The Cistercians - Sarah Woodbury

The Cistercians

As we talked about last week, one of the hallmarks of the Cistercians was their desire for a simpler life in a remote place where they could be self-sufficient, and for that they needed land and a location that was far from town life. In Wales, they found both those qualities in abundance. They were intent on reforming what they saw as excesses within the Benedictine order, particularly the Cluniac movement in France which they thought was too materialistic.

In addition, because the Cistercians arose in France, they had no ties to the Norman Church, to Canterbury specifically, which was the seat of England’s Archbishop, or to the English king. That meant that both the Norman lords who conquered portions of Wales and the Welsh princes who fought them off did not feel that by endowing a Cistercian abbey they were beholden somehow to powers in England, which both wanted as little to do with as possible.

For those who’ve watched many videos up until now, it will perhaps come as no surprise that one group of abbeys was founded by Normans and a second by native Welsh princes, effectively creating two separate strains of Cistercians within Wales itself.

There were a total of fifteen Cistercian houses in medieval Wales. Two, Basingwerk and Neath, were founded in the early 1130s initially as members of the order of Savigny, but which merged in 1147 with the Cistercians. Two others – Llanllyr and Llanllugan- were houses of nuns. Of the eleven remaining, three were founded as offshoots of French mother houses. Tintern, the second Cistercian house in all of Britain, was founded in 1131 by Walter fitz Richard de Clare, lord of Chepstow. Whitland was established in 1140 and Margam, in 1147. These were all prior to the main Welsh expansion, which started in the mid 1160s onwards, establishing abbeys patronized by the Welsh princes, who founded them. These included Strata Florida in 1164, Strata Marcella in 1170, Abbey Cwmhir in 1176, and Valle Crucis in 1200.

That the sponsors of these houses were Welsh princes meant first of all that the monks themselves were Welsh primarily—not Norman as with those established by Norman lords. It also meant that when the kings of England petitioned to Canterbury or Rome to excommunicate a Welsh king or prince for behavior the English king thought unbecoming, the Cistercians did not necessarily comply. As historian Janet Burton writes, “The fortunes of the Cistercians in Wales to a large extent mirrored the political ups and downs of the dynasties to which they were tied, particularly in periods of political upheaval and unrest. Thus it was that in 1212 King John could refer to Strata Florida as an abbey which harbours our enemies.” This situation was repeated in the last Welsh war between Llywelyn and Edward.

Burton goes on to explain that the relationship between the Cistercians and the princes of Wales was mutually beneficial. On the one hand, the princes gave the Cistercians land upon which to build their abbeys. On the other, The Cistercians provided the people of Wales not only with spiritual services but also “places to stay on their travels, places to be buried, places for their sons to take their vows, places in which significant political ceremonies could be acted out, and places which reinforced the princes own secular, territorial and local power.”

The Cistercian abbeys founded by the Norman rulers performed similar services for the Normans in Wales who had conquered portions of Wales but remained apart, or kept themselves apart, from the native Welsh. Next week we’ll talk in more detail about a Norman abbey, Tintern, the first Cistercian Abbey in Wales.

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