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Strata Florida Abbey

1 m ESE of Pontrhydfendigaid, Cardiganshire, Mid Wales

Photographs copyright © 2002 by Jeffrey L. Thomas.

Above: the beautifully carved west doorway at Strata Florida Abbey.
Through the doorway you can see the covered chapels of the south transept that protect the abbey's famous tiles.

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Cadw Guidebook

The first abbey of Strata Florida, founded by the Norman Robert fitz Stephen in 1164 for the Cistercians, lay 2ml away from the present site, by the banks of the Afon Fflur from which Strata Florida (Vale of Fflur, or 'flowers') derives its name. It was a daughter house of the great Cistercian abbey at Whitland, and the first colony of monks would have come from there. We do not know why or when the abbey was moved to its present position on the banks of the river Teifi, but politics may have played a major part, as in 1166 the Welsh prince of south Wales Rhys ap Gruffydd, conquered Norman holdings in Ceredigion and took control of the area. The Cistercian order, committed to a life of rural simplicity, was very successful in Wales, and Rhys was happy to take over the new foundation. Indeed, he later even became known as the founder of Strata Florida for which he had a special affection.

 

 

Below: view from the North Transept (foreground) through the Monk's Choir (middle-ground)
to the Collation Bay and Cloister Court (background).

Below: view from the South Transept towards the North Transept.
Three admirers surround the slate memorial dedicated to Welsh medieval poet Dafydd ap Gwilym .

The building of the new church began apparently in 1184. The abbey received continued support from the princely descendants of Rhys, who granted the abbey extensive estates in the surrounding rich pasture lands, and further afield in Carmarthen and Powys. These lands, used for the large flocks of sheep for which the Cistercians became famed, produced much of the income for running the abbey. Perhaps due to this patronage, the abbey, with its series of Welsh abbots, soon became renowned as a centre for Welsh scholarship. The Welsh annals later known as the Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of the Princes) may have been compiled here. They record the close association between the abbey and the house of Deheubarth, and the fact that, during the late 13th century, many of its princes were brought to the abbey for burial. The abbey had a great cultural influence in medieval Wales and even now its name is associated with Welsh scholarship.

Strata Florida was not immune, however, from the ravages of war and accident. In 1212, King John threatened the abbey with destruction, as he considered it to be a partisan Welsh establishment 'which sustains our enemies', though troubles elsewhere diverted him from the task. In 1285 the church was damaged by lightning, and the buildings suffered further in struggles between the Welsh and English ten years later. The abbey was taken over by the military during Glyndwr's war of independence. After the Dissolution, the monastic buildings were abandoned. They were excavated in the 19th century by Stephen Williams, a remarkable man who fell in love with the site when working as an engineer on the construction of the railway which used to run along the valley nearby.

The artistic achievement of Strata Florida is still reflected in some noteworthy survivals amidst the ruins. One is the richly decorated round-headed west door of the church. This justly celebrated doorway was originally flanked by a pair of lancet windows, but only one now survives. The cruciform church was built mainly in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. It has a long nave of seven bays with two aisles divided from it by walls linking the pillars but with doorways at both east and west ends. The monks' choir, where the monastic services would have been sung, was built in the late 14th century, and the irregular stepped sunken basin in the centre of the crossing may be a late medieval, or even post-medieval insertion.

 

Below: details of the west doorway. The jambs featured six orders of continuous roll mouldings, divided by cross-bands terminating in spiral motifs.

     

 

The presbytery floor rises towards the east with three steps, on the middle of which is the high alter. Two small chapels lie against the eastern wall of the presbytery, which was extended in the mid 13th-century. This internal arrangement is quite late; the original 13th-century floor was probably level and the high alter was positioned against the east wall. The transepts each had a series of three chapels, and their stepped floors, laid with richly decorated tiles, are a glorious reminder of how different the church must have originally looked. The tiles have incised decoration glazed or slip-inlaid, with a variety of devices, including 'the man with a mirror' which probably represents vanity, a griffin, patterns of stylised flowers, leaves and crosses, and heraldic shields. The pavements probably date to the 14th century, and those on the south have been covered with a modern roof to protect them. The floor of the entire church east of and including the choir would have originally been tiled, and other smaller sections of plain tiled floor are preserved in various parts of the church. The less important nave and aisles apparently had floors of local slate.

In the south wall of the south transept, a door led to the narrow sacristy, The chapter house to the south was, in its original mid-13th century form, quite a large structure, but it was halved in size in the 14th century, when it was rebuilt at a higher level, perhaps after the destruction caused during the 1294 Welsh uprising. A single decorated grave slab survives in the floor.

The graves of the Welsh princes (below) lie outside the church, east of the south transept. Their decorated headstones and grave slabs must mark the graves of two of the Lord Rhys's sons. Tradition has it that Dafydd ap Gwilym, the greatest poet of medieval Wales, was also buried within the precincts of the abbey, and a memorial slab commemorating him stands in the north transept.

Nothing now remains of the dormitory, refectory and service buildings that must have been arranged around the cloister, though footings of the northern half of the cloister wall still stand. The cloister was rebuilt in the 15th century, and set within its north wall is a polygonal alcove, used for a lectern for the Collation or reading before Compline (the last service of the monastic day), and an unusual and interesting survival. The west range, of which only fragments remain, would have housed the lay brothers, usually locals recruited by Cistercian houses to carry out the manual work on the monastery. There low-born brethren were kept apart from the 'choir-monks' and would have use the nave of the church for their services.

In the old school building at the entrance to the site is a small exhibition with some of the artefacts found during excavations of the abbey. The Cistercians were lovers of simplicity, but that is not to say that their churches were devoid of all decoration. The finely decorated stonework from window, door and roof helps us to visualise some of the ornament now missing from the abbey ruin.


The following is contributed by Richard Hartnup, of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Monks’ tracks from Strata Florida

The Cistercian Monastery of Strata Florida, or Ystrad Fflur was established in 1164 by monks from Whitland on land provided by Robert Fitzstephen, the Norman Lord of Pennard. It was built on the banks of the Afon Fflur, a tributary of the Teifi, rising on Garn Gron, a western outlier of the Cambrian Mountains. The original site is now occupied by Old Abbey Farm, just east of the main road, about 2 km south-south-west of Pontrhydfendigaid (Bridge of the blessed ford).

 

Below: view of one of the abbey's massive eastern piers in the foreground with the covered chapels of the south transept behind.

 

The Lord Rhys, Rhys ap Gruffudd, managed to oust the Norman overlords of Dyfed, partly by encouraging them to divert their activities to the colonisation of Ireland. His energetic (and troublesome) claims to the lands of his ancestors eventually led Henry II to appoint Rhys as Justice of South Wales, giving him the rights to the lands he had, in fact conquered. Rhys gave more land to the Cistercians, and in 1184 the abbey was moved to its present site on the banks of the infant Teifi. It took 50 years to build and was the largest in Wales.

At that time the Monasteries were important centres of learning and development. The monks inherited the rôle of the early Christian missionaries and “Celtic Saints” in furthering agricultural improvements, and pushing cultivation into the uplands. For 200 years Ystrad Fflur was a major centre, and the quiet valley became a focus of activity. The monks readily adopted the pastoral agriculture of the area and were active in clearing and improving land, and in sheep breeding. They continued the long established practice of transhumance - that is the moving of flocks onto the open upland pastures or sheepwalks in the summer, where the women and children of the families would live in a sheiling or hafod whilst shepherding. The old home where the main family life took place was the hendre. These terms have persisted in the names of many farms and dwellings.

 

Below: some of the beautifully decorated tiles in the covered chapels of the south transept, including the famous "man with mirror" tile.

 

 

Communication networks developed at this time, and drove-roads from the lowland to the upland pastures later became incorporated into the fascinating networks of rights of way and tracks that cross the country today.

The area today still has the ruins of many of these upland dwellings, whilst cultivated fields extend far up the valleys. Along the upland tracks the remains of sheep folds are sometimes surrounded by richer grassland, still benefiting from the fertilising effects of sheep dung, and residual cattle dung. The need for communication was further stimulated by trade generated from the activity of the monks and those working on their lands. The brothers needed to visit their outlying properties, and many pilgrims included Ystrad Fflur in their peregrinations. (There are suggestions that a wooden cup with claims to be the Holy Grail was kept at the Abbey, and attracted many visitors).

Richard Colyer has traced many of these traders, pilgrim & monk's routes and provides a map in his book "Roads and Trackways of Wales" (Moorland Press, 1984). The development of this rural infrastructure affected the settlement of the valleys, especially in encouraging farmsteads at relatively high altitudes.

 

Below: view of the piers of the south transept and the hills behind the abbey.

 

There is a long tradition of an ancient road, the so-called Monks' Trod, from Ffair Rhos, the site of a major fair or market, to Abbey Cwmhir, some 25 miles away in Radnorshire. It can be traced all the way on the Ordnance Survey maps, some sections being marked "Ancient Road". A number of old tracks evolved, some probably used by the monks, and certainly later by drovers, converging on the Monks' Trod from various points, as the ancient road formed a useful route across the wild hills into Radnorshire, and on towards the English midlands. One such well formed track leaves the Mwyro valley about two miles east of the Abbey, from Tyncwm farm, and joins the Monks' Trod near Claerwen farm.

 

Additional Photographs of Strata Florida Abbey

 

 

 

 

     

 

 

 

 

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Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas