Tintern Abbey was founded by Walter de Clare, Lord of Chepstow, on May 9, 1131. Situated on the River Wye in Monmouthshire, it was only the second Cistercian foundation in Britain, and the first in Wales. It is one of the most spectacular ruins in the country and inspired the William Wordsworth poem “Tintern Abbey” and more than one painting by J. M. W. Turner.
Walter, of the powerful family of Clare, was also related by marriage to Bishop William of Winchester, who had introduced the first colony of Cistercians, to Waverley in 1128. The monks for Tintern came from a daughter house of Cîteaux, L’Aumone, in the diocese of Blois in France.
In time Tintern established two daughter houses, Kingswood in Gloucester (1139) and Tintern Parva, west of Wexford in South East Ireland (1203). The Cistercian monks (or White Monks) who lived at Tintern followed the Rule of St Benedict. The Carta Caritatis (Charter of Love) laid out their basic principles, namely:
Despite this austere way of life the Cistercians were one of the most successful orders in the 12th and 13th centuries. The present-day remains of Tintern are a mixture of building works covering a 400-year period between 1136 and 1536. Very little remains of the first buildings, a few sections of walling are incorporated into later buildings and the two recessed cupboards for books on the east of the cloisters are from this period. The church of that time was smaller than the present building and was slightly to the north.
The lands of the Abbey were divided into agricultural units or granges, local people worked on these granges and provided services such as smithies to the Abbey. Many endowments of land on both sides of the Wye were made to the Abbey. During the 13th century, the Abbey was virtually rebuilt, first the cloisters and the domestic ranges then finally the great church between 1269 and 1301. Roger Bigod III, the then lord of Chepstow was a generous benefactor; his monumental undertaking was the rebuilding of the church. The Abbey put his coat of arms in the glass of its east window in gratitude to him. It is this great church that we see today. It has a cruciform plan with an aisled nave; two chapels in each transept and a square ended aisled chancel. The Gothic church represents the architectural developments of its day in the contemporary Decorated Style.
In 1326 King Edward II visited Tintern and spent two nights there. The Black Death swept the country in 1349 and it became impossible to attract new recruits for the lay brotherhood. Changes to the way the granges were tenanted out rather than worked by lay brothers show the difficulty Tintern was experiencing with labour shortages. In the early 1400s Tintern was experiencing financial difficulties due in part to the effects of the Welsh uprising under Owain Glyndŵr against the English kings and Abbey properties were destroyed by the Welsh rebels.
The closest battle to the Abbey was at Craig y Dorth near Monmouth, between Trellech and Mitchel Troy. In the reign of King Henry VIII traditional monastic life in England and Wales was brought to an abrupt end by his policy of establishing total control over the church, partly to take advantage of the considerable wealth of the monasteries. On September 3, 1536 Abbot Wyche surrendered Tintern Abbey to the King’s visitors and ended a way of life which had lasted 400 years. The valuable articles from the Abbey were sent to the King’s treasury and Abbot Wyche was pensioned off. The building was granted to the Earl of Worcester, lead from the roof was sold and the decay of the shell of the buildings began. In the next two centuries little or no interest was shown in the history of the site. However in the Eighteenth century it became fashionable to visit wilder parts of the country, the Wye Valley in particular was well known for its romantic and picturesque qualities and the ivy clad Abbey was frequented by ‘romantic’ tourists. After the publication of the book Observations on the River Wye by the Reverend William Gilpin in 1782 tourists visited the site in droves. In the nineteenth century ruined abbeys became the focus for scholars and architectural and archaeological investigations were carried out. In 1901 the Abbey was bought by the crown for £15,000 and recognised as a monument of national importance and repair and maintenance works were carried out. In 1914 the Office of Works were passed responsibility for Tintern and major structural repairs were undertaken — the ivy considered so romantic by the early tourists was removed.
In 1984 Cadw took over responsibility for the site.
Tintern Abbey – Abaty Tyndyrn – Cymru