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 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
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).
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’,
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
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
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
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.
site is now under the care of Welsh Historic Monuments and is open
to the public at all reasonable hours.