The Cistercian Abbey of Margam was founded in 1147 by Robert, Earl of Gloucester, who short before his death donated lands between the rivers Afan and Kenfig, near the old Roman road that run towards West Wales, to the Clairvaux monastery in France. The first abbot was William of Clairvaux and Robert’s son and heir, William of Gloucester, confirmed and even extended the grants given to the abbey.
For about forty years since foundation a Romanesque church and monastic buildings were built, but shortly after their completion, wanting to be up to date with contemporary architectural trends, the entire eastern end of the abbey was rebuilt in the style of early English Gothic.
The abbey at Margam quickly gained importance in the social, cultural and religious life of South Wales. In the second half of the 12th century, the Welsh chronicler, linguist and writer Gerald (Giraldus Cambrensis) celebrated the abbey for his alms and charity, although he also mentioned the incident of 1180, when a young man attacked and beat someone in the guest’s refectory, and the next day he was found dead. At the end of the 12th century, problems with the Cistercian lay brothers intensified, for which the abbot Conan (Cynan), who allegedly had unsuccessfully forbidden to drink beer, was condemned by the general chapter. In 1206, the lay brothers rebelled again, attacking Abbot Gilbert and the monk managing the monastery cellar. They were supposed to throw them off the horse and then chase them to the dormitory, where they both barricaded. According to Gerald, it was a reaction for mistreatment of lay brothers and further bans on drinking beer in the granges subordinate to the abbey.
In 1203, the Margam Abbey received papal confirmation of its goods and privileges, and two years later the royal one, issued by king John. With this ruler, the Cistercians from Margam maintained exceptionally good relations, unlike the Cistercian monks from Strata Florida. John stayed twice on the abbey on his way to Ireland, and perhaps in exchange for this hospitality, he exempted Margam from taxes imposed on other convents. A good period for the monastery was also the time when abbots John of Goldcliff (1213–1237) and John de la Warre (1237–1250) held office, when, among other things, another royal confirmation of privileges was received, this time issued by Henry III. Serious losses were not recorded until 1247, when due to the assault on the abbey’s property by Morgan ab Owain, although monks were later able to obtain compensation. Shortly afterwards, in 1268, several granges and arable lands were seized by Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester, which was still complained to King Edward by the general chapter of the Order in 1291.
At the end of the 13th century Margam was one of the richest abbeys in Wales with an annual income of £ 256, 2,600 hectares of arable land and 2,000 sheep. The Cistercians, as many as 38 monks and 40 lay brothers in 1336, were also involved in profitable mining of iron, lead and coal, as well as in horse breeding. It was not until the mid-14th and 15th centuries that the convent suffered from floods, animal diseases, increased taxation, plague and Welsh rebellions. Major damages were recorded especially in 1412 during the Welsh uprising of Owain Glyndŵr. They were inflicted by insurgents because of the favorable attitude of the monks towards the English, though paradoxically, Margam Abbey at the end of the Middle Ages played an important role in the development of Welsh culture. Among others, Latin Annales de Margan was created here, a key source for the history of Glamorgan, as well as Book of Taliesin, one of the most famous Welsh manuscripts, containing a collection of the oldest Celtic poems.
The abbey was dissolved by the king of England Henry VIII in 1536 and sold to Sir Rice Mansel. At that time, only 12 monks lived in the monastery (compared to 38 monks and 40 lay brothers in the fourteenth century). After the Mansel family, the abbey went over to the descendants of the feminine line, the Talbot family. In the nineteenth century, one of its members built a residence near the abbey, but the nave of the monastery church was still used as a parish church.
The abbey church was a three-aisle, eight-bay basilica with a length of about 80 meters, built on a Latin cross plan with a central four-sided tower at the crossing, two arms of the transept and a spacious three-aisle, five-bay chancel, ended with a straight wall on the eastern side. Two side chapels adjoined both arms of the transept on the eastern side.
The main entrance to the church was in the west facade, on the axis of the central nave, possibly preceded by a porch with a gable roof. It led through a stepped portal with a semicircular archivolt, into which three columns with capitals on each side were inserted. Above, there were three windows of similar shape, all semicircularly closed, with archivolts supported by two columns on each side. The central nave was separated from the aisles at the facade by massive buttresses – pilaster strips. Inside, the semicircular inter-nave arcades were based on massive, four-sided pillars with stepped corners.
From the south a large patio surrounded by cloisters, with large dimensions of 40 x 40 meters, adjoined the nave of the church. The cloisters allowed access to each wing of the abbey, which adjoined the patio from the west, south and east. To the south of the presbytery there was a magnificent chapter house, twelve-sided from the outside, and circular inside, with a vault supported on a single pillar and with ribs falling on twelve shafts, hung on corbels above the floor, at the level of the window sills. The chapter house was connected with the eastern wing of the monastery buildings, and then with the cloister, by means of a richly decorated ogival portal flanked by side openings. The chapter house was illuminated by nine large pointed-arched windows placed in niches flanked by two shafts.
To this day, has survived the twelfth century central nave of the abbey’s church, however shorter than the original one by two bays from the east. Unfortunately, the side aisles have been rebuilt, the church chancel, transepts and the central tower have also not preserved. In the form of a ruin, the chapter house has survived, unfortunately without vaults, which due to neglect have collapsed at the end of the eighteenth century. There are also relics of the eastern monastery range. The ruins are owned by the County Council and open to the public.
Burton J., Stöber K., Abbeys and Priories of Medieval Wales, Chippenham 2015.
Salter M., Abbeys, priories and cathedrals od Wales, Malvern 2012.
Wooding J., Yates N., A Guide to the churches and chapels of Wales, Cardiff 2011.
Website britishlistedbuildings.co.uk, St Mary’s Abbey Church A Grade I Listed Building in Margam, Neath Port Talbot.