Ty’r Ehedydd, Abbey Cwmhir, Llandrindod. Powys. LD1 6PL Tel.: 01-597-850098
Faith Tourism : Cwmhir Abbey
Background: Cwmhir Abbey was founded in 1176 by Cadwallon ap Madog, Lord of Maelienydd, as a daughter house of Whitland Abbey, using a site on the north side of the Clywedog river. In 1198 monks from Cwmhir founded a daughter house at Cymer near Dolgellau. An early patron of Cwmhir Abbey was Roger Mortimer, the Marcher Lord of Maelienydd. The abbey also received land from Maredudd ap Maelgwyn. This is enshrined by charter. Further confirmation of these grants was confirmed in charters by King John in 1214 and Henry III in 1232.
The abbey is set in a landscape which shows evidence of long occupation. Within a short distance the Garn Burial site is evidence of neolithic activity. The surrounding hilltops show signs of numerous other burials. Within a few hundred yards of the abbey, aerial photography has revealed the parch marks which indicate medieval house platforms and a burial ground. The churchyard contains two ancient yews, a sign of an early Christian presence. Recent research by the Abbey Cwmhir Heritage Trust has provided evidence to confirm St. Harmon, about six miles distant, as a ‘Clas’ church or monastera from which priests and monks went out to establish new places of worship. The Cistercians did not come to a virgin landscape.
Cwmhir Abbey, south wall. Photograph: Julian Lovell, Abbey Cwmhir
The Taxatio Ecclesiastica of 1291 revealed an income for the abbey of £35 12s 0d, a low value reflecting the landscape of pastoral farming. However, the planned church was on a massive scale. The nave, some 73m. in length, was one of the largest in Europe. Why such a large construction was commenced is not known. The foundation was set in a period of religious fervour generated by the Crusades, the holy wars in Europe, which stimulated the building and endowment of religious houses throughout the British Isles. It seems, though, that the building of the church and the associated claustral offices was never completed.
The orientation of the abbey church is interesting as it does not conform to the usual east-west pattern. Such an orientation was used to allow the sun to shine directly through the east window at the summer solstice. In common with a number of other Cistercian houses in Wales, the geography of the narrow valley in which it is sited prevented this. Instead, the orientation allows the sun to shine directly through the west window or doorway at the autumn equinox, 22nd September. The abbey is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, like all Cistercian houses. The remains of the nave is clearly seen today but of the rest, there is no trace. This is one of the great mysteries of Cwmhir Abbey.
A study of the available evidence suggests that Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last true Prince of Wales, was buried at the abbey after his death at the battle of Cilmeri in 1282. A memorial stone has been placed at the site of the high altar. The abbey was reputedly damaged during the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr in the early years of the fifteenth century. Only a small number of monks is recorded at that time and by the dissolution, this has had shrunk to only three. The dissolution assessment classified Cwmhir as one of the poorest monasteries.
Cwmhir Abbey, the Tympanum. Photograph: Julian Lovell, Abbey Cwmhir
Development: The Abbey Cwmhir Heritage Trust has recently embarked on a project to discover more about the history of the abbey and to achieve a better understanding of the landscape in which it is situated. As well as the interest group which forms the Trust, the leadership has made a special effort to create an atmosphere of community involvement. This has attracted residents of Abbey Cwmhir and others from further afield to engage in learning and practical fieldwork events, gaining new skills with which to record historical features of the landscape and to enhance knowledge of the Cistercian abbey.
This aim was boosted when the Trust was invited to join in the Sacred Landscapes project, sponsored by The Arts and Humanities Research Council. The work is led by University of Wales, Trinity St. David and the University of Leeds. The project compares the landscapes and development of Cistercian abbeys in upland areas with religious houses in the lowlands of Lincolnshire. Within this project, there is a focus on Gollon Grange, the home grange of Cwmhir Abbey. Beyond this, the other granges held by Cwmhir will be investigated. A major part of this study will be the re-assessment of the boundaries of the granges in the light of a fresh study of the charters of Cwmhir, dissolution surveys and other documentary evidence.
Survey work, Gelynen Farmstead, Upper Cwmhir. Photograph: Julian Lovell, Abbey cwmhir
A specific study area has been delimited at the upper end of the Cwmhir valley. It is an area which has largely escaped the modern intensive farming that can destroy so much of the historic landscape at ground level. As a result, the field boundaries have changed little in two hundred years. It is the meeting place of many boundaries, ditch and bank constructions which not only delimit the farm holdings but also give clues to the bounds of the ancient Townships and Hundreds of Radnorshire. These were part of the early administrative and legal system, dating back to medieval times. Already investigations are revealing Neolithic burial sites which have not been recorded previously. A jigsaw is being put together which will eventually give a picture of the landscape before the Cistercian monks arrived and how they impacted on that landscape. The now forested hills near the abbey contain a number of ditch and bank boundaries which are said to have enclosed a deer park. Monastic deer parks are almost unknown in Wales, another mystery to be investigated. Perhaps it was created by one of the post-monastic estates.
Life here continued after the dissolution. Now the land was in the possession of secular landlords and a different order pertained. In 1565 the township of Cefn Pawl and the Manor of Gollon was purchased by William Fowler, a serial purchaser of monastic lands. His descendants held these lands until the early 19th Century. Much smaller estates followed, first that of Thomas Wilson and then, in 1837, Francis Philips. The end of the big estates came in 1959 with the final sales of the former monastic lands, bringing to an end almost eight hundred years of managed estates. This stability, if not always good management, was a big factor in the survival of so many features of the historic landscapes of the past. It is also part of the mystery which only now is beginning to give up its secrets.
For more information and updates see our web site at www.abbeycwmhirhistory.org.uk. Our latest newsletter can be downloaded at http://www.abbeycwmhirhistory.org.uk/index.php?id=demystifying-the-abbey .