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Cistercian Abbeys: WHITLAND

Name: WHITLAND Location: nr Whitland village County: Carmarthenshire
Foundation: 1140 Mother house: Clairvaux
Relocation: 1151 Founder: Bernard, bishop of St. Davids
Dissolution: February 1539 Prominent members:
Access: Open to the public

Whitland east end from the north-west
© Stuart Harrison
<click to enlarge>
Whitland east end from the north-west

Whitland (in its early days called Albalanda) was founded in 1140 under the patronage of Bernard, bishop of St. Davids (1115-48). It was the first of four houses in Wales to be colonised directly from Clairvaux, and was destined to be the mother-house of most of the abbeys founded in the second half of the twelfth century in the central and northern parts of Wales. The community of monks first arrived in West Wales in 1140 and by 1144 had settled at Little Trefgarn near Haverfordwest. Whitland took pride of place amongst the early Cistercian abbeys of south Wales and was from the first a house of the native Welsh in which members of the chief families took the habit and became abbots. Whitland must have attracted a significant number of new recruits for the abbey sent out three colonies of monks within thirty years of existence: Cwmhir (1143), Strata Florida (1164) and Strata Marcella (1170). A fifteenth-century report states that the abbey supported 100 monks and some servants at its foundation, although this number is probably exaggerated. In 1151 the monks at Little Trefgarn moved to a more suitable site at Whitland. From approximately 1165 patronage of Whitland was acquired by Prince Rhys ap Grufford (d. 1197). Under his patronage the community prospered and by the thirteenth century the abbey had extensive landholdings organised around seventeen grange centres. In the following decades Whitland sent out a further two colonies to establish daughter-houses at Comber in 1199 and Tracton in 1224.

Whitland paid heavily for the support they gave to the fight for Welsh independence. In 1257 Stephen Bauzan, Nicholas lord of Cemais, Patrick de Chaworth lord of Kilwelly and lord of Carew, accompanied by a band of knights, invaded Whitland Abbey, belaboured the monks, stripped the lay-brethren, and took the abbey servants into the monastic cemetery and slew them. When the marauders left they took with them all of Whitland's horses and valuables, except those in the church. The abbey also suffered great damage during the Welsh wars of King Edward I. It is known that a royal inquest during the reign of Edward I had acknowledged a claim for £260 by way of compensation. However, nothing was ever paid to the abbey and it has been suggested that Whitland forfeited its right of compensation by its overt assistance to the Welsh during the years of conflict. Following these events Whitland began to decline in wealth and at the time of the Dissolution the net annual income of the abbey was valued at £135. In 1536 Abbot William ap Thomas avoided the closure of his abbey by proffering the vast sum of £400. The abbey survived for only three more years and was finally dissolved with the larger monasteries in February 1539.
Little remains of the abbey today, save some fragments of the abbey church. However, the plan of the precinct is clearly marked in outline and the site is accessible to the public at all reasonable times. An important possession to have survived from Whitland Abbey is the Cronica Wallia, one of the most valuable of all the Welsh monastic chronicles of the period. In recent years a number of arguments have been put forward which favour Whitland as its place of origin.