Strata Florida Abbey

sf3Strata Florida (Welsh: Ystrad Fflur) is a former Cistercian abbey situated just outside Pontrhydfendigaid, near Tregaron in the county of Ceredigion, Wales. Lying mostly in ruins, there are a variety of remains in the area. The abbey church monument is in the care of Cadw. Next to the remains of the church is the grave yard, which is still active to this day, with many people choosing to be buried there. It is traditionally the burial place of the greatest Welsh language poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym, and a memorial to him is to be found on the site, under a Yew tree. The yew tree is quite famous, although it was quite damaged in storms, when it was hit by lightning. Many princes of the royal house of Deheubarth were also buried here. There is a stone marker in the Chapter House of the Cadw monument (a replica for the original which is housed in a small museum) commemorating these princes.

The only substantive structure remaining is the entrance archway, the Great West Door to the Abbey Church, though low walls marking the extent of the church and six subsidiary chapels remain. A modern roof (visible in the picture) protects an area of mediaeval tiling, where one can still make out some of the designs. Inside the small on site museum, some of these tiles have been preserved and put on display. Probably the most well known of these is the ‘Man with the Mirror’, depicting a mediaeval gentleman admiring himself in a mirror.

There is a little confusion over the actual founding of the Monastery. It was founded by a group of monks from Whitland Abbey. Building actually began on a different site on the banks of the Afon Fflur (from which the present Abbey takes its name), a short distance from the present site. Currently farm land, there are stories that huge stones were unearthed on the original site, known as Hen Fynachlog (the Old Monastery), though how true this is has yet to be formally investigated. Overall, it is considered that the Abbey was founded around 1164 A.D. thanks to the patronage of the Lord Rhys, which is why many of his descendants were buried there. In 1184, a further charter was issued by Lord Rhys re-affirming Strata Florida as a monastery under the patronage of Deheubarth.

Construction on the church began, and it was consecrated in 1201. Strata Florida’s importance in the Welsh cultural landscape quickly intensified. Around 1238, not even forty years after the building of the Church, the famous Welsh Prince Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, also known as Llywelyn the Great held a council at Strata Florida. Here he made the other Welsh Princes swear that they would acknowledge his son Dafydd as his rightful successor.

Strata Florida increased in power and authority in Wales. Farms belonging to Strata Florida (‘granges’) were spread out across the Welsh countryside, and its influence was felt throughout Wales.

During Tudor times, with Henry VIII’s dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church, the monasteries were dissolved. Monks throughout the realm were concerned for the safety of not only their religious houses, but their practices and relics. It is said that Monks from Glastonbury Abbey were concerned about the fate of one of their most famous relics – the Holy Grail! An enterprising bunch were said to have set out on course for Strata Florida, in order to offer the relic a place of safety.

Sadly, Strata Florida was not excused from the wrath of Henry, and the Monastery was dissolved in the 1540s by the Church Commissioners. The Refectory and Dormitory were rebuilt into a Gentry House, now known as Ty Abaty, which was owned by a number of families, including the Steadmans and the Powells of Nanteos. There are records that the Holy Grail was still kept at Strata Florida, and that the Powells would lend it to people to experience the healing power of the grail, and there are several testimonies to its effectiveness. These date right up until the beginning of the 20th Century when it was lost without trace.

The monastery buildings themselves were largely demolished, with the stone going to be recycled in surrounding buildings, such as potentially the great barn complex by Ty Abaty. A complex site, it is still unknown what buildings were contemporary with the Monastery and then repaired using stone plundered from other Monastery buildings, and those which were built new from the plundered stone. It is unknown whether the present Parish Church of St. Mary, within the boundaries of the graveyard, was built from robbed stone, or if it is perhaps a rebuild of what would have been the visitor’s chapel for the Monastery.

Strata Florida was left to rack and ruin until the arrival of the Railways in the late 19th Century. An adventurous Railway Engineer by the name of Steven Williams was building the nearby railway line and took an interest in the ruins of the Church. At the time, it amounted to nothing more than a massively overgrown collection of indefinable ruins. Williams undertook a massive excavation there, removing huge amounts of spoil, and uncovering the majority of what we see today. Strata Florida once again became a place of pilgrimage, this time to the wealthy Victorians, who were entertained on trips on the Railway, who then could make use of a short bus link to visit the remains themselves.

About the Abbey the 1851 Illustrated London Reading Book says:

The remains of Strata Florida Abbey, in South Wales, are most interesting in many points of view, more especially as the relics of a stately seminary for learning, founded as early as the year 1164. The community of the Abbey were Cistercian monks, who soon attained great celebrity, and acquired extensive possessions. A large library was founded by them, which included the national records from the earliest periods, the works of the bards and the genealogies of the Princes and great families in Wales. The monks also compiled a valuable history of the Principality, down to the death of Llywelyn the Great. When Edward I invaded Wales, he burned the Abbey, but it was rebuilt A.D. 1294.

Extensive woods once flourished in the vicinity of Strata Florida, and its burial-place covered no less than 120 acres [0.5 km²]. A long list of eminent persons from all parts of Wales were here buried, and amongst them David ap Gwillim, the famous bard. The churchyard is now reduced to small dimensions; but leaden coffins, doubtless belonging to once celebrated personages, are still found, both there and at a distance from the cemetery. A few aged box and yew-trees now only remain to tell of the luxuriant verdure which once grew around the Abbey; and of the venerable pile itself little is left, except an arch, and the fragment of a fine old wall, about forty feet high. A small church now stands within the enclosure, more than commonly interesting from having been built with the materials of the once celebrated Abbey of Strata Florida.

Recent excavation work by University of Wales Lampeter, and Trinity College Carmarthen in the woods surrounding the Abbey have found evidence of the Kiln that made the tiles for the Abbey. Also a number of field boundaries dating back to the same period have been discovered. Two leats which seemed to increase the flow of the water into the Glasffrwd were also studied. It is believed they served the overall purpose of running a mill further down stream.