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Cistercian Abbeys: ABERCONWY

Name: ABERCONWY (or CONWY) Location: Conwy County: Gwynedd
Foundation: 1186 Mother house: Strata Florida
Relocation: 1190-92 Founder: Llewelyn ap Iorwerth (the Great)
Dissolution: March 1537 Prominent members:
Access: Converted to a hotel

Central and North Wales had hardly any monasteries until successive native princes – chiefly the Lord Rhys in the twelfth century and Llewelyn the Great in the thirteenth – established the Cistercians at Whitland and Strata Florida, Aberconwy, Cymmer, Valle Crucis (1) and elsewhere. Aberconwy was the first of the two Cistercian abbeys established in north-west Wales under the patronage of the princes of Gwynedd, with the founding colony arriving from Strata Florida in 1186.(2) The community initially settled at Rhedynog-felen, on the fringe of Snowdonia, but soon discovered the living conditions to be unbearable. The abbey moved, no later than 1192, to a more suitable location near the mouth of the river Conwy. Under the protection and support of the Welsh prince Llywelyn ab Iorwerth the community flourished. Llywelyn’s foundation charter to Aberconwy was extremely generous and it is believed that it was his intention to create an exceptionally powerful establishment. Indeed, it was not long before it became the most important monastery in North Wales. The monastery was to form close ties with the princes of Gwynedd; its abbots served as their advisors and emissaries, whilst the monastic church was to act as the mausoleum for the greatest of their dynasty, including Llywelyn the Great (d. 1240).(3)

The Welsh Cistercian abbots occasionally wrote in defence of their country and native princes. In 1274 the abbots of Aberconwy, Whitland, Strata Florida, Cwmhir, Strata Marcella, Cymer and Valle Crucis wrote to the pope defending the reputation and integrity of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd against the charges laid against him by Anian, bishop of St. Asaph.(4) Aberconwy seems to have had a rather strained relationship with the Cistercian General Chapter itself. In the General Chapter of 1202 it was said that the abbots of Aberconwy, Valle Crucis and Llantarnam rarely celebrated Mass and abstained from the altar and it was requested that the three abbots present themselves to answer the charges. However, for the abbots of Wales the journey to the General Chapter was long, arduous and expensive, especially for the abbot of Aberconwy, the most distant of the Welsh houses, for whom the journey could take well over a month.(5) Occasionally the king of England himself wrote letters requesting that certain abbots be excused from attending; we find Edward I writing twice for this purpose.(6)

In 1283, during his final conquest of Gwynedd, King Edward I forced the community to move from its position in order to accommodate for a castle and walled town that he was determined to build at the mouth of the Conwy. The monks were uprooted and moved immediately to a new site at Maenan. Apparently Edward stayed at the monastery for some time during the spring of 1283, whilst the building work was in progress and gave the monks £100 and a set of glass windows by way of compensation for damage sustained during the war.(7) Little more is known about this monastic community. In 1535, the abbey’s net annual income was assessed as £162 and the house was dissolved with the smaller monasteries in March 1537.(8) The parish church at Conwy incorporates parts of the medieval monastic church but nothing of significance remains of the site at Maenen. A house, built in the mid-eighteenth century, now occupies the site at Maenan and has now been converted to a hotel which takes its name from the abbey.(9)