Tintern Abbey was founded by Walter fitz Richard de Clare the Anglo-Norman lord of Chepstow, in 1131. It was the second Cistercian Abbey in Britain and the first in Wales.
Over the previous half-century the Normans had introduced Benedictine priories into England, founded as dependencies of large abbeys in England or France. Some of the impetus for this was to use religion to control the populace—first the Saxons in England, and then the Welsh in Wales, not an uncommon move for unpopular conquerors. Very often the monks who joined these abbeys were not native to the country in which the abbey was placed.
Tintern was always closely associated with the lords of Chepstow, who were often generous benefactors. The most invlved was Roger Bigod, great-grandson of William Marshal. He undertook the rebuilding of the church in the late 13th century, and in gratitude the abbey put his coat of arms in the glass of its east window. It is the ruins of Roger’s church which dominate the site today.
The abbey buildings are arranged in a standard Cistercian plan, except that the cloisters and all its ancillary buildings were to the north of the church rather than to the south, which was more usual. Pragmatic considerations like the drains may have led to this reversal. The present-day remains are an amalgam of several phases of building spanning 400 years, but throughout the basic arrangement remained the same.
Over the centuries, the Lords of Chepstow (including William Marshal and Roger Bigod) continued to support Tintern. Although Cistercians eschewed inhabited or manoral lands as gifts, they were given them anyway, and thus the lands controlled by Tintern expanded over the years.
Tintern’s crowning glory is its great church, which was built between 1269 and 1301. It stands today much as it did then, apart from it’s lack of a roof, window glass and internal divisions. Although not nearly as long as the great Cistercian abbey churches at Fountains and Rievaulx, its completeness makes it impressive. It has a simple cruciform plan, with an aisled nave, transepts, each with two chapels, and a square-ended aisled chancel. Cistercian rule and liturgy dictated the internal divisions, which have disappeared; the aisles were all walled off, and three cross-walls divided the body of the church into two main sections – the nave, reserved for the lay brothers, and the choir and presbytery at the east end for the choir monks. Stubs of the aisle walls can be seen against the piers.
From a 1281 tax survey, the monks at Tintern were farming over 3000 acres on the Welsh side of the Wye and had 3264 sheep. They were assessed taxes of 145 pounds. The dissolution of the monasteries was no better to Tintern than any other religious house in Britain, and it was surrendered to the king on September 3, 1536. By then, only the abbot, twelve choir monks and 35 monastic servants remained.