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The Ruined Abbeys of Wales

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Though Wales is less celebrated for its abbeys than its castles, its abbeys are far from negligible. The more extensive remains are in the south, where Margam and Neath were two important houses, though both, as compared with most English abbeys, were relatively poor; neither had an income of 200 a year, and hence neither escaped the dissolution of the lesser monasteries in 1536. Valle Crucis, in the north, was the richest of the group, and that had only 188. All these houses were Cistercian, as, indeed, we might expect. The "barren mountains" of Wales, as Shakespeare's Henry IV calls them, almost contemptuously, had naturally less attraction for the town-enamoured Benedictine than for those austere " White Monks " whose principal ambition was to find a hill-girt solitude where they might worship God in peace. Due rather to this passionate quest for seclusion than to any conscious love for natural beauty is the happy accident that has located most Cistercian houses amidst scenes that are always beautiful.

Margam and Neath, however, though founded in what were once undoubted solitudes, are not placed, like Rievaulx and Tintern, in true "Cistercian valleys." On one side, it is true, they are backed by noble hills, but on the other they are open to the sea. The same, in North Wales, was true of Basingwerk and Conway. Other Cistercian houses - Cymmer, Valle Crucis, Strata Florida, Strata Marcella, Cwmhir - were definitely, and more or less deeply, embowered in the quiet, sheltering hills.

To this stern Cistercian order, due less to the actual initiative of an Englishman, Stephen Harding, than to the later zeal and impulse of a Frenchman, S. Bernard of Clairvaulx, we owe all that is most significant amongst the ruined abbeys of Wales. It is possible, indeed, to reconstruct from them, without reference to Fountains or Kirkstall, a fairly complete conception of the rigid Cistercian plan. At Margam the original Norman nave, built c. 1147, remains substantially intact, and is used as the parish church. This is an exception to the general rule. Benedictine churches, which were in towns, were often thus converted at the Dissolution, and escaped in whole, or part; but Cistercian churches, in their lonely valleys, had no use for the community, and soon relapsed to ruin, or were wantonly destroyed. The glory, however, of Margam is its magnificent thirteenth century chapter house, which, in sharp exception to the usual Cistercian rectangle, is twelve-sided externally and circular within. Its vaulting, alas, has fallen, though its central column stands. This, with its lovely vestibule and the beautiful fragments of the Early English choir, together with the splendid collection of alabaster Mansel tombs in the south aisle, constitutes Margam Abbey, almost more than Valle Crucis, the most splendid surviving monument of claustral piety in Wales.

Neath, a few miles to the west, can hardly be viewed with patience, so vile are the ravages that modern industrialism has wrought round its blackened walls. Here the church is wholly ruined, and the chapter house is gone; but, on the other hand, the domestic buildings remain to a far greater extent than at Margam, and offer on the whole far more remunerative material to the student of monastic design. Notice, in particular, the frater or refectory of the "conversi," or lay-brothers, and the undercroft of the dormitory or dorter, of the monks. The site has once been beautiful, and the engirdling hills remain; nor does even the river, when it rushes down in spate, seem wholly out of sympathy with a long vanished mode of life.

One turns with real relief from the grimy Glamorgan coalfield to the unpolluted skies of Valle Crucis. In situation, in completeness, in architectural beauty, in points of special interest, this Denbighshire ruin stands unrivalled. Here, at last, is a true Cistercian solitude, where it needs no violent effort to reconstruct the past. Just as the Cistercian monk himself was a reformed and severer Benedictine, so Cistercian architecture was a reformed and severer modification of the later and more florid Romanesque. S. Bernard had no sympathy with those extravagant forms of ornament in which, during later Norman times, the builder's fancy had run riot. Even towers were now forbidden, save in rudimentary form, and the use of painted glass and foliated capitals was also suppressed as being out of keeping with the ascetic spirit of S. Bernard's rule.

All this is strongly felt at Valle Crucis, where the hard Burgundian self-restraint appears at every turn, in plainly moulded capital, in simple lancet window, and in broad, undecorated wall space. Here, too, the Cistercian ground-plan may be studied in its primitive austerity. Particularly one notes the short, aisleless, early Cistercian chancel, which scarcely projects beyond the usual line of chapels on the east of either transept, and was really nothing more than a presbytery. At a slightly later date, when the first strict Cistercian precepts became relaxed, this rudimentary choir was frequently rebuilt on more ambitious scale, with aisles, as we see at Rievaulx and Waverley. But at Valle Crucis, as at Kirkstall, it persisted to the end; the house was never wealthy, and it was riches which corroded monastic ideals.

Of the buildings round the cloister only those on the east remain. Wales retains no perfect cloister garth, as we find at Fountains or Cleeve. The chapter house was rebuilt in the fourteenth century, and is entered by a very curious doorway, to the north and south of which respectively are two very odd contrivances, in the thickness of the wall. The first was perhaps a book-recess, and not unparalleled elsewhere; but the south, as far as one can judge, is the day-stair to the dorter, and in narrowness and singularity of position is probably unique. Nor are other features wanting that distinguish Valle Crucis. Chief amongst these is the abbot's lodging, which is entered from the north-east corner of the dormitory, and is thus a striking illustration of the way in which men cling to the outward form of things when their inner life is gone. The early Cistercian statutes had enacted that the abbot should live in strict community - should sleep in the common dormitory, and eat at the common table. Later, when he withdrew to private rooms, the entrance to these was still from the dormitory, and thus an illusive link was still maintained with the ancient regulations.

Thus, to the archaeologist, Valle Crucis is the most instructive abbey left in Wales; but it is also of high importance to those who merely seek a spectacle. Its ruined walls are beautiful:

The altar whence the cross was rent
Is rich with mossy ornament;

and here, indeed, is the perfect balance between what is loveliest in nature and most desirable in art. Borrow came hither in 1854, but "less from love of ruins and ancient architecture, than from knowing that "a certain illustrious bard was buried in its precincts." That bard was lolo Goch, "the friend and partisan of Owen Glendower." Few, perhaps, are the English ears to which the name has any significance.

Basingwerk, on the north shore of Flint, repeats to some extent the conditions of Neath, on the south shore of Glamorgan. Here, again, the air is noisy and the countryside polluted with industrialism. The ruins are now in the custody of the Board of Works, and in process of excavation and conservative repair. The monastery was founded, or rather re-founded, by Radulph, Earl of Chester, in 1157. Many of the Welsh Cistercian houses, it will be noticed, owe their origin to the stranger within the gates, though Valle Crucis and Strata Marcella are due respectively to Madoc ap Gruffyd Maelor and Owen Cyfeiliog, each of whom was native prince of Powis.

Basingwerk, on the whole, is a ruin of much interest, and parts are even beautiful; but in general composition its effect is insignificant. Valle Crucis still remains without a rival. The chief remnant is the refectory, the bulk of which remains and has some good internal arcading - a really lovely bit of work - on its west internal wall; but there are also some fragments of the church, as well as of the dorter and calefactorium, or warming-house. The refectory lies north and south, at right angles to the cloister, and this was the normal position in a Cistercian house, though never in a Benedictine, after c. 1140.

Strata Florida, in north Cardiganshire, is a rather exiguous ruin, but it restores us, like Valle Crucis, to pure waters and smokeless skies. Its pretty monkish name is a Latin translation of "Ystrad Fflur," the "plain of bloom." Here the outstanding feature is its strange, late twelfth century west doorway, recalling one at Leau, in Belgium - I know no second parallel - in which the continuous shafts, or mouldings, are tied together at intervals by horizontal bands. Cwmhir Abbey, in Radnorshire, is now principally remarkable for its tragedy of "vaulting ambition." Here the monks of the thirteenth century, forgetful of old Cistercian traditions of restraint, began the rebuilding of their church on a scale that challenged Lincoln or York. The choir, however, was never built; the transepts were left unfinished, and the nave was burnt by Owen Glendower - thus Welshman wounded Welshman - in 1401. The beautiful north arcade, with its fine moulding, in Llanidloes parish church is said to have been brought from Cwmhir at the Dissolution. It may or may not be true.

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