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Cistercian Abbeys: BASINGWERK

Name: BASINGWERK Location: Greenfield, nr Holywell County: Flintshire
Foundation: c. 1131 Mother house: Savigny
Relocation: None Founder: Ranulf de Gernon, earl of Chester
Dissolution: 1535 Prominent members:
Access: Welsh Historic Monuments – open to the public

The refectory at Basingwerk Abbey
© Stuart Harrison
<click to enlarge>
The refectory at Basingwerk Abbey

This abbey was founded around 1131, although the exact date cannot be confirmed. It was established by Ranulf de Gernon, earl of Chester (1129-1153) and was at first a house of the Savigniac Order in Normandy.(1) When all the Savigniac houses were absorbed by the Cistercians in 1147, Basingwerk became Cistercian. Grants of land and property came from both the Welsh princes and the English nobility. Edward I made it his headquarters while he was building Flint castle in 1277 (during his conquest of Wales), and in return for the abbey’s loyalty he granted the monks various privileges. It seems that Basingwerk’s sympathies lay with the English and the abbey provided a chaplain for Flint Castle. Basingwerk apparently suffered little during the Welsh wars although the abbey still received £100 compensation from Edward I for any damage inflicted upon its property.(2) The monastery was for an abbot and twelve monks, with a number of lay-brothers until the fourteenth century.(3) The abbey evidently exercised considerable hospitality – in the early sixteenth-century Basingwerk built new guest quarters so attractive to visitors that they flocked there in great numbers.(4) The abbey had so many guests that they had to be served in two sittings.

In 1535, Basingwerk’s annual income was assessed at £150, at which time there were probably no more than two or three monks at the house.(5) The house thus fell under the first phase of the Dissolution when all houses under the value of £200 were to be surrendered. Today only a little of the twelfth-century walling apparently survives around the cloister and in the east range, although the area has been fully excavated and the precinct outlines are clearly visible on the turf. Much of the fabric visible today, including the church, dates from the early thirteenth century, when the buildings were generally refurbished and extended. More important is the literary legacy of the abbey. The Book of Aneirin, one of the Four Ancient Books of Wales, transcribed in the second half of the thirteenth century, has been ascribed to Basingwerk Abbey.(6) Basingwerk is also thought to have contributed to one of the greatest surviving medieval monastic Welsh annals: the Brut y Tywysogyon of the Chronicle of the Princes.(7) The site is now in the care of Welsh Historic Monuments and is open to the public at all reasonable times.(8)