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Cistercian Abbeys: NEATH

Name: NEATH Location: West of the River Neath County: West Glamorgan
Foundation: 1130 Mother house: Savigny
Relocation: None Founder: Richard de Granville
Dissolution: February 1539 Prominent members:
Access: Welsh Historic Monuments – open to the public

Neath Abbey from the east
© Stuart Harrison
<click to enlarge>
Neath Abbey from the east

In 1129 Richard de Granville granted his fee, situated on the west bank of the river Neath, to the Norman abbey of Holy Trinity at Savigny for the foundation of a new monastery. A year later Abbot Richard (d. 1145) and his twelve monks arrived from Savigny and a new community at Neath was formed: it was the second daughter-house of Savigny in England and Wales. The monks soon found that their lands were far too scattered to be managed properly and during the 1190s a plan was put forward for the monastery to move to the site of its property at Exford in Somerset. The plan was thwarted when, in 1198, the abbey of Cleeve was established barely ten miles from the site at Exford. Thus, instead of moving, the community decided to put its efforts into consolidating its lands closer to home. This eventually paid off and by the end of the thirteenth century Neath Abbey was one of the wealthiest houses in Wales.(1) The numbers increased and after the house was burnt down in 1224 by Morgan ap Owen it appears to have been entirely rebuilt for twenty-four monks and forty to fifty lay-brothers.(2) Between 1280 and 1320 the twelfth-century Romanesque church was replaced by a new Gothic construction. The scheme attracted the attention of King Edward I and, on a visit to Neath in 1284, he presented the abbey with a beautiful canopy, intended for the High Altar.(3)

After the death of Gilbert de Clare in 1314 rebellion broke out in Glamorgan. The monks of Neath were ‘plundered of their goods by reason of rebellion of certain Welshmen . . . and their house devastated and ruined’.(4) Neath experienced further financial difficulties during the fifteenth century but it seems that by around 1500 the house had largely recovered from these set backs. During the beginning of the sixteenth century, the southern end of the dormitory and the refectory ranges were adapted to provide the abbot with substantial private accommodation. From about 1509 until the Dissolution these new apartments were occupied by Abbot Leyshon Thomas, the most influential Cistercian abbot of late medieval Wales.(5) Despite having a fine reputation, Neath Abbey had an annual net income of just £132 at the time of the Dissolution and thus should have fallen under the first Act of Suppression in 1536. In order to avoid closure, Abbot Leyshan paid the heavy fine of £150. However, the house evaded suppression for only three years, and was finally dissolved with the larger monasteries in 1539. A few years later Cromwell (d. 1545) purchased the site and converted parts of the monastic buildings into an impressive Tudor mansion. These buildings were to be abandoned in the early years of the eighteenth century and left to ruin. Today the remains include much of the east and west ranges of the monastic buildings, the gothic church and the mansion. The site is now under the care of Welsh Historic Monuments and is open to the public at all reasonable times. It has recently been suggested that the ‘Red Book of Hergest’, one of the ‘Four Ancient Books of Wales’, normally ascribed to Strata Florida, was in fact copied in a Glamorgan monastery – probably Neath.(6)