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Native religious establishments, which the Normans encountered while penetrating into Wales, did not serve their needs. Yet, monastic institutions performed a function within Norman society, these being connected to an earlier change in medieval thought, spreading throughout Europe redefining moral behaviour and religious codes. Ultimately the Cistercians were one such order involved in this change. Therefore the Normans founded and introduced monastic institutions into Wales, some of which became established at Coleshill, later to be moved to Basingwerk, situated north of Chester, along with Neath and Margam in Glamorgan, and Tintern in Gwent. They also became sited at Whitland and Strata Florida. Originally, the introduction of monastic personnel originated from Europe when daughter houses became founded. Indeed, the Cistercian was a break away movement from the rule of Benedict accepting a more strict interpretation of that rule, adhering towards an eremitic existence centred on the desert fathers. Although, its original momentum derived from monastic houses from Tiron, Savigny and specifically Cîteaux. Each played its part in developing the Cistercian ideal which became projected into Wales. However, the later two monastic houses under the leadership of St Bernard at Clairvaux combined in 1147. Abbot Stephen Harding's administration abilities contributed to further expansion within the country, arousing Welsh identity and religious consciousness by reintroducing monasticism.[1]

Native institutions within Wales, according to David Knowles and J.E Lloyd, had experienced a decline in earlier monastic practices culminating into secular and collegiate institutions. There was no cohesion between religious establishments, nor any centralisation present within wales religious institurions. Moreover, there was a degree of authority exercised over them by individual dynastic leaders. Textual evidence from Walter Map and Gerald of Wales, indicate that a lively ermetical tradition existed throughout and beyond the 12th century. This ran parallel to established institutions. Yet, hermits practised a solidarity eremitical life of piety in remote places. They were supported by like-minded companions in small communities, and were held in high regard by the local community. To such an extent, that Gerald of Wales testifies that he visited a hermit named Wechelen, who resided within his archdeaconry - a holy man whom Gerald subsequently consulted for spiritual advice.[2] Furthermore, Walter Birch, F.G Cowley and David Williams assert that hermitical communities had long been established since the 11th century.[3] They existed on ynys Enlli and, Prestholm, and at Beddgelert, and indeed along the south Wales coast.[4] In turn, they were not subjected to secular and collegiate institutions, or the Latin monastic authority introduced by the Normans. Indeed the existing Welsh ermetical life is very reminiscent of the revised ideal of the desert fathers, often to as the culdee or Céli dé movement. This paper therefore explores why the Cistercian movement became popular within 12th century Wales. In addition, it will firstly ascertain the houses with Norman sympathies; secondly, moving towards wales to uncover why the order became favoured.

 The influence of the Cistercian ideal in part, began to reach Wales prior to 1147. Robert fitz Martin, Lord of Cermais founded the Tironian Priory in c. 1113-14, on or near the native church of Llandudoch; this priory later became St Dogmaek Abbey seven years later.[5] Yet, F. G Cowley considers it was non-influential and did not impress the local inhabitants. Furthermore, Neath was founded soon afterwards in 1130 by Sir Richard de Granville, who along with his wife Constance granted wasteland between the rivers of Neath, Tawe, Clydach and Pwllcynan to the House of Savigny. However, this tract of land was on the frontier between the Norman occupiers and the native Welsh. Indeed, monastic orders appear to being used as political pawns within buffer zones.[6] Nonetheless, alienation of these orders from Welsh popularity during the period is highly likely when established in areas of contention. Yet Neath has Anglo-Norman sympathies gifts do appear from later Welsh inhabitants' the conformation charter of King John names Rhys ab Iestyn who granted St. Ilid church to Neath Abbey. Interestingly, this was undertaken with the consent from his brothers. In contrast, Maurice de Londres endowed the land at Ewenny to Gloucester for establishing a priory. However it was stipulated it came under the control of Neath. Although Anglo-Norman in foundation, some Welsh popularity could be later evident in the grants attributed to Neath.

In comparison, Walter de Clare founded the first Cistercian Abbey of Tintern on Welsh soil in 1131. It too was located in a frontier location between both Norman and Welsh near Chepstow castle. The area traditionally has oral and textual connections with hermits, King Tewdrig and Helyas. Where Walter Map (d. 1210), described the hermit Helyas as having an eminent religious faith within his lifetime.[7] Nevertheless, Tintern was settled by monks from Normandy with the majority of recruitment derived from England and the continent.[8] However the political sympathies of these orders were towards their founders and later inheritor Gilbert fitz Gilbert and his descendants. Overall the main benefactors were Anglo-Norman as were their politial sympathies.[9] Indeed the abbey soon established daughter houses both at Kingswood (1139) in Gloucestershire and Tintern Minor at the close of the 12th century in Co. Wexford, Ireland. Present understanding indicates there was a very limited enthusiasm coming from Wales.

Tthe inhabitants of Ireland were also introduced to Cistercian monastic concept from two other houses extending from Whitland. Familiarity of mother and daughter houses has similarities with the paruchiae from an earlier period in the 6th century. Indeed such a connection has been credited to their popularity there.[10] Nevertheless, whether the same could be considered for Wales, is more challenging. Although connections between the two countries become evident from an earlier period

Returning to Tintern, monastic life appears to have involed ofter pursuits one which raiese its head is the abuse of drinking undertaken by lay brethren at Margam in 1190, being contrary to the Cistercian charter. The brethren an integrated work force introduced to monastic life landscaped remote landscape and supplied the monesteries agricultural needs. They too shared in the same spiritual sanctification with an opportunity to participate. Yet, such drunken behaviour also became widespread in other monasteries too. Indeed just one aspect that marked the Cistercian order opening it up to criticism, which courtiers Walter Map and Gerald of Wales commented on.

Yet additional foundations were established in Glamorgan, as Earl Robert of Gloucester granted land to Margam recorded in its foundation charter dated 1147. It favoured the monks of Clairvaux. The area of the grant extended between the streams of Kenfig and Afan including the whole watercourse from the mountain to the sea, all woods and plains enclosed between them included Earl Roberts fisheries situated on the Afan.[11]  Indeed Margam replaced an earlier clas of Llancarfan previously granted to St Peters in Gloucester by Fitz Hamon. Margan certainly established and developed ties with the native rulers and freemen as recorded in land grant charters. Morgan ap Caradog, appears quite frequently, granting further lands plus being as a witness for other kinsmen.[12] Such as the grants made by Gruffudd ab Ifor to the Abbey notifying William, Earl of Gloucester concerning a hermitage on the river Taff; again made in favour of Margam. Indeed the hermit Meilyr Aweney appears on the charter, and again appearing in the one Caradog Uerbeis whom granted further land holdings to the brethren of Pendar and Brother Meilyr at the cost of twenty shillings.

Charter evidence tends to place question marks over Meilyr ermetical status unless Birch's argument is therefore valid with his connections previously to Neath.[13] Nor does the fact that one of the witnesses to the charters from the Talbot collection, Margam Ms 54, indicates Meilyr had a son named Adam. Although a conjecture to speculate Meilyr derived from the native ermitical or clas system is tempting. In contrast, Gerald of Wales tends to describe Meilyr, as an 'old Enemy' that could rule out Cistercian ties.[14]  Still, similarities with Wechelen exist in his prophesising. Moreover, Gerald's recording personal and observation experience could bias one, towards a Welsh hermit tradition. Although charter evidence imposes the importance, and significant role Meilyr played in the establishment of Llantarnam c.1175-89; when acting as an advisor to its patron and founder Hywel ab Iorweth, Lord of Caerleon. Indeed land negotiations removed holdings from Margam becoming placed under this house jurisdiction. In turn, it indicates Meilyr's loyalties are towards his Welsh lord and to the Cistercian ideal. Although land disputes between the Anglo-Norman and Welsh houses do erupt, but it's between Basingwerk over tithes. Although this grant derives form outside the time constraint, and are Welsh in character; it displays native support and popularity for native establishments. Overall it testifies towards a form of acceptance of the White monks in the Shire-free following simular ideals. Additionally in the buffer zone, they do not indicate why they became popular in this area of Wales. Specifically when founded by Anglo-Normans. Indeed Mathew Griffiths makes the point that Welsh relationship was 'tenuous' in this area of SE Wales. This hardly encourages a notion of popularity.  Nor does the fact that the establishments at Margan had its granary store burnt down. The political struggles between the descendants of Isteyn ap Gwrgant and the Abbey over land claims also failed to raise a sense of any popularity, it therefore induces another explanation.

The wordings of charters suggest grants to Cistercian monasteries by Anglo-Norman were undertaken for their own souls and descendant's benefit.  Indeed the grant by William de Loundres states "for the souls health of his father and ancestors" in respect of a chapel with land, being granted to Margam.[15] Furthermore, founders, patrons and benefactors for religious dues made grants to various institutions. These concerned the welfare of the benefactor’s soul becoming highlighted within the church calendar. Yet was it a reason for Welsh popularity. The grants issued by Morgan ab Owain, although relating to the Augustian priory at Rumney and indeed Goldcliff reflect similar attitudes, relating to his soul salvation.[16] Medieval religious thought is very foreboding, coupled with humanity continually sinking away from grace. Monastic institutions therefore become a compulsory item needing to be established to prevent such decline. Patrons and benefactor of grants ensured a peaceful departure accompanied with mass and further prayers plus an annual anniversary reminder of there existance within the church calendar.[17]  Indeed a common practice which evolved into Welsh culture of taking the monastic life near to departing this life occur.

On the whole, events in other areas fluctuated between Norman and Welsh dynastic control when Cistercian houses became founded, although there attest to be initially little difference at first. Whitland was founded through the efforts of John de Thorrington in 1155,[18] however F.E Cowley credits Archbishop Bernard of St David's for introducing the Cistercian into Haverfordwest at little Trefarn in 1140, which later moved to Whitland. Whereas, Strata Florida is a gift from Robert fitz Stephen in 1164 when ceridigion was under Norman control.[19] The colony of monks derived from Whitland under Abbot David reestablished in the designated remote area, on the river fflur. Nonetheless, the rise of Welsh authority through Rhys ap Gruffudds and the return of Welsh dominance in Ceridigon placed them under his protection and patronage. Furthermore, Rhys hegemony elevated his position. T. Jones Pierce indicates he innovator progressive qualities setting a fashion, through combining specific aspects of Norman culture into Welsh society. In turn, Charters concerning Rhys grants indicate his wide contribution made. They too were undertaken through his willingness and right of conquest to become its patron after its original founder became captured in 1165. Likewise, he is adopting Norman precedent that too becomes a family heridetary concern, passing it to his son Maelgwn and his brother Rhys. In addition, Rhys charter reveal similar language as previous noted with a concern for their soul's health after passing. Moreover, Rhys ap Gruffudd patronises a new Abbey by established Strata Florida which the Cistercian orde moved too establish it as there main centre.

This new establishment has recieved and a title describing it as the "Westminster in Wales".[20] This suggests Welsh religious popularity being confined specifically to the Cistercian houses on par with that of Westminster in England at the time. Where Strata Florida maintained such Welsh sympathies highlighting its importance, popularity holding a central focus in affairs. The interaction between the order's ideas, and those existing religious traditions previously rejected by the Normans held common elements. Yet the Cistercians under welsh patronage held harmony together to meet its host society's needs.[21] Similarly, the ermitical/hermit tradition had already established its venerated position in society continuing an unchanged tradition. Neither does it suggest that secular and collegiate establishments became incorporated. They too continued to function differnetly, albeit on a limited scale.

 Manpower is a central issue that needs to be considered. Surplus monks are required before releasing them as a founding colony; criteria had to be meet and satisfied its founding abbot and the charter requirements. Two such colonies were sent into Maelienydd the first in 1143 being founded by Maredudd ap Madog which fails to have establish itself. The second became more successful at Cwmhir in 1176, with its founding patron Cadwallon ap Madog of princely decent. Likewise further grants from his sons and descendants where forthcoming having inherited the patronage. An additional colony became established at Strata Marcella under the patronage and grant of Owain Cyfeilog of Powys. Gwynwynwyn made further grants in 1191 with later confirmation confirmed in 1195 by the bishop of Bangor.[22]  To sustain the level of new monastic establishment, its original community and this level of suitable monks, point towards this house being both approved by popular appeal.

The Cistercians appeal and popularity is primarily due to there necessary function held within Welsh society. Indeed, it opened an area to the illiterate giving education through both specific levels of achievement for the progressive and ambitious. Not only teaching oblates but also attracting those of noble rank. These ensuring the quality of monks and abbots sent out establishing new houses. With Cistercian education centred on the importance of music and history. Indeed it held value in Welsh society as traditional bards also looked after its native needs.

Strata Florida was to play an importat role, its location was central and within easily reached from adjoining kingdoms. It too reflects the importance further of O'Sullivan comparison to Westminster. Apart from playing a role where various leaders meet to disscussed alliances and policies. The chronicle Burt y Twysnogion further reflects this through recording the burial of Cadwell ap Gruffudd one of Rhys sons, who also became enrolled within the order. Hywel ap Ieuaf, Lord of Awystli is also interred there.[23] Surviving charters in respect of Hywel ap Ieuaf hint towards the designs for a Cistercian house to be establishment in Awystli, which never materialised. Further material benefits were also available which made the Cistercian order popular with the Welsh Princes. They acted as a safe refuge to convalesce, and towards the close of life, an opportunity to take on the habit of the order arose. Thus the prevention of the continual fall of grace thus elevating ones current position, depending on the medieval thought held at the time.

The colonies of monks which establish Rhedynog Felen 1186 and Llanternan from Strata Florida were patronised by Princes. Yet, it would have done more, in relation to elevating the position of the motherhouse, plus that of its patron. Indeed, they too would reinforce the current medieval view derived from Europe, in recreating monastic institutions and diseminating a european religious trend which was introduced within Wales. It is only towards the end of the 12th century that Cwmhir was in the process of founding its daughter house Cymer in 1198. This actually becomes a complete native concern and Welsh Cistercian house. Yet the popularity of the Cistercian order during the 12th century experienced rapid growth within the last forty years of tha century is a contribution of several factors. Firstly, Wales through Norman impact directly became involved with changes where monastic institutions performed and change attitudeds towards spiritual services, which was performed on behalf of the population. Instead, of the individual in the case of the solidarity traditional hermit, even though this appears to be still have been available. The Cistercian order became popular as they provided a spiritual function and service. They became the spiritual intermediaries that prevent the individual soul decline from grace. In so doing, they created the spiritual balance with the mundane. Secondly, a change in the mindset of the period related to religious belief shown through a consistency of a textual format reflecting similar concepts. For this to occur it has to be introduced and is attributed as an impact of Normans on Wales and its culture. Thirdly, a collaboration of Welsh ideas further added towards its popularity and indeed it too would have assisted in spreading the combination of Normal culture with that of Wales, those parts could be adapted and utilised within its society. Fourthly the popularity of the order appealed to all levels of society, offering education and hospitality of which Gerald of Wales recognised at Margam. They too offered work for the brethren that attracted popularity. Indeed the land grants made to the Cistercian houses enabled both a spiritual services to be brought, in which the responsibility of its benefactor’s soul would be cared for after death. There too was the material benefit of having refuge within the safety of the monastery. Inclusive of the prestige, it brought the kinsmen within society. Finally, the Cistercian order became popular within Welsh society as it blended in with its host culture.  As stated by Janet Burton and other scholars it "struck a cord", whether that be archaic memories, the blending of cultures or the personality prestige held by Rhys ap Gruffudd assisted in Cistercian growth. Its popularity was upheld by most of its society.


Primary sources

Butler H.E., (trans) Autobiography of Giraldus Cambernsis, London 1937 p.132-6

James M.R., (trans) Walter Map De Nugis Curialum, Honoury society of the Cymmrodoron, 1923

Jones. T. (trans) Brut y Tywysigyon, or, the Chronicle of the Princes MS 20 Version, University of Wales (1952)

Papers in books

Cowley, F.E., 'The Church in Medieval Glamorgan' in T. B Pugh (ed.) Glamorgan Country History Vol 3 Cardiff 1971 pp. 87-166

Griffiths. M., 'Native Society on the Anglo-Norman Frontier: The Evidence of the Margan Charters in Welsh History Review 14, pp. 179-216

Pierce T. J. 'Strata Florida Abbey' in Ceridigion 1 (1950-1) pp.

Pryce, H 'Patrons and Patronage among the Cistercians in Wales', in M. Gray and P. Webster (Eds), Cistercian in Wales and the West, (Forthcoming)

Pryce, H. and Insley C., (eds) 'The Acts of Welsh Rulers' (Forthcoming)

Rhys W Hays 'The Welsh Monatries and the Edwardian Conquest' in J.F. O'Sulivan (ed) Studies in Medieval Cistercian History, Shannon Ireland 1971 pp. 110-137

Smith J.B. 'The Kingdom of Morgannwg and the Norman Conquest of Glamorgan' in T. B Pugh (ed.) Glamorgan Country History Vol 3 Cardiff 1971 pp. 1-43


Birch W., History of Margam Abbey, London 1897

Burton J., Monastic and Religious orders in Britain 1000-1300, Cambridge university Press 1994

Cowley F.E, The Monastic orders in South Wales 1066-1349, University of Wales Press, 1977

Knowles D. and Hadcock R.N., Medieval Religious houses: England and Wales, Longman 1971

O'Sulivan J. F., Cistercian Settlements in Wales and Monmouthshire, 1140-1540, Fordham 1947

Taylor J., Tintern Abbey and its Founders, Gwent County Council Libraries, 1994

Williams D., White Monks of in Gwent and the Border, Pontypool 1976


[1] Pryce, H 'Patrons and Patronage among the Cistercians in Wales', in M. Gray and P. Webster (Eds), Cistercian in Wales and the West, (Forthcoming) p.1

[2] Butler  H.E. (trans) Autobiography of Giraldus Cambernsis, London 1937 p.132-6

[3] Birch W., History of Margam Abbey, London 1897 p. 6 -8

[4] Cowley F.E, The Monastic orders in South Wales 1066-1349, University of Wales Press, 1977  p.7

[5]Knowles D. and Hadcock R.N., Medieval Religious houses: England and Wales, Longman 1971 p.106-7

[6] Cowley, F.E., 'The Church in Medieval Glamorgan' in T. B Pugh (ed.) Glamorgan Country History Vol 3 Cardiff 1971 pp.

[7] James M.R., (trans) Walter Map De Nugis Curialum, Honoury society of the Cymmrodoron, 1923 p.76

[8] Gleamor Williams: The Welsh Church from Conquest to Reformation, Uni Wales Press 1976 p.19-21

[9] Taylor J., Tintern Abbey and its Founders, Gwent County Council Libraries, 1994 p. 13; Williams D. White Monks of in Gwent and the Border, Pontypool 1976 p. 94-104

[10] O'Sulivan J. F., Cistercian Settlements in Wales and Monmouthshire, 1140-1540, Fordham 1947 p.1; Rhys W Hays 'The Welsh Monatries and the Edwardian Conquest' in J.F. O'Sulivan (ed) Studies in Medieval Cistercian History, Shannon Ireland 1971 pp. 110

[11] Birch W., History of Margam Abbey, London 1897 p. 13

[12] Griffiths. M., 'Native Society on the Anglo-Norman Frontier: The Evidence of the Margan Charters in Welsh History Review 14, pp .183

[13] Birch,  Margam Abbey, 1897 p. 9-13

[14] Gerald of Wales p.119

[15] Evans A.L., Margam Abbey, Neath (1958) p, 271

[16] Pryce, H., and Insley C., (eds) Welsh Rulers, 1120-1283, (forthcoming)  459, 460

[17] Burton J., Monastic and Religious orders in Britain 1000-1300, Cambridge university Press (1994) p. 210-15

[18] Pryce, and Insley, (eds) Welsh Rulers, 1120-1283, (forthcoming) 29

[19] Burton J., Monastic and Religious orders, Cambridge university Press (1994), p. 94

[20] O'Sulivan, Cistercian Settlements in Wales, 1140-1540, Fordham (1947) p. 11

[21] Pierce T. J. 'Strata Florida Abbey' in  Ceridigion 1 (1950-1) pp. 21, 22

[22] David Williams, Welsh Cistercians: Aspects of Economic History, Vol 2. Pontypool (1984) p. 201, 207

[23] James M.R., (trans) Walter Map De Nugis Curialum, Honorary society of the Cymmrodoron, 1923  p. 64, 73

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Last updated April 14, 2005