The Cistercian abbey of Tintern is one of the greatest monastic ruins in Wales and was founded on 9th may 1131 by the lord of Chepstow, Walter De Clare. It soon prospered with thanks from investments of land in Gwent and Gloucestershire were the buildings were updated and added in every century right up until its dissolution in 1536. However, it was never really important and its history was quite uneventful so its position from the welsh heartland meant that it suffered very little in the periodic welsh uprisings of this medieval age.
The abbey sits so beautifully amid the mounts of the wye river valley and surrounded by green hills and scenic driving routes, its an absolute wonder to walk by without a visit. The countryside is broken only by a incredible hiking trail and in all honesty even though this is hugely popular with tourists, when exploring here you feel isolated from the crowds, peaceful in thought and its dominating interior spaces are captivating.
Tintern was always closely associated with the lords of Chepstow, who often were huge benefactors to the abbey, one of the most generous was Roger Bigod III, who was the earl of Norfolk, he undertook rebuilding of the church in the late 13th century and in gratitude the abbey put his coat of arms in the glass of its east window, it’s infact the ruins of rogers church which dominate and display at the site today.
As quite normal the abbey buildings were displayed and arranged in a standard Cistercian plan, without the fact that the cloisters were to the north of the church rather than the standard south, and more pragmatic considerations like the drains may have led to this reversal. Overall there are over 400 years’ worth of building phases throughout but the basic arrangement remained the same.
Of the first buildings, which date from the 12th century, very little remains above ground. A few sections of walling are incorporated into later buildings, and the two recessed cupboards for books on the east of the cloisters are of this period. The church was smaller than the 13th century one, and lay slightly to the north. Its cruciform plan is laid out in gravel paths and stone edgings within the later church. In the late 12th century the first-floor monk’s dormitory, which ran northwards from the north transept of the church, was extended; its northern end and the latrines over the drain to its east are of this phase.
During the 13th century the abbey was more or less completely rebuilt, starting in about 1220 with the cloisters and domestic ranges around them, and finishing with the grand great church. The entrance to the precinct was on the west side of the cloisters, through the unassuming late 13th-century porch and outer parlour. Above was a small lodging, possibly for the cellarer and to the north was a cellar and the lay brothers’ range of refectory and dormitory, which was extended in the late 13th century.
Tintern’s crowning glory, is its great church which was built between 1269 and 1301 in the style of English Decorative Gothic, which gives it that beautiful ashy grey colour and style. It stands today much as it did then, apart from its lack of a roof, window glass and internal partitions. Although in our view where its been stripped back and ruinous it makes it impressive, romantic and interesting. It has a simple cruciform plan, with an aisled nave, transepts each with two chapels, and a square-ended aisled chancel. The floors in the most important parts of the temple, that is the presbytery, choir and transept, were covered with clay tiles with more than 30 patterns: heraldic, geometric and floral.
Cistercian rule and worship dictated the internal divisions, which have disappeared; the aisles were all walled off, and three cross-walls divided the body of the church into two main sections – the nave, reserved for the lay brothers, and the choir and presbytery at the east end for the choir monks. Stubs of the aisle walls can be seen against the piers. Aesthetically today’s simplicity may appear more pleasing then the original clutter. The fine west end is separated into three stages, with twin doorways and arches in the lowest, a seven light window and a smaller arched window, this is fantastic to see up close how immaculate and persevered it is.
The main abbey buildings were contained within a walled precinct in which there were many other buildings. The remains of some, including the guesthouse, have been exposed to the west of the church, between the car park and the main road. The arch of the water-gate leading to the docks and a ferry over the river remains next to the Anchor Hotel, and the gatehouse chapel, clearly visible above the main road, has been converted into a private house. Sections of the precinct wall remain on the west and south, parts in a ruinous state, parts incorporated into garden walls.
Some of the buildings to look out for include the large kitchen with its serving hatches and fireplaces and more importantly the drainage system which you can see links to here, this system of drains was very advanced for its time. South of the monks refectory is the main cloister, which adjoins the north side of the abbey nave, while two other rooms are the chapter house, where day-to-day management of the abbey was conducted, and the book room or sacristy is linked directly to the north transept of the abbey.
In 1348 the Black Death swept the country and, although we have no direct evidence for its impact on Tintern but the effects are clear. It became almost impossible to attract new recruits for the lay brotherhood. With widespread changes in the economy and old-fashioned service giving way to a system based on wages, it increased labour shortages following the plague.
In the 1500s monastic life in England and Wales was brought to an abrupt end by the political actions of King Henry VIII. The Dissolution of the Monasteries was part of the king’s policy to establish total control over the church in his realm. The abbey was surrendered to the king’s visitors on 3 September 1536. Apart from Abbot Wyche, there were twelve choir monks and some 35 monastic servants. As they left the abbey in late summer, a way of life which had lasted for 400 years finally came to an end. This time-span was almost as long as that from the Dissolution itself to our own period. With the roofs gone, and windows smashed, the shell of the abbey would have fallen into chronic decay.
When it became fashionable to visit wilder parts of the country in the late 18th century, the Wye valley became renowned for its picturesque qualities, and Tintern Abbey, when then in its heyday it was swathed in ivy, was rediscovered and visited by many famous seekers after the romantic and picturesque this included the painter J M W Turner and poet William Wordsworth. Since the early 20th century every effort has been made to keep standing one of the finest and most complete abbey churches in Wales.
Tintern is a delight to enjoy whether you are bringing the family or visiting solo it seems to be a perfect abbey, it’s got the right combination of size and beauty. It’s perfect for an afternoon stroll and even better for incredible photo opportunities, especially with the abundance of finely carved corbels and columns and the many different types of designs in the many surviving windows here, its worth taking the time to catch those ornate details. Your journey ends at the gate through the north wall of the complex, which interestingly contains small pieces of decorative masonry which were unearthed during excavations, these are well worth stopping to look at and see how stunning and ornate the abbey once was. Its been amazing visiting Tintern and getting the chance to share it with you all, we hope you’ve enjoyed todays blog and its given some inspiration to head to Tintern to see for yourself.