot), and also by indigenous Welsh princes at such locations as Whitland (Carmarthenshire), Strata Florida (Ceredigion), and Aberconwy (Conwy). Despite the Cistercian emphasis on frugality, several of these monasteries began to receive tithes from the surrounding population and grew increasingly wealthy.

While absorbing influences from England, which had been a unified kingdom since the 10th century, the Welsh polities remained largely politically independent for several centuries. Throughout the High and into the Late Middle Ages, successive English rulers sought to conquer the Welsh kingdoms, a process finally achieved in the 13th century by King Edward I. The gradual political subjugation of Wales was accompanied by the growing influence of the Canterbury-based Church of England over Wales’ ecclesiastical institutions, including its monasteries.

Significant change came under the reign of King Henry VIII, who – as a member of the House of Tudor – was of Welsh descent. In his Laws of Wales Acts, Henry brought the Welsh legal system into line with its English counterpart, effectively establishing England and Wales as a single state. More dramatic for Wales’ monasteries were Henry’s religious reforms. After the Pope refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry declared himself head of the Church of England in 1534. He proceeded to dissolve the monasteries and confiscate their assets, a process completed by 1540. Although not necessarily Henry’s intention, this pushed both Wales and England out of the Roman Catholic camp and towards that of the Protestant Reformation then spreading across Europe.

The dissolution brought an end to Welsh monasticism. Religious houses and their lands were typically sold off to the gentry. The Raglan family for instance obtained Tintern Abbey, while the Mansels gained Margam Abbey. With Protestantism in the ascendant as the dominant religion in Wales, monasticism was generally frowned upon and many of the old monasteries fell into dilapidation – ironically, it was as ruins that they increasingly came to be appreciated for their romantic beauty in the 18th century.

The 19th century saw a reversal in fortunes for British monasticism. Growing religious tolerance facilitated the re-establishment of Roman Catholic religious houses while the Oxford Movement encouraged new interest in monasticism among many Anglicans. Most of these new religious houses opened in England, although in 1906 an Anglican Benedictine community established themselves on Caldey Island in Pembrokeshire, close to where a monastery had previously existed in the early medieval period. The community subsequently converted to Roman Catholicism, with the monastery transferring to the Trappist Order, a group that had branched off the Cistercians, in 1929. Later in the 20th century, new monastic and quasi-monastic communities also appeared across Wales, this time affiliated with Buddhism and Hinduism rather than Christianity.

What is there to see at a Welsh Monastery?

Although Welsh monasticism is largely a thing of the past, the ruins of many of the country’s medieval religious houses are open to the public, in some cases operated by Cadw, the Welsh historic environment service. While comparatively little monastic architecture from the early medieval period survives, much from the High and Late Middle Ages can still be seen, often showcasing the Gothic architectural style that became popular from the late 12th century onward.

Perhaps the most important part of a medieval religious house was the church or chapel, a space in which the monks or nuns would assemble for worship. Also characteristic of these structures was the cloister, a quadrilateral open space in which various tasks took place. Reflecting these religious houses’ role as residential institutions, they typically featured dormitories where the monks or nuns slept as well as kitchens and refectories where they prepared and ate food. The role of monks and nuns in caring for the sick could also be seen in the infirmaries, while at a major site like Tintern Abbey there was even a specific infirmary cloister.

Where to See Monasteries & Abbeys in Wales

Basingwerk Abbey

Founded in 1131, Basingwerk Abbey was initially established by Benedictine monks from Savigny Abbey in Normandy. As Savigny joined the Cistercian Order, so did Basingwerk in 1147, at which point the Cistercians were establishing themselves as the dominant monastic order in Wales. The abbey underwent expansion in the 13th century, from which period many of its Gothic ruins date. Today the abbey stands in Greenfield Valley Heritage Park and is the starting point for the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way that leads all the way to Bardsey.

Blackfriars' Friary, Bute Park

The Dominican order of friars only established two friaries in Wales, one of which was in the grounds of what today is Bute Park in Cardiff. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, the friary was dissolved and its buildings demolished. Archaeologists excavated the site in the 1880s and 1890s. The Marquess of Bute, who was then the landowner, subsequently set out a Victorian ornamental garden atop the medieval foundations, allowing modern day visitors to appreciate the layout of the original friary.

Cymer Abbey

Founded in France, the Cistercian Order spread rapidly across 12th-century Wales. Established in 1198 at the mouth of the Mawddach Estuary, Cymer Abbey was one of the various Cistercian monasteries formed in this period, although never grew to the size of some of the order’s larger establishments. After the monastery was forcibly shut during the dissolution of the monasteries, it is probable that monks from Cymer hid a silver paten and gilt chalice in nearby mountains – where these items were discovered during the 19th century.

Ewenny Priory

It was the Anglo-Norman noble Maurice de Londres who established Ewenny Priory in 1141, forming it as an offshoot of the established Benedictine Abbey of Saint Peter in Gloucester, England. The resulting structure remains one of the finest surviving examples of Romanesque architecture in South Wales, with an unusually heavily fortified exterior. Following King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, the medieval priory remained active as a parish church for the local community, a function it still plays today.

Haverfordwest Priory

Haverfordwest Priory was an Augustinian monastery probably established in the late 12th or early 13th century. It saw further development in the 15th century before the dissolution of the monasteries, at which it entered private hands. Archaeologists oversaw a project of excavation at the monastery during the 1980s and 1990s. Various artefacts they recovered are on display at the Haverfordwest Town Museum. Excavation also revealed more about the medieval garden that once grew here, allowing a modern approximation to be created at the site.

Llanthony Priory

It was a Norman knight, William de Lacy, who established Llanthony Priory, deliberately choosing an isolated location. In 1118 the priory came into the ownership of the Augustinians, a monastic order who had only a comparatively limited presence in Wales. They were later forced out by hostile locals but returned to rebuild the monastery in the late 12th century. After closing amid the dissolution of the monasteries, Llanthony Priory fell into a state of ruin, offering a romantic image set against the Black Mountains.

Margam Abbey

While the existence of the decorated Margam Stones suggest an earlier monastery on the site, Margam Abbey’s surviving ruins date to a Cistercian monastery from 1147. Built on land donated by Robert, Earl of Gloucester, the abbey became the largest and wealthiest monastery in 12th-century Wales. Following the dissolution of the monasteries, the church nave was transformed into a parish church, still in use to this day. Victorian alterations include the addition of stained-glass windows designed by William Morris.

Monmouth Priory

Monmouth Priory began life as a monastery belonging to Benedictine monks in 1080 and became an important hub over the course of the Middle Ages. After falling to the dissolution in 1536, the priory became a private house and then a school. The Victorian era saw the construction of a new building on the site, albeit incorporating elements of the medieval fabric, most notably a late 15th-century window. Its use as a school ended in 1973, with the renovated building becoming a community hub.

Neath Abbey and Gatehouse

One of the best surviving medieval monasteries in Wales, Neath Abbey began life in 1130. It was the Norman knight Sir Richard de Granville who established the abbey as a home for Savigniac monks from Normandy. The Savigniacs were absorbed into the Cistercian Order in the 12th century, while Neath Abbey’s wealth grew to the extent that it became one of Wales’ richest monasteries by the late 13th century. Amid the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, the abbey became a copper smelting plant.

Penmon Priory, Cross and St Seiriol's Well

It was Saint Seiriol who first established a monastery at Penmon during the 6th century. Among the features that grew up around this early medieval religious site was a holy well named after the saint, which people visited in the hope of gaining healing. Another was a 10th-century stone cross, now preserved inside the church. The Augustinian Order later assumed control of the monastery, overseeing its rebuilding during the 13th century, the ruins of which survive today. The 15th-century Penmon Dovecote is also found nearby.

St Davids Bishop's Palace

The palace ruins of St Davids were once home to a bishop, a senior figure in the Church hierarchy. A monastery existed here from the Early Middle Ages, gradually becoming a popular destination for pilgrims with the erection of St Davids Cathedral. In the 14th century, Bishop Henry de Gower oversaw massive expansion of the adjacent bishop’s palace in order to reflect the wealth and influence of his position. Following the Reformation, the palace gradually fell into a state of ruin, which Cadw now manage.

St Dogmaels Abbey and Coach House

Standing on the banks of the River Teifi, St Dogmaels Abbey was established around 1120 on the probable site of an earlier ecclesiastical site. It was the Norman lord Robert FitzMartin who oversaw its construction, bringing over monks from the Tironensian Order in Normandy. The surviving ruins reflect several phases of construction, from the 12th century to the Tudor period, not long before it fell to the dissolution of the monasteries. There is also a Coach House on the site, now housing a museum.

St Mary's Abbey, Bardsey Island

Located on Bardsey Island, which is accessible as part of a day trip from the mainland, Saint Mary’s Abbey stands on the site of an early medieval monastery. According to legend, this was founded in the 6th century by Saint Cadfan, who later became the patron saint of the island. The Augustinian Order subsequently established their presence here around 1200, after which the monastery became an important pilgrimage attraction until the dissolution. The ruins of a 13th-century tower still survive, adjacent to a graveyard.

Strata Florida Abbey

Its name deriving from the Latin for ‘Vale of Flowers,’ Strata Florida Abbey was established by a Cambro-Norman lord, Robert FitzStephen, in 1201. Although only one of many Cistercian monasteries opened across Wales in this period, it subsequently became a major site under the patronage of Rhys ap Gruffydd, ruler of the kingdom of Deheubarth. As well as being the resting place of many Welsh princes, it was also here that Llywelyn ap Iorwerth summoned the Welsh princes to swear allegiance to his son, Dafydd, in 1238.

Talley Abbey

Established in the 1180s, Talley Abbey owes its creation to Rhys ap Gruffydd, then ruler of the kingdom of Deheubarth. It was the first and only monastery in Wales that was operated by monks of the Premonstratensian Order, a group founded in France several decades earlier. After the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, the abbey was plundered for building material and today stands only as a romantic ruin amid the picturesque rural landscape beside the River Cothi. Cadw now manage the site.