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Cistercian Abbeys: MARGAM

Name: MARGAM Location: nr Port Talbot County: West Glamorgan
Foundation: 1147 Mother house: Clairvaux
Relocation: None Founder: Robert, earl of Gloucester and lord of Glamorgan
Dissolution: 1536 Prominent members:
Access: Accessible to the public

Robert, earl of Gloucester, founded Margam Abbey only short time before his death. Indeed, it was a few weeks after Robert’s death that the first colony of monks arrived from Clairvaux. Robert of Gloucester (the bastard of King Henry I, half-brother of the Empress Matilda, and leader of the Empress’s party during the ‘anarchy’ of King Stephen’s reign) was a very wealthy man indeed. The site he allocated to the abbey comprised of 18 000 acres of land near the west coast of the lordship of Glamorgan: the original endowment consisted of ‘all the land between the Kenfig and Afan rivers from the brow of the mountains to the sea’.(1) Over the next century the monks acquired a fairly compact chain of estates across the vale and border vale of Glamorgan.(2) By 1291 the abbey had an annual income of £256, making it the richest monastic house in Wales.(3) At this time the abbey was actively farming nearly 7000 acres of land.(4) During its earlier years Margam Abbey seems to have been a house of good repute. Writing in the late twelfth century, Gerald of Wales described Abbot Cynan as ‘a learned man and one discreet in his behaviour’. He added that ‘of all the houses belonging to the Cistercian Order in Wales this was by far the most renowned for alms and charity’.(5)

The lay-brothers posed particular problems for Margam abbey.(6) In 1190 the abbot of Margam and his community were punished as they had not observed the Chapter’s prohibition of beer. Unspecified misdemeanours took place at Margam in 1190-1, and the abbot was given forty days penance and ordered to send two of his conversi to Clairvaux to do regular satisfaction.(7) A serious revolt of the lay-brothers occurred in 1206. They formed a conspiracy and rose against the abbot, pulling the cellarer from his horse and chasing the abbot 26 miles from the abbey. They then barricading themselves in the dormitory and withheld food from the monks. Fountains Abbey stepped in and the guilty were made to walk all the way to Clairvaux as punishment. The ring leaders were then dispersed throughout various houses of the Cistercian Order.(8) The monastery was also badly hit during the rebellion of Owain Glyn Dwr in the early fifteenth century, and apparently the monks were reduced to wondering about like beggars.(9) But it was not all bad luck. In 1210, King John stayed at the abbey with his army en route to Ireland, and again on his return three months later. In recognition of the monks' kindness the king exempted Margam from the taxes he imposed on the other houses. This was particularly fortunate for Margam and John's own foundation of Beaulieu were the only two houses to escape the crushing burdens of King John’s taxes.(10)

At the time of the Dissolution the net annual income of the house was valued at £181 and only eight monks remained at the monastery.(11) The abbey was dissolved in 1536 and the monks dispersed. Following the Dissolution the nave of the church was given over to parochial use and the abbey buildings were privately purchased. The construction of a great mansion was begun during the sixteenth century but was swept away during the eighteenth century to make way for a garden dominated by a mighty orangery. The nave was restored at the beginning of the nineteenth century and is now used as a parish church. Other remains of the abbey can be found in a Country Park to the east of the church and include the twelve-sided chapter-house and vestibule.(12) Both the church and the park are accessible to the public at all reasonable times.

There are also several important literary works that survived from Margam’s library. The Annals de Margan is one of the most valuable surviving Welsh monastic chronicles. It begins with the death of Edward the Confessor and breaks off abruptly in 1232. From the year 1185 onwards the chronicle is regarded as the most valuable primary source for Glamorgan history.(13) The ‘Book of Taliesin’, one of the ‘Four Ancient Books of Wales’, has also been ascribed to Margam Abbey. Besides its own chronicle, Margam Abbey library possessed a copy of Domesday Book and a complete volume containing two works by William of Malmesbury (the Gesta Regum and the Historia Novella) and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae.(14)