The Tintern Abbey was founded in 1131 by Walter de Clare, Lord of Chepstow. It was the second Cistercian convent in Britain, and the first in Wales. Monks came from the monastery of L’Aumône, diocese of Chartres in France. They acted according to the rule of Saint Benedict, and their main, strict rules were: obedience, poverty, chastity, silence, prayer and work. Many lands on both sides of the Wye River were given to the abbey. They were divided into agricultural units or granges, where local people worked and provided services. The most generous donors of the abbey was Roger Bigod III, Lord of Chepstow. Thanks to him in 1269 the monumental rebuilding of the abbey church began. Even earlier, because in the 20s of the 13th century, modernization of the cloisters and the residential range was started. Eventually, the gothic reconstruction ended in the first half of the 14th century, and the great abbey could accommodate than about twenty monks and fifty lay brothers.
Tintern was one of the few Welsh abbeys that avoided the destruction caused by the wars of Edward II. Undoubtedly this was due to the fact that it occupied a remote, isolated place. All we know is that Edward II stayed in the abbey for two nights in 1326, when he fled Roger Mortimer’s army. In the mid-fourteenth century, the abbey was experiencing difficulties due to lack of people, extinct due to the “black death”, and at the beginning of the fifteenth century financial problems emerged, as a result of the Welsh uprising of Owain Glyndŵr. The convent saved itself with the money from the pilgrims’ donations, who came to the abbey, as in its chapel there was a statue of the Virgin Mary, which, as the pilgrims thought, possessed miraculous powers.
In 1535, the abbey’s annual income was valued at 192 pounds, making Tintern the richest monastery in Wales. Nevertheless, it was included to the first Act of Suppression of king Henry VIII, who dissolved all religious houses that did not achieve an annual income of 200 pounds. The buildings of the dissolved monastery were given to Henry Somerset, Earl of Worcester in 1549. He dismantled the roofs to gain valuable lead, which started the degradation of the medieval buildings. Over the next two centuries, Tintern’s interest was small. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the ruins were inhabited by workers from local factories. In the middle of the 18th century, it became fashionable to visit “romantic” and picturesque places, and the first security and research works were undertaken only at the beginning of the 20th century.
The abbey church from the second half of the thirteenth century was erected in the style of English decorated gothic and left the Cistercian simplicity of the earlier temple from the twelfth century. It was a church in the form of a basilica on a cruciform plan, consisting of three naves of the corpus, the northern and southern transepts and a rectangular three-nave chancel. In its eastern part there was a row of chapels, two chapels were also placed in the eastern parts of the transepts. The church did not have a large tower, only a small ridge turret on the intersection of naves. In 1330, between the fourth and fifth pairs of the nave pillars, there was a magnificent stone rood screen, separating the part of the church intended for lay people from the part accessible only to monks. Around the choir in the central part of the church, four massive pillars supported the intersecting arcades. Inside them stood timber stalls, or seats for monks. Next was the altar, around which the side aisles provided the way for the procession. Entrance to the church was on the west side, through the main portal and further through the rood screen, or the so-called night stairs in the northern transept were used, which led to the dormitory and were used during night services. Next to it, the lower portal led to the sacristy.
The abbey buildings in Tintern were located exceptionally on the northern side of the church, and not on the south, as it usually was. A square, main patio surrounded by cloisters adjoined to the north aisle, which provided the opportunity to reach most of the buildings, without having to face unfavorable weather conditions. The cloisters were covered with a mono-pitched roof supported by rows of columns with arcades in the form of trefoils. In the northern part there was a lavabo, where the monks could wash their hands before meals.
On the western side of the main cloisters there was a 13th-century western range with a porch added at the end of that century, and being the main entrance to the abbey. In this range there was a refectory and dormitory of lay brothers and a kind of reception (parlor) right behind the porch.
The western part of the north range was occupied by the monastery kitchen. It was placed exactly between the aforementioned refectory of lay brothers and the refectory of monks located on its eastern side, thanks to which it could efficiently serve both buildings. The kitchen was divided into two rooms, in one of them there was an outflow for waste removed to the gutter. The main refectory, or dining room of monks, was a large building on a rectangular plan with longer walls on the north-south line, with large, ogival, gothic windows. Inside, only once a day, the monks gathered for a meal of bread, vegetables and beer or fish and eggs on fast days. In the refectory wall there were two niches for washing and storing the dishes, and the stairs led to the pulpit, from which monk read during meals. On the east side of the refectory there was a much smaller, rectangular, vaulted, warming building. It was the only (except of the kitchen and infirmary) constantly warmed room. The fireplace was located at the north wall. The upper storeys were probably occupied by a small archive, where the most important monastery documents were kept in a dry place.
The north-eastern corner of the main cloisters was occupied by a large rectangular building with a so-called day room. It was one of the oldest stone buildings in the abbey, because it came from the late twelfth, early 13th century. Around 1250, it was expanded and the interior received vaults supported by a row of five octagonal columns. From the east, the building had an annex with latrines and a drainage gutter. The upper floor was occupied by the monks’ bedroom – a dormitory from which passage led to the northern transept of the church. On the southern side, the building was adjacent to the corridor leading to the second cloisters and further a small, rectangular hall (parlor).
Between the northern transept of the church and the monk’s day room building there was a small sacristy and a much larger chapter house. It was accessible through a richly decorated entrance from the cloisters, and its vault was supported by eight pillars. Inside, on the stone benches placed by the walls, monks gathered under the chairmanship of the abbot to listen to the readings of the religious rule and to cope with the problems and everyday affairs of the monastery. The southern two rooms, topped with rib vaults, were occupied by the sacristy and a small library.
North of the chancel of the church, there were infirmary cloisters. From the fourteenth century, a covered corridor was leading to it, directly from the church. On the eastern side there was an infirmary building, from the outside having the form of a basilica with windows of clerestorium over side aisles. It was reserved for sick and old monks, so it had to be erected slightly aside. Inside the side aisles were partitioned with timber screens, creating separate, warmed by fireplaces, cells. In a separate annex on the north side there were latrines. They were adjacent to the complex of infirmary kitchen, which was only created in the fifteenth century. In its interior several ovens provided meals to both the sick and the inhabitants of the abbot’s rooms.
The rectangular abbot’s house was created in the first half of the thirteenth century, in the most northerly part of the abbey. It was a building in which the superior of the convent, could receive guests and benefactors of the monastery. In the 14th century, a chapel was added to it. Originally, the abbot lived with other monks, but already in the thirteenth century he had private, separate rooms near the infirmary cloisters. In the fourteenth century, on its north side, a completely new building for the abbot was erected, connecting the two previously described.
The abbey church in Tintern, although it is in the form of a ruin, is today one of the best preserved in Wales, and also one of the most picturesque. What’s more, it is an outstanding example of the 13th-century English decorated gothic. Unfortunately, little survived from the monastery buildings, only a fragment of the warming building, refectory, day house, west range with porch and chapel of the abbot’s house remained. Only foundations have survived from the remaining buildings.
The monument is open from March 1 to June 30 every day from 9:30 to 17:00, from July 1 to August 31 daily from 9.30 to 18.00, from September 1 to October 31, every day from 9.30 to 17.00, from November 1 to March 31, Monday to Saturday from 10:00 to 16:00 and on Sunday from 11:00 to 16:00.
Website castlewales.com, Tintern Abbey.
Website dhi.ac.uk, Cistercian Abbeys: Tintern.
Website wikipedia.org, Tintern Abbey.