Saturday, 22 September 2012

Strata Florida, and the tale of medieval monasticism.

There is an allure to Strata Florida Abbey, near Tregaron in central Wales. And it's not just due to the exoticism of the name! The name, incidentally, is a Latin bastardization of a more homely Welsh title, "Ystrad Fflur", meaning "valley of flowers". But anyway. The abbey today is a little misleading, the ruins being slight, and giving very little indication of its former glory. Welsh abbeys such as Tintern or Valle Crucis, with much more upstanding ruins, overshadow it today. But in its day Strata Florida was possibly the most important abbey in Wales. Allow me to explain.

The Cistercian order of monks came over from France in the early 1100s, having already founded a few abbeys on the continent, starting with the abbey at Citeaux, near Dijon, in 1098. The first Cistercian foundation in Britain was Waverley Abbey in Surrey, but it didn't take long for the White Monks (so-named because of their habits of undyed wool) to spread throughout the country. Unlike Benedictine or Augustinian monks, the Cistercians sought peace and tranquility, and made their foundations "far from the concourse of man". Effectively a breakaway branch of the Benedictine Order, Cistercians followed a stricter Rule of St Benedict, and were (at first) known for their almost severe austerity. As a missionary order, the Cistercians spread throughout Europe with abbeys sending out monks to found "daughter houses", establishing a hierarchy within the Order, with the Abbot of each monastery travelling to Citeaux for the annual General Chapter. A comparison to big businesses of the modern age won't be far off the mark. Cistercian monasteries were always built to the same plan, the theory being that a monk could go to any abbey in the world and feel at home. The cruciform church was laid out on an East-West axis, with a cloister off to the south, around which were arrayed the buildings necessary for the running of the enterprise, including the sleeping and eating areas. The abbey was set within a precinct, around which was usually built a wall to demarcate the monastic world within from the secular world without. Monks were always men, and women were virtually never allowed within the precinct walls (on the rare occasion that the monastery would have to deal with a woman, she was only ever allowed to speak to the Abbot, I assume because such a senior cleric would be above any temptation the female visitor may present). The monks followed a daily routine of prayer, with four services taking place daily within the church, around which the monks would live, copying manuscripts to preserve knowledge and tending to the land. 

The Cistercians arrived in Wales in 1140, with the foundation at Whitland from Clairvaux, itself a daughter house of Citeaux. Whitland is an important abbey for being the mother house of most of the other Welsh abbeys - indeed, Strata Florida was established as a daughter from Whitland in 1164, one of eventually twelve Cistercian abbeys (and two nunneries) in Wales. During this period of the middle ages monasticism was very popular, and a career in the church was an attractive and viable option for many, particularly for second-sons (Henry VIII was originally destined for the cloth). There was, then no real shortage of monks, but land to establish monasteries upon was more hard to come by. Monks generally relied upon gifts of land from wealthy landowners, at this time Anglo-Norman knights who were, by the code of chivalry, expected to be pious men. Knights would often give land to found a monastery, and the family would continue to gift lands as time went on, forming something of a close relationship with the original foundation. The idea being, of course, that you were securing a place in heaven. Medieval society is a subject I want to save for its own blog, but suffice it to say that, in this pre-Reformation period, religion was extremely important, and eternal damnation was a daily concern. For a knight, whose job was to kill men who opposed his King, it was important to ensure you cleanse the blood from you through generosity to the Church. This attitude led to some men being extraordinarily generous with land. 

It was the Anglo-Norman landowner Robert fitzStephen who gifted the original land to the Cistercians at Strata Florida, but as Welsh supremacy increased in the area, the French landowners were gradually expelled, the lands being united into the principality of Deheubarth under the Lord Rhys (d1197). Rhys ap Gruffudd, to give him his actual name, is a very important figure in Wales at this time, and in many ways deserves his own blog, but for now I'll limit myself to this. As Prince of Deheubarth, an area roughly corresponding to the old county of Dyfed, Rhys embarked upon a campaign of castle-building and ecclesiastical patronage, and Strata Florida benefited from this perhaps more so than any other abbey. It was traditionally here that the Princes of Deheubarth were buried, and the Welsh medieval chronicle, Brut y Tywysogyon (Chronicle of the Princes), was written and kept, and it was said that the Lord Rhys "loved and cherished" Strata Florida above all others. 

Thanks to extensive grants of land under a charter issued in 1184, Strata Florida Abbey was given a vast income that allowed it to move to its current position and begin to build in a much more ambitious scale. Lord Rhys' patronage of Strata Florida also allowed it to begin to send out monks to found further abbeys, at Llantarnam (Glamorgan) in 1179, and Aberconwy in 1186. It was Whitland, however, that became almost the mother church of the entire Order in Wales, founding Strata Marcella in 1170, and Cwmhir in 1176, from which Valle Crucis in 1201, and Cymer in 1198, were both founded, respectively. 

Cistercian economy was based on sheep, which they farmed on the vast tracts of land they were given, using a system of outlying farms called granges to keep track of everything. Having such huge estates required the recruitment of a veritable army of lay-brothers to farm them. Indeed, lay-brothers were recruited for almost all of the menial tasks required around the monastery, allowing the monks to concentrate on prayer and the preservation of knowledge by copying texts. A big divide existed between the two groups, and in the church building itself this divide took the form of a physical barrier: the Choir Screen. The problem with this system in Wales specifically was that most farms were run by a peasant class of worker, something the Cistercians tried to avoid whenever they could, but the granges of Strata Florida were most likely farmed more by 'sub-contracted' peasants than by their own lay-brothers. 

These vast tracts of land eventually proved to be the Order's downfall in Britain. It's one thing for knights keen for salvation to gift land to a monastery, but then what does that monastery do with that land? Well, it makes money from it, of course. But then, what does an austere order of monks who wear plain clothes and build in plain styles want with so much money? Slowly but surely, the monks became corrupted by the pursuit of gold, using the money to build in a more decorative style that is now known as Gothic. Churches with incredible architecture began to be built, often a very far cry from the original desire. The Black Death brought about monasticism's first setback, when the number of lay-brothers began to dwindle, and abbots around the country were faced with sudden financial problems. 

I said before that a career in the Church was a viable option for many. Therein lay the problem, I think, when you have 'career-monks' whose object is to rise through the ranks for their own personal aggrandizement, rather than the glory of God, which is purported to be every monk's purpose. Abbots, I suppose, began to see themselves as something in the manner of tycoons, the spider at the centre of a vast commercial web. Without the means of keeping this commercial web operable - without the lay-brothers in sufficient numbers - the granges began to be sold off. Some particularly unscrupulous abbots had actually begun to speculate on the wool trade, selling their fleeces before shearing. Such activities eventually allowed for such stunning constructions as the tower over the north transept at Fountains to be built in the early 1500s. However, when this speculation fell short during the period of the Black Death, problems arose. Abbeys began to find themselves in debt, and some (like Rievaulx) had to curtail building plans or shrink their monastery down to a more manageable/affordable size. By the time of the Valor Ecclesiasticus in the 1530s, a lot of abbeys in Britain were still in debt. 

To some extent, monasticism recovered in the 1400s, though never to the extent to which it had bloomed in the 1200s. Strata Florida was something of a bastion for native Welsh custom during this time. It enjoyed a very close and strong patronage from the native Welsh princes, and had developed into an almost political centre for the kingdom. The abbots of Strata Florida were native Welshmen, rather than career-monks from elsewhere. Being so strongly pro-Welsh had caused problems for the abbey for a while, and in fact, in 1212 King John singled out Strata Florida as a target in his ongoing war against Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (already mentioned). In 1238 a conclave of all the native Welsh princes was called at the abbey, which seems to indicate its pre-eminent position in Welsh affairs at this time. 

It wasn't all prosperity for the abbey, however. Following Edward I's invasions of Wales, Strata Florida received £84 in compensation for damage (just over £1m in 2010). However, as the chronicle at Chester tells us, the abbey was then struck by fire, the majority of the church being consumed. During the revolt of Madog ap Llywelyn in the 1290s, the abbey was again subsumed in flames when it was razed by royalists. However, Edward I granted the monks leave to rebuild, making the statement that the action was "contrary to our wishes". It was at this time that the monastery was rebuilt on a slightly smaller scale, perhaps indicating a diminishing monastic community already, prior to the outbreak of the Black Death in 1348. During the Owain Glyndwr rebellion of the early 1400s, Henry IV took control of the abbey and billeted his men there, ejecting the pro-Welsh monks. As part of the recovery plan from the 1420s, the community lived within modest means, and by the time of the Suppression, which came for Strata Florida in 1539 following its valuation at £118, there were just seven monks and their abbot. 

Post-Suppression, the abbey buildings were broken up and sold of all the lead, glass, and gold, as was happening all over the country, and the actual buildings and land came into the possession of the Earls of Essex. In the late 1600s, a house was built on top of some of the claustral buildings, Great Abbey Farm, again something that was happening up and down the country (cloister buildings were much more easier to convert into a private house, as happened with Neath or Lacock, for example). It wasn't until the later Victorian era that the monastic ruins began to attract attention once more, which is something of an anomaly given the vast amount of attention lavished upon places like Tintern in the Romantic era. It was the railway engineer Stephen Williams who began to bring people to see the sights here, particularly the fourteenth-century tile pavements that were discovered by Williams during his excavations of the 1880s. The tiles depict, among other things, the arms of the Despenser family. Such decoration within the abbey is again an example of just how far from the original ideals the Cistercian order drifted. 

The ruins today feature one of the most famous West Fronts of all ruined abbeys, and the aforementioned tile pavements. However, there is the hint that, perhaps, the site today is a little small, as I mentioned at the beginning of this blog. The construction of a private house on top of a sizeable portion will do that, of course, but it is important to remember that the actual abbey buildings contribute only a small overall area of the lands actually controlled by that abbey. Those lands belonging to Strata Florida are, in the words of the Cadw guidebook, "unusually extensive", covering what is believed to be 6300 arable acres. The Strata Florida Research Project, being undertaken by the University of Wales, is making great strides in the history of the Strata Florida landscape, and I strongly recommend you check out that link! Among other discoveries, the gatehouse to the inner court of the abbey precinct has been excavated, and there is strong evidence for metalworking within the wider precinct area. Exciting stuff! 

While by no means extensive, I hope you have enjoyed this taster of medieval monasticism in the context of one of Wales' most important and influential abbeys. I hope to get round to more of this in future blogs, including a detailed look at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. So stay tuned!!

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