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Cistercian Abbeys: TINTERN

Name: TINTERN Location: nr Chepstow County: Gwent
Foundation: 1131 Mother house: L’Aumone
Relocation: None Founder: Walter fitz Richard
Dissolution: 1539 Prominent members:
Access: Welsh Historic Monuments – open to the public

Tintern presbytery
© Stuart Harrison
<click to enlarge>
Tintern presbytery

Tintern was founded in 1131 by Walter fitz Richard (d. 1138), the Anglo-Norman lord of Chepstow, and a member of the powerful family of Clare. Walter of Clare was also related by marriage to Bishop William of Winchester, who had introduced the first colony of White Monks to Waverley in 1128. Tintern was the first Cistercian house to be founded in Wales and the second in the British Isles after Waverley.
Tintern abbey, situated deep in the Wye valley, was colonised by monks from L’Aumone (Loir-et-Cher) in the diocese of Blois in France. L’Aumone was in turn a daughter house of Cîteaux, and Tintern was therefore linked as a granddaughter to the Burgundian mother house. The community grew quickly and by 1139, had sufficient numbers to send out a colony to Kingswood in Gloucestershire. During its early years the house was blessed with, Abbot Henry, a man of great spirituality. Henry, who presided over the community from 1148-1157, had spent his youth as a robber, apparently a lucrative profession, but later repented and took the Cistercian habit; by all accounts he became an intensely religious man. Abbot Henry is known to have visited both the Pope and St. Bernard. In 1189 William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, became lord of Chepstow and patron of Tintern. Earl William was also lord of Leinster in south-east Ireland and, during a storm at sea, he promised God that he would establish a new monastery on these lands if he was saved from shipwreck. Thus Tintern sent out her second and final colony to establish the abbey of Tintern Parva (Little Tintern) on William’s lands in Ireland (1201-1203).

Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses.

[‘Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey’, William Wordsworth]

The abbey buildings appear to have been intended for a fairly large community: some twenty monks and perhaps fifty lay-brothers. The abbey seems to have been reasonably endowed with lands and possessions on both sides of the river Wye. By the late thirteenth century the monks at Tintern were farming well over 3000 acres of arable land on the Welsh side of the Wye and kept some 3264 sheep on their pasture lands. In 1245 the lordship of Chepstow passed to the Bigod family. Roger Bigod III, Earl of Norfolk (1270-1306), took a keen interest in the abbey. In 1301-2 he granted the abbey his Norfolk manor of Acle. This proved to be a valuable asset to Tintern and by the sixteenth century was accounting for a quarter of the abbey’s income. Roger Bigod was remembered primarily as the builder of the abbey church. The project, which had commenced in 1269, was finally concluded under the patronage of Roger, c. 1301. So great was the generosity of Roger Bigod that later observers considered him to be the founder of the abbey. At the time of the Dissolution the monks were still distributing alms to the poor five times a year for the repose of Roger’s soul. The abbey was at its most prosperous at the turn of the fourteenth century but afterwards made no significant additions to its property.

Tintern was one of the few Welsh abbeys that managed to escape the suffering inflicted by the wars of Edward II. No doubt this was due to the fact that Tintern occupied a site that was more remote than its Welsh counterparts and was thus outside the area in which most of the fighting took place. Edward II was known to have stayed at the abbey for two nights in 1326 when he was fleeing from the invading army of Roger Mortimer, but otherwise Tintern’s history remains a quiet one. By the early fifteenth century the abbey was experiencing some financial difficulties as a result of the damaging effects of the uprising of Owain Glyndwr. The community found some cash relief from the offerings of pilgrims who travelled to the abbey. The abbey chapel contained a statue of St. Mary the Virgin which was thought to have possessed miraculous powers and it was said a great number of people journeyed to visit this sight.
In 1535 the net annual income of the abbey was valued at £192, which made Tintern the wealthiest abbey in Wales at this time. Even so, the abbey came under the first Act of Suppression (1536) which dissolved all houses under an annual income of £200. The house was surrendered in September 1536 and the site was granted to Henry Somerset, earl of Worcester (d. 1549), who was the current patron of the house. The earl stripped the buildings of their roofs for lead; at some point during the following century a number of the monastic buildings may have been converted into dwelling houses.

During the second half of the eighteenth century the wooded slopes of the Wye became a popular site for ‘Romantic’ tourists, with the ruins at Tintern acknowledged as ‘the jewel and highlight of the tour’. At this time the site was owned by the Duke of Beaufort. He was passionate about the heritage left to him and set about preserving the abbey as the perfect gothic ruin. Reverend William Gilpin’s guidebook ‘Observations on the River Wye’ (1782) became an immediate bestseller and travellers flocked to the area particularly to experience Tintern, which was supposed to be the most beautiful scene on the tour. In 1792 J. M. W. Turner made pencil sketches of Tintern which later became a selection of his most magnificent water colours. The abbey was also the inspiration behind one of the greatest romantic poems of the English language: William Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, 13 July 1798’. In 1901 the site was recognised as a monument of national importance and the property was sold to the Crown. A restoration programme was set in motion which was completed c. 1928.

Today the site remains one of the most picturesque and romantic of all the tourist sites in Wales. The great gothic church stands almost complete, save the roof and the north aisle in the nave. The excavated foundations of the communal guest hall and other inner court structures can be seen to the west of the abbey church. The north-east side of the abbey complex does not survive to any great height but shows the lay out of the infirmary hall and the abbot’s lodgings.
The site is now under the care of Welsh Historic Monuments and is open to the public at all reasonable hours.