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Tintern Abbey

Just off the A466 4m N of Chepstow, Monmouthshire, south Wales

Photographs copyright 2006 by Jeffrey L. Thomas.

Above: Tintern Abbey viewed from across the road.
Below: the abbey viewed from the south.

Robinson: Cadw guide

The Cistercian abbey of Tintern is one of the greatest monastic ruins of Wales. It was only the second Cistercian foundation in Britain, and the first in Wales, and was founded on 9 May 1131 by Walter de Clare, lord of Chepstow. It soon prospered, thanks to endowments of land in Gwent and Gloucestershire, and buildings were added and updated in every century until its dissolution in 1536. However, it was never very large and important, and its history was relatively uneventful. Its position well away from the Welsh heartland meant that, unlike Margam, Neath and Llanthony, it suffered little in the periodic Welsh uprisings of the medieval period.

 

Below: view of the south transept looking south

 

Tintern was always closely associated with the lords of Chepstow, who were often generous benefactors. The most generous was Roger Bigod III, grandson of Marshal's daughter Maud; his monumental undertaking was the rebuilding of the church in the late 13th century. In gratitude the abbey put his coat of arms in the glass of its east window. It is the ruins of Roger's church which dominate the site today.

The abbey buildings were arranged in a standard Cistercian plan, except that the cloisters and all its ancillary buildings were to the north of the church rather than to the south, which was more usual. Pragmatic considerations like the drains may have led to this reversal. The present-day remains are an amalgam of several phases of building spanning 400 years, but throughout the basic arrangement remained the same.

 

Below: view of the east window from the Nave.

 

Of the first buildings, which date from the 12th century, very little remains above ground. A few sections of walling are incorporated into later buildings, and the two recessed cupboards for books on the east of the cloisters are of this period. The church was smaller than the 13th century one, and lay slightly to the north. Its cruciform plan is laid out in gravel paths and stone edgings within the later church. In the late 12th century the first-floor monk's dormitory, which ran northwards from the north transept of the church, was extended; its northern end and the latrines over the drain to its east are of this phase.

During the 13th century the abbey was more or less completely rebuilt, starting in about 1220 with the cloisters and domestic ranges around them, and finishing with the great church. The entrance to the precinct was on the west side of the cloisters, through the unassuming late 13th-century porch and outer parlour. (The modern entrance to the abbey is well to the north.) Above was a small lodging, possibly for the cellarer. To the north was a cellar and the lay brothers' range of refectory and dormitory, which was extended in the late 13th century.

 

Below (2): Two views towards the North Transept from the Presbytery.

 

 

Tintern's crowning glory, its great church, was built between 1269 and 1301. It stands today much as it did then, apart from it's lack of a roof, window glass and internal divisions. Although not nearly as long as the great Cistercian abbey churches at Fountains and Rievaulx, its completeness makes it impressive. It has a simple cruciform plan, with an aisled nave, transepts each with two chapels, and a square-ended aisled chancel. Cistercian rule and liturgy dictated the internal divisions, which have disappeared; the aisles were all walled off, and three cross-walls divided the body of the church into two main sections - the nave, reserved for the lay brothers, and the choir and presbytery at the east end for the choir monks. Stubs of the aisle walls can be seen against the piers. Aesthetically today's simplicity may appear more pleasing then the original clutter; this was certainly the motive for the Victorian removal of the main cross-wall or pulpitum. The internal wall surfaces are articulated into bays divided by clustered columns, above which are triple vaulting shafts which rise up to the springing of the rib vaulting, none of which remains.

 

Below: view of the Nave's west window which is currently being restored.

 

The fine west end is divided into three stages, with twin doorways and traceried arches in the lowest, a great seven-light window in the middle (left), and a smaller arched window, which has lost its tracery, at the top. The delicate tracery of the main window, complete except for the circle at the top, is particularly fine seen from inside the church. By contrast, at the east end the great window, which took up most of the wall, is just a gaping hole. All that is left is the slender central mullion and circular window above.

The main abbey buildings were contained within a walled precinct of 11h within which there were many other secular buildings. The remains of some, including the guesthouse, have been exposed to the west of the church, between the car park and the main road. The arch of the water-gate leading to wharves and a ferry over the river remains next to the Anchor Hotel, and the gatehouse chapel, clearly visible above the main road, has been converted into a private house. Sections of the precinct wall remain on the west and south, parts in a ruinous state, parts incorporated into garden walls.

In 1348 the Black Death swept the country and, although we have no direct evidence for its impact on Tintern, the effects are clear. It became almost impossible to attract new recruits for the lay brotherhood. Widespread changes in the economy, with feudal service giving way to a system based on wages, were increased by labor shortages following the plague. At the grange of Merthyrgeryn in 1387-88 most of the area formerly worked by lay brothers had been leased out to tenants.

In the 1500s monastic life in England and Wales was brought to an abrupt end by the political actions of King Henry VIII. The Dissolution of the Monasteries was part of the king's policy to establish total control over the church in his realm. But in addition to severing links with Rome, their suppression was a considerable source wealth to the crown. Even so, the brutal demise of some 800 religious houses between 1536 and 1540 was a major step, perhaps made easier by a changing tide of opinion against the monasteries and what they stood for. Certainly, by the time of the Tudor dynasty, much of the freshness and vigour of the monastic way of life had been lost.

 

Below (2): view from the church towards the Monk's Refectory and a close of up the surviving windows there.

 

 

Tintern Abbey was surrendered to the king's visitors on 3 September 1536. Apart from Abbot Wyche, there were twelve choir monks and some 35 monastic servants. As they left the abbey in late summer, a way of life which had lasted for 400 years finally came to an end. This time-span was almost as long as that from the Dissolution itself to our own period. With the roofs gone, and windows smashed, the shell of the abbey would have fallen into chronic decay.

When it became fashionable to visit wilder parts of the country in the late 18th century, the Wye valley became renowned for its picturesque qualities, and Tintern Abbey, then swathed in ivy, was rediscovered and visited by many famous seekers after the romantic and picturesque, including the painter J M W Turner and poet William Wordsworth. Since the early 20th century every effort has been made to keep standing one of the finest and most complete abbey churches in Wales.

Return to the main Abbeys of Wales page to learn more about the Cistercians in Wales.


Jeff Thomas 1994

Tintern Abbey in southeast Wales has always been my favorite abbey. We arrived at Tintern at the end of a long day that included stops at Carreg Cennen and Raglan castles as we headed back toward London. Part of what makes Tintern so special is its picturesque setting. Founded by 12th century Cistercian monks, the abbey sits serenely amid the hills of the Wye river valley. Framed by rolling green hills on all sides, Tintern is easily the most beautifully situated of the abbeys we visited. The village of Tintern is tiny. A few small shops, alpine-like cottages and a small church lie close to the abbey. The river Wye runs directly behind the abbey and played an important role in sustaining its occupants. The surrounding countryside is broken only by an occasional hiking trail. The peaceful setting gave us a feeling of isolation different from the other abbeys we visited.

The abbey and grounds are surrounded by a 4ft stone fence. At the front of the grounds next to the road, grazing cattle seem oblivious to the imposing structure dominating their pasture. Although smaller than Fountains, the wide-open interior spaces of the chapel and nave at Tintern are more captivating. The great lancet windows at each end of the chapel serve as breathtaking picture frames for the green hills beyond. The floor of the chapel is covered in a carpet of tall green grass, broken by tall, decorated columns reaching toward the sky. The floor is also dotted with giant corbels that once adorned the tops of Tintern's massive pillars. The highly decorated corbels now mark the places missing columns once stood, and are one of the abbey's unique features. The corbels and surviving columns set against the wide-open spaces of the chapel floor, are a marvel to behold. While walking the floor of the chapel the symmetry and spacing of these huge pillars create vast sectioned views of the interior, making this part of the abbey the most memorable.

Tintern also has an abundance of delicate window tracery work still in evidence. The North Transept, Great East Window, and West Front Window all retain some degree of this finely carved work, reminding visitors of the abbey's former days of glory, when huge panes of stained glass filled these giant windows. Another fine example of window tracery is found in the Monk's Dining Hall, a large room next to the main chapel. An enlarged photograph I took at here on our 1992 trip to Britain, reveals the subtle attention to detail that make these series of smaller windows one of the abbey's best surviving features. There are also extensive support building foundations to explore at Tintern, but these never seem to be as interesting as the abbey itself. I usually devote most of my time to wandering the great spaces of the main sanctuary.

Tintern strikes me as the perfect ruined abbey. It's the right combination of size and beauty. I was not concerned that we had visited Tintern just a year and a half earlier. I remembered how absolutely awestruck I had been upon first setting foot in the immense open spaces of the chapel, viewing those massive pillars for the first time. I knew that another visit so soon would not disappoint, and therefore did not hesitate to add Tintern to our 1994 agenda. Tintern Abbey, Chepstow Castle, and Raglan Castle, all lie within twenty miles of one another, and together make a powerful argument for not overlooking this part of Wales.


Additional photographs of Tintern Abbey

 

Below: view of the abbey from the northeast.

 

Below: close-up view of one of the ornate windows from the North Transept.

 

Below: view of the Monk's Dayroom. The columns once supported a stone vault.

 

Below: view of the ruined Infirmary and Kitchens.

 

Below: ornate arched doorway from the Abbey Church.

 

Below: view towards the North Transept from the Nave.

 

Below: two views of the windows found on the north side of the Nave.

 

 

 

A ghostly legend at Tintern?
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Copyright 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas