Category Archives: Ecclesiastical History

Valle Crucis Abbey #5 – The monastic community

This follows on directly from Part 4, which looked at what is known about the patrons, abbots and priors at the Cistercian Valle Crucis Abbey near Llangollen.  Parts 4, 5 and 6 were originally written as a single piece, but grew to excessive proportions and had to be split into three (the third part, looking at how life was lived on a daily basis, will be Part 6).  At the same time, this post looks a little different from its predecessors.  When I was writing this Valle Crucis remained closed.  As I have been unable to take any new photographs to accompany this post,  I have mainly used artists’ reconstructions, showing visual interpretations of various monastic sites, all similar to Valle Crucis in terms of basic operations.

Introduction

Modern view of Valle Crucis by J.Banbury. Source: Medieval Heritage website

Because patrons and abbots were important people, not merely locally but sometimes with wide-ranging national and international duties, historical records often mention them.  For Valle Crucis details can be pieced together to create a narrative, admittedly fragmentary, about those individuals and their roles both within the abbey and beyond its walls.  This was attempted in part 4.  For the wider monastic community, however, matters are rather more difficult to piece together.  It is probably a measure of the success of a monastery that a community was sufficiently stable not to draw attention to itself.  When nothing happened, there was nothing to report.  When trouble occurred, records might be preserved.  For example, under Abbot Robert of Lancaster there were clearly ructions within the Valle Crucis community, because a papal letter to the abbey stressed that the monks must obey the abbot.  It can also be inferred that under the disastrous Abbot Robert Salusbury there was profound discontent, as over half of the remaining community abandoned Valle Crucis in favour of other monasteries.  A good illustration of a Cistercian community that came to light rather too often for the Order’s comfort was Hailes Abbey near Cheltenham, where many misdemeanours were recorded.

In spite of the limitations of surviving records from Valle Crucis, the rules governing life in Cistercian abbeys, which were enforced throughout the Cistercian network, indicate how life should have been lived. During an annual meeting at Cîteaux (the General Chapter), which most of the Cistercian abbots attended, some existing rules were reinforced, others were changed as the world in which the Cistercian Order existed changed, and the outcomes were recorded.  These documents, combined with the telling architectural changes to the abbey itself, help to capture some of the details about how life would have been lived at Valle Crucis by the greater part of the community.

Valle Crucis in 1800. Source: Wikipedia

Although the founder, patrons, and the abbot and prior were ultimately the drivers of financial security and good management, it was the role of the monastic community as a whole that enabled monastic orders to flourish and proliferate.  The spread of monastic houses throughout Britain provided an ecclesiastical footprint that was itself a measure of the importance of prayer to the secular community.  The prayers of monks were the key to secular salvation.  In a sin-obsessed world, one way of mitigating the unenviable outcomes of personal sin in the afterlife was to invest in prayer.   Richard Southern sums up the situation beautifully:

Founders and benefactors saw in the ‘cowled champions’ of the monasteries the spiritual equivalent of secular soldiers.  The monks fought battles quite as real, and more important, than the battles of the natural world; they fought to cleanse the land from supernatural enemies.  To say that they prayed for the well-being of the king and kingdom is to put the matter altogether too feebly.  They fought as a disciplined elite, and the safety of the kingdom depended on their efforts. (R.W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, 1970)

This provides the essence of monastic value to the living.  Even though the Valle Crucis monks were isolated within their cloisters, and only certain of its community interacted with the outside world for practical reasons, their prayers were an essential part of the profit and loss equations of spiritual life.  Cistercian houses, once founded, might benefit from donations, gifts and sources of regular income from those who wished to purchase a better quality life after death, but essentially they were committed to maintaining themselves by economic endeavour, and this meant that the monastery was part of an economic network of production, markets and re-investment of revenue that defined much of life in the Middle ages.

Choir monks

Cloister and lavatorium of Tintern Abbey in south Wales. Reconstruction by Terry Ball. Source: Medieval History website

The main body of the monastic establishment was made up of choir monks, who were supervised by the abbot and the prior.  St Benedict’s Rule required an initial twelve monks for the founding of a new abbey, equating to the number of Christ’s apostles, and these monks and the abbot were provided from Strata Marcella. All the monks in Valle Crucis appear to have been of Welsh origin at this time, and probably were for most of its duration.

The main body of the monastic establishment was made up of choir monks, who were supervised by the abbot and the prior.  St Benedict’s Rule required an initial twelve monks for the founding of a new abbey, equating to the number of Christ’s apostles, and these monks and the abbot were provided from Strata Marcella. All the monks in Valle Crucis appear to have been of Welsh origin at this time, and probably were for most of its duration.

Cymer Abbey. Source: Cadw signage at Cymer

Politically and culturally, if not linguistically, it would have been difficult to incorporate English monks into a Welsh community.  In so far as language was concerned, Latin, required for membership of the Cistercian Order, could have been used as a lingua franca, but politically and culturally matters might have been rather more difficult.  Before the conquest of Edward I, the Welsh monasteries had a strong sense of Welsh identity and at different times Valle Crucis contributed to contemporary Welsh histories and hosted Welsh poets. Politically, even though the Cistercians as an Order had provided Edward I with financial support, and even though Welsh monastic patrons changed sides from time to time, at least in the 13th century the Welsh Cistercian monasteries of mid and North Wales were solidly behind Llywelyn ap Gruffudd  of Gwynedd (c.1223 – 1282).  In a letter to the pope in 1275, the Cistercian abbeys Aberconwy, Whitland, Strata Florida, Cwmhir, Strata Marcella, Cymer and Valle Crucis all supported Llywelyn against charges made by the Bishop of St Asaph.  This emphasis on Welsh personnel may, from time to time, have resulted in recruitment difficulties, particularly after the succession of plagues that followed the arrival of the Black Death in the mid 14th Century.  Even following Edward I’s conquest of Wales, the close association of Valle Crucis with Welsh poets in the 14th and 15th centuries argues that a Welsh outlook was never fully diluted at Valle Crucis.

14th century psalter (book of psalms) of Sir Geoffrey Luttrel.  Sou8rce: British Library, Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, MS Additional 42130, via Wikipedia

The Cistercians did not accept children as novices into their community, a practice that had once been common in the Benedictine order where children were accepted as “oblates” (offerings) by their parents at least until the practice was abolished by the 4th Lateran Council of 1215 of Pope Innocent III in Rome.  The term can be confusing today because it survives in the Benedictine order, but now refers to laity who, outside a monastic house, are affiliated to it and supportive of it.  St Benedictine himself had supported the practice of accepting child oblates, but the Cistercians believed that choice was an essential factor in the moral standing and ongoing stability of the Order.  New entrants had to be at least 15 years of age, with a year’s novitiate before making their vows at the age of 16.  After the Black Death of the 14th century, when many brethren had been lost and new recruits were harder to find, the minimum age was dropped to 14 years by the General Chapter of 1349, and the year’s novitiate could be shortened providing that the novice could recite the psalms by heart.

Although in theory the monks all had equal status, reflected in shared dormitories and communal refectories, and all were subject to the same rules and disciplinary action, there were inevitably complex layers of experience and interaction within the abbey walls, based on  age, seniority, skills, experiences, roles and personality.  Although some of a monastery’s monks may have entered as novices, others much later in life either in response to a calling, or as a form of retirement.  Senior monks might act as guides to novices and younger brethren, whilst patrolling the cloister to maintain silence, and minimize social contact.

Manual work beyond the cloister might include working with crops in the fields, or with livestock, employment in crafts, gardening, and general DIY, essential to the maintenance of abbey and abbey precinct buildings and fittings.  This work took place once or twice a day depending on the time of year, and was envisaged by St Benedict not merely as a good discipline, but an aspect of daily living that would prevent boredom.  During the harvest it was all hands on deck, and many of the monks were excused at least some of the offices in order to participate.

Cistercian monks gathered daily in the chapter house, as an artist’s reconstruction shows here at Shap Abbey. Source: English Heritage

Life within the cloister was by no means a uniform, undifferentiated existence, and it was by no means unknown for disagreements and conflicts, which the senior monks, the prior and the abbot were required to resolve.  Daily meetings in the chapter house were part of the system of maintaining harmony and discipline within the monastery, at which time disciplinary issues were discussed and punishments for any infringements were handed out.

There are very few details about the monks at Valle Crucis.  What few references to them suggest that at various times, if not always, the community of monks was Welsh.  During the tenure of Abbot Robert Lancaster in the early 15th century papal correspondence to the monastery reminded the monks of their vows of obedience to the abbot, implying that there were difficulties within the Valle Crucis community, perhaps because the abbot was dividing his attentions between the abbacy and the bishopric of St Asaph, which he held simultaneously.

Although Cistercians were only supposed to leave the monastery on important business, and only abbots ever travelled very far afield, very few monks ventured far afield.  They were not permitted to go on pilgrimage or seek cures at holy shrines, but there is one record of a monk from Valle Crucis called Richard Bromley arriving in Rome in 1504, towards the end of the abbey’s life, as a pilgrim.

Obedientiaries

Although no two abbeys were exactly alike, and a lot depended upon the financial resources available to the community, as well as the individual talents of the abbot and the brethren, there is a commonality of community organization between them, including the allocation of roles, obediences, to individual monks, called obedientiaries.  This was a Benedictine tradition, not unique to the Cistercians, but which was formalized within the Cistercian’s own rules.

Benedictine monks in the cellar at Dunfermline. Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Obedientiaries were monks within the abbey who were allocated particular roles in order to assist with the smooth running of the community.  Although some tasks were rotated amongst the brethren, it made sense for the abbot to ensure that some continuity was adhered to for important tasks, particularly in positions where contact with the outside world might be required, and particularly high standards of self-discipline might be depended upon.  The use of obedientiaries was not a Cistercian invention, and although there were differences from order to order, many of the same functions inevitably overlapped, and they changed over time as the demands of individual abbeys changed.  Some of the key positions are as follows:

  • Cellarer  A key official who was responsible for the community’s centralized stores, both food and drink.  Of all the obedientiaries, this individual is likely to have had regular contact with the lay brethren and, when they were no longer employed, the outside world.  the cellarer was also responsible for interacting with the abbey granges, the farms that supplied the monastery with its food for consumption and its surplus.  It is notable that in 1212, when the Cisterican Order asked for senior staff to be exempt from outside obligations to the Pope Innocent III’s crusades and missionary activities, the cellarer was singled out amongst the senior staff, together with priors and sub-priors, that the Cistercians wished to retain
  • Precentor.  In charge of church services, the hymns, chants, prayers and antiphons (the latter song alternating between two parts of the choir). He might be supported by an assistant, the succentor
  • Sacrist, responsible for the church, its maintenance, as well as the care of the vessels and implements used in the liturgies and the vestments that were kept in the sacristy.  He was also responsible for time-keeping, using a bell or tabula (the latter a wooden board) to mark the offices and draw the monks to the abbey church.  As mechanical clocks were not invented until the late 13th century, and were even then very expensive, monastic time-keeping relied mainly on the sun, stars, and occasionally water clocks.
  • Guestmaster, responsible for welcoming and taking care of any guests, from dignitaries to pilgrims.  Hospitality was an important part of the Benedictine vision, and separate quarters were usually provided within the abbey precinct but beyond the cloister until the 14th century, when VIPs might be accommodated within special apartments within the east range of the cloister.
  • Infirmerer.  Where an infirmary was one of the monastic buildings, the infirmerer was in charge, overseeing the care of unwell and ailing monks.  Although they were standard components of Cistercian abbey complexes, there is some question about whether Valle Crucis included one or not.
  • Novicemaster.  The brother who oversaw the induction, ongoing care and overall wellbeing of the novices who entered the abbey, prior to taking their vows.
  • Refectorer. The brother in charge of the refectory, or dining hall, responsible for laying and clearing the tables, usually assisted by other brethren.
  • Kitchener. The brother who oversaw the kitchen, working closely with the refectorer and the cellarer to ensure that the monastery was fed according either to Cistercian guidelines or the abbot’s preferences.  Meals prepared for the abbot’s table, guests, the choir and lay brethren and for the infirm might be rather different for one another. There was also a safety element, as all meals were cooked over a fire, and it is thought distinctly possible that the mid 13th century fire at Valle Crucis originated in the monastic kitchen in the south range
  • Porter, who managed the gatehouse, responsible for permitting or barring entry to the monastic precinct.  The porter would also have been the first point of interaction with the monastic precinct for visitors, before they were handed over to the guest-master.  In the Benedictine Order there was also an almoner, who was responsible for allocating alms to the poor, but in Cistercian establishments, the porter doubled up as almoner. Quite how many visitors of this type would have been in the neighbourhood of Valle Crucis is yet to be determined.

Peter Dunn reconstruction of a kitchen in full swing at Rievaulx. Source: English Heritage

There is an assumption in the above that sufficient monks would have been required to complete all the daily tasks, and also that there were sufficient brethren available to fulfil these and other roles when required.  In the case of Valle Crucis, which may never have exceeded 12 choir monks,  life would have been less complex even when working together with the lay brethren; after the 14th century, when the lay brethren had vanished and the abbey leased out rather than working its lands, life was probably even less complicated.

Although the abbey was essentially silent whenever possible, the interaction required between these different roles would have sat outside that guideline, meaning that realistically, different levels of negotiation, conversation and silence would have been the daily norm, with strict silence only practised at certain times in specific places.

A chunk of the abbey’s budget was traditionally divided between each the obedientiaries to cover the costs of their activities, each given what was deemed to be an appropriate amount to manage their monastic duties.  It is not known  if all of these roles would have been fulfilled at Valle Crucis.  Although it is assumed that there was probably a gatehouse, nothing of it survives.  Similarly, if there was an infirmary at the abbey, no trace of it has been found.

Stairs built into the relocated pulpitum, perhaps once leading to an organ loft. Source: RCHAMW

The governing body of the Cistercians resisted musical instruments until 1486, when the General Chapter at Cîteaux decided that the organ was an acceptable adjunct to an abbey church.  It is thought that there was an organ loft late in the abbey’s history in the vicinity of the pulpitum, so an organist would evidently have been a member of the community, answerable to the precentor.

Even without a full-sized organ, beautiful musical accompaniment could be achieved by a portable “portative” organ, which is one of a number of instruments that could be used when an abbey could not afford an organ.  A portative organ can be seen in use by virtuosa Catalina Vicens in the YouTube video at the end of this post, producing the most unexpectedly rich, and enchanting sound, truly fabulous, slightly raw.  I’ve never heard anything quite like it.

Some monks were also given particular roles of responsibility within the monastery, known as obediences, each representing an aspect of monastic life, discussed below.

What is interesting is the degree to which the monastic organization formalizes functions, with both internal and external interactions formalized just as job descriptions are today.  Knowing what someone should be doing and how they should be doing it would have helped the abbot to monitor both the performance of the monastery as a whole and the effectiveness of the individual monks that contributed to its smooth running.   By ensuring that those with particular skillsets were put into suitable roles, the abbot could allocate his resources efficiently.  The founding monks were presumably chosen from the mother abbey with a view to fulfilling at least some of these roles from day one.  Young novice monks would have learned from their elders, and those who entered the community later in life might have brought other relevant experience and skills with them.  Balancing the books must have been a constant headache for the abbot, his prior and the cellarer.

Ordained priest-monks

Artist’s impression of one of the chapel pairs at Valle Crucis, based on the existing architecture, in the north and south transepts. By C. Jones-Jenkins

The two pairs of chapels in the Valle Crucis transepts were completed in the late 13th century, and were for the performance of mass by ordained priests.  The trend in abbey life for monks began to be ordained as priests met the specific need of conducting masses for the dead.  Although this was originally strictly forbidden by the early Cistercians, it became one of the important income streams of abbeys.  Donation of funds were made by those wishing to have masses said for themselves and their families in perpetuity.  Masses could only be conducted by those who had been trained and received the sacrament of Holy Orders, ordained by a bishop.  As masses were usually held daily, separate chapels became increasingly important within the abbey church to prevent interruption of other monastic activities, and were at first usually located in the transepts.  Valle Crucis only ever had four, but other monasteries might extend their abbey churches to add more.

Lay brothers (conversi)

Hailes Abbey showing the nave of the abbey church with conversi (lay brethren) divided from the more rarefied area occupied by choir monks.  By Peter Urmston. Source: English Heritage

The Cistercians were faced with a dilemma when the order was established.  Although the reforming order wanted to engage in both work and prayer (ora et labora) in good balance they also knew how much physical work was required to work the lands required to support a monastic house.   An early Cistercian document (Exordium Parvum XV, translated in Waddell’s Narrative and Legislative Texts, p. 435) expresses this dilemma very clearly:

Having spurned this world’s riches, behold! The new soldiers of Christ, poor with the poor Christ, began discussing by what planning, by what device, by what management they would be able to support themselves in this life, as well as their guests who came, both rich and poor, whom the Rule commands to welcome as Christ. It was then that they enacted a definition to receive, with their bishop’s permission, bearded lay-brothers, and to treat them as themselves in life and death – except that they might not become monks – and also hired hands; for without the assistance of these they did not understand how they could fully observe the precepts of the Rule day and night.

The lay brethren, conversi, were given a year, as novices, to make up their minds before they took the vows that bound them to the abbey and its estates.  The coversi were were not literate and were therefore not qualified to enter the abbey as fully fledged choir monks, but were an essential part of the Cistercian vision of economic self-sufficiency, and lived in a dormitory opposite that of the choir monks on the first floor of the west range.  They were not tonsured (the top of the head shaved), and were usually bearded.  They usually outnumbered the choir monks, particularly in abbeys with large land-holdings.  This model, based on the traditional manorial management of land, allowed the choir monks to remain within the monastic precinct, whilst the lay members of the community farmed and otherwise worked the monastic estates, and undertook general repairs of the monastery itself as well as related buildings and granges.  Of great importance, some of them were also the interface between the cloister and the outside world for matters concerning grange management, the replenishment of the monastery’s stores and the sale of any surplus at market.  Both choir and lay brethren were considered to be integral to Cistercian monasticism.

Artist’s impression of conversi in their refectory, showing lack of tonsure and beards. Source: Cistercians in Yorkshire

The conversi were apparently attracted by a number of features that were preferable to the alternative of working for a secular manor.  For one thing, they were members of a community that not only valued them, fed them and clothed them, but looked to their spiritual well-being.  For hard-working farming labourers who had little time to worry about such matters, this may have been a real draw.  In addition, in the face of poverty, the monastery provided security and stability.  Although their commitment to the abbey was directed towards sustaining it physically and economically rather than spiritually, the commitment of the lay brethren to the monastery’s lands was fundamental to the spiritual well-being of the monastery.

The use of conversi as farmers and herdsmen had gone into decline by the end of the 13th century.  There is some debate as to why this should have occurred.  The usual view is that the Black Death of 1349 largely wiped out the lay brethren, and this may well have been the case, but there is also an argument that lay brethren were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their lot, and that some of the abbeys were already moving towards leasing out their lands  by the mid 14th century, meaning that it was possible that the role of the conversi was already being undermined before the arrival of the plague.

Corrodians 

Corrodians seem like something of an anomaly in terms of the general running of a Cistercian establishment.  In return for a financial contribution or property, including land, a man might  buy a corrody, a type of pension, and retire within the monastic community.  They were common within the Benedictine order, a convention adopted by the Cistercians.  In return for corrodies, the corrodian would receive specified amounts of food, drink and clothing. It was not a glamorous way to see out life, but it offered safety, stability, some degree of company, the care of the monks during illness, and, immediately to hand, the provision of the last rites.  Proximity to all that monastic activity was also, as death approached, a step closer to salvation, as was burial within the monastic precinct. 

An example from 1530 is one John Howe who, in return for £20.00 (in modern terms £8,825.54 /4 horses /16 cows, according to the National Archives Currency Convertor) was entitled to a bed chamber, candles, food and drink twice daily, and items of clothing which were laundered at the monastery.  Given the date, only six years before Henry VIII suppressed the monasteries in 1536, if John Howe was still alive at the time, he must have felt seriously aggrieved and may not have had the funds to find himself a new care home, unless he was able to persuade the authorities to compensate him.  Even then, it is unclear where he could have gone.

Final Comments on Parts 4 and 5

Monks in procession through Rievaulx Abbey in the 14th century (artist’s impression). Source: English Heritage

The religious life in an early Cistercian abbey was a combination of church services (liturgical offices and masses for the souls of the dead), scholarly activity and some manual labour.  Monks were generally not allowed to leave the monastic precinct, and unless they left to form a new monastery, might spend their entire lives in the company of their brethren.  It was important, therefore, that life in a Cistercian abbey was highly regulated, because rules and routines held the community together and allowed for transgressions and disputes to be resolved, usually by a mixture of encouragement, punishment and an awful lot of prayer.  In spite of attempts to maintain the standards of the Cistercian Order, there was a slow erosion of standards.

Although Valle Crucis was designed as a closed unit, like other Cistercian monasteries, there were limits to the extent to which this could be achieved.  Abbots and their seconds-in-command, priors, had rather more freedom because they were required to venture into the outside world on abbey business.  At least two abbots at Valle Crucis combined the job with the bishopric of St Asaph, a strange division between the cloistered life of the monastery and the more public life of the diocese.  This must have had an impact on the community as a whole, which must have been more dependent on the prior than was usual.  In so far as the rest of the community was concerned, individual monks might be thoroughly cloistered within the abbey, but others would have to interact with the outside world in order to maintain the abbey’s economic self-sufficiency. 

The combination of being withdrawn from the world, but simultaneously enmeshed in its political, economic and social complexities required dedicated interfaces between the monastery and the world beyond, not always a comfortable idea for monastic houses.  This apparent conflict between a mandate for seclusion and necessary connections with the world beyond the cloister was a defining feature of Cistercian abbeys.  Initially resolved by the incorporation of conversi into the monastic community, difficulties were presented when the conversi were no longer available.
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Next 

Part 6 will take a look at everyday activities at the monastery, to give an idea of how the monks lived their lives from day to day and year to year.

All parts of this Valle Crucis series of posts are available, as they are written by clicking on the following link: https://basedinchurton.co.uk/category/valley-crucis-abbey/.

Sources for all parts

The bibliography for all of the Valle Crucis posts are in Part 1.
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Chester Abbey and Cathedral – A first visit and an outline history

Introduction

Chester Cathedral from the south-east. Photograph by Stephen Hamilton.  Source: Wikipedia

First, my sincere thanks to Katie Achaibou, trainee Chester Green Badge tourist guide, who initiated me into the multi-layered and complex history of the cathedral and its environs.  On holidays in the past I have experienced horrible tour guides, primed to stuff visitors to the eyebrows with indigestibly voluminous facts and figures, until the will to live has long gone, sanity is being eroded by the nanosecond, and absolutely nothing sticks.  Katie, by contrast, imparted exactly the right amount of information to make sense of how the building had evolved and how it had functioned in the course of its daily existence, pointed out unmissable features from every period, talked through key figures in the cathedral’s distant and more recent past, and answered all my questions.  It was a relaxed stroll, not a route march, and I came away feeling bright, alert and informed, rather than resentfully crushed and exhausted 🙂  Needless to say, any opinions and any errors below are my own, and nothing to do with Katie’s excellent narrative.  

The rib-vaulted cloister

It is quite impossible to do justice to Chester Cathedral in a single blog post, so I have had to cherry-pick just a handful of features.  There is so much to see, and it is a place that rewards repeat visits.

Although the title of the post refers to this being my first visit, I had in fact visited the cathedral many years ago, but I had no clear recollection of the appearance of the interior which is infinitely more impressive then I remembered.  The red sandstone, beautifully carved and finely finished, gives it a warmth and personality that I had forgotten, and there were features like the the utterly superb quire and misericords (mercy seats) and the consistory court that were so surprisingly original and unique that I blush for the fact that I had failed to appreciate it all on my previous visit.

We arrived at the cathedral on Friday 25th February, a bright and sunny day that filled the place with light.  I had a head stuffed with a complete tangle of questions.  Who was the cathedral dedicated to?  Who was St Werburgh and why is she featured so strongly in the cathedral’s iconography?  I remember being surprised some time ago that she was female.  Her name is clearly Anglo-Saxon, so how does that fit in to a Christian context?  The cathedral was previously an abbey, and most monastic houses were dissolved by Henry VIII, so how did it survive to become the most important ecclesiastical establishment in Chester?  And, in passing, why on earth is the south transept so ridiculously enormous?  Katie explained all.

St Werburgh

7th Century Britain. Source: Wikipedia

The story starts not in Cheshire, but Mercia.  Mercia no longer exists, but what we call Cheshire today is a small northern part of the vast Mercian hegemony, which peaked during the 8th Century, when it covered a huge portion of England south of the line of the Mersey.  Christianity had not replaced older religious beliefs at this time, but it was making inroads.  Pope Gregory the Great had sent a mission to convert England in the 6th century, and his envoy Augustine was given permission by the King of Kent, whose wife Bertha was Christian, to establish himself in Canterbury and to preach the Christian message.  The message was slowly disseminated throughout England, and the monastic tradition began to gather real momentum during the 7th century. 

Werburgh, or Werberga, was a royal princess, born in Stone in today’s Staffordshire in the mid 7th century at around 650.  Her parents were King Wulfhere and Queen Ermenilda, herself daughter of King Eorcenberht of Kent, where Augustine had first established himself.  Werburgh’s maternal aunt was Etheldreda, Abbess of the Abbey of Ely.  Options were limited for an aristocratic woman in the 7th century, and rather than chosing marriage Werburgh opted for the conventual life, following in her aunt’s footsteps and eventually rising to the position of Abbess of all the nunneries in Mercia.

Lovely pilgrim badge showing the geese of St Werburgh, probably bought in the 14th century by a pilgrim to the abbey. Source: British Museum

Saints, as part of their job description, perform miracles, evidence of being touched by God.  Werburgh’s main miracle is somewhat unusual. As well as the usual miracles “to alleviate sickness, trouble, pain or personal problems” (Nick Fry 2009), her main claim to miraculous fame was the episode with the goose.  When Werburgh heard that geese were attacking attacking the abbey’s fields, she asked a servant to round them up and secure them.  He was unable to resist temptation, and cooked and consumed one of them.  When Werburgh returned and set about releasing the geese, its companions asked for their missing friend to be returned to them.  Touched by their pleas, she gathered up the carcass and feathers of the eaten goose, and brought the bird back to life.  This story may incorporate the reality of flocks of migratory geese devastating crops, with placatory sacrifices made to prevent such devastation.  These, when combined with ideas of resurrection, were all folded into the interface between the still partially pagan community and the Christian church, formalized in communal secular rites of gleaning (leftover crops collected by the poor) and the Christian celebration of the harvest (in which fruit, vegetables and grain crops were donated to the poor), which Thomas Pickles refers to as “the moral economy.”

Shrine to St Werburgh

Werburgh died on February 3rd in 706 and was buried at Hanbury in Staffordshire.  This was not, however, her final resting place.  Viking incursions in the 9th Century led to the decision to move Werburgh to greater safety.  When her tomb was opened, she was found to be perfectly preserved, absolute confirmation that she was indeed a saint.  Werburgh was brought to Chester, a fortified and much more secure urban location than Hanbury.  It is thought that there was a wooden church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul founded here by Wulfhere, which would have housed her remains, and over which the abbey was later built.  When the abbey was erected, she  was rehoused within its walls and remained safe until Henry VIII’s suppression of the monastic houses, when her shrine was destroyed and her remains lost.  The remnants of her shrine were reconstructed in the 19th Century, and remain today within the cathedral, but Werburgh’s remains were never recovered.  Werburgh continues in her role as the patron saint of Chester, which is one of a handful of English cities to have a female patron saint (including Ely, whose patron saint is Werburgh’s aunt Etheldreda).

Hugh “Lupus” d’Avranches and the Benedictine Abbey

Coat of arms of Hugh d’Avranche. Source: Wikipedia

The history of any ecclesiastical establishment is greatly influenced by its patrons and by the aristocracy that owned the land on which it was built.  Early pre-Norman monasteries were dependent upon initial royal patronage and ongoing interest.  Vale Royal in Cheshire is a good example of an abbey that had initial royal input from Edward I, but thanks to Edward’s war in Wales soon afterwards, failed to secure finance to support the initially highly ambitious plans.

After the Norman conquest under William in 1066, Norman aristocrats were put into positions of power, particularly along the Welsh borders, and they too began to found monastic houses.  In Chester, which had given William considerable trouble in the 1070, William installed his nephew Hugh d’Avranches (1047-1101), as Earl of Chester, an immensely powerful position with powers second only to the king.  He was known as Hugh Lupus (Hugh the Wolf) in earlier life, and later on (and much less flatteringly) Hugh the Fat.  His first major investment was the building of Chester Castle.  Having already founded two Benedictine monasteries in Normandy, in 1092 Hugh set about creating a new abbey in Chester, inviting the great theologian and philosopher Anselm (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109) to advise him.  The new Abbey of Saint Werburgh provided a new home for the saint, whose remains had attracted pilgrims from the moment of her death, and gave Hugh Lupus the hope not only that monastic prayers would ensure his salvation, but that pilgrims would help to support the abbey’s upkeep.  In tones of some austerity and disaproval, John Hicklin summarizes his final years:

Hugh Lupus, following the example of most of his predecessors, lived a life of the wildest luxury and rapine.  At length, falling sick from the consequence of his excesses, and age and disease coming on, the old hardened soldier was struck with remorse; and—an expiation common enough in those days—the great Hugh Lupus took the cowl, retired in the last state of disease into the monastery, and in three days was no more.

Plan of Chester Cathedral, showing how the layout is arranged around the abbey cloister, and providing an idea of how the building developed from the Norman period onwards. Click to expand, but also have a look at the source page, where the numbers are tied in to a key.  Source: Wikipedia

An abbey, headed by an abbot or abbess and occupied by monks or nuns, is a monastic establishment, incorporating a church, chapels, administrative and domestic buildings, all arranged around a covered walkway that encloses a square garth, or garden.  This walkway and garth, the cloister, was the focal point of British Benedictine and St Benedict-inspired monasteries.  Chester’s abbey gave its character to the subsequent cathedral, with the abbey church forming one side of a four-sided architectural complex that surrounded a square cloister and “garth” or garden.  The early abbey church was built along traditional lines, in the form of a cross.  The long part of the cross was the nave, where the lay brothers (and later the general public) sat.  This terminated at a stone screen (now a 19th century wooden screen), on the other side of which was the crossing, the section immediately under the tower.  On either side of the crossing were the two short arms of the cross, called transepts.  Beyond was the chancel, the private area where the monks performed their liturgies.  As time went on, this basic plan became more elaborate as suggested on the above multi-period plan.

Interestingly, the abbey’s plan is, like Tintern in south Wales, flipped, counter to the Benedictine plan.  In an ideal world the abbey church was built to the north of the cloister, putting the administrative and domestic buildings of the monastery around the cloister facing south, into the sun and warmth, the tall church building providing some shelter from the wind and rain.  At Chester, however, the church was built to the south, and the other cloister buildings to the north.  I can’t see any reason why this should be so, but sometimes the practicalities of sourcing water or building drainage caused this type of inversion where no topographical reason was obvious.  The conventional arrangement of the abbey church has been retained, with an east-west axis in which the nave at the west end.

Lovely remnants of the Norman north transept

Although the Gothic style, first introduced into the monastery in the 13th century dominates today, early Norman Romanesque features are found at various points throughout the Cathedral.  The most substantial and most arresting can be seen in the north transept, a great chunk of wall and arches thought to incorporate earlier Roman building materials.  The Norman abbey church’s floorplan was big.  Built in the shape of a cross, the long section, the nave, is thought to have been the size that it is today.  The walls were shorter in height than the current cathedral, probably little more than half the height, and the east end was probably apsidal (semi-circular).  The north transept (the left arm of the cross) sits on the original footprint of Hugh’s abbey church and retains some of its Romanesque features, with the rounded rather than pointed arches, with a row of small arched arcades perched on top of the great arch, representing the top level of the Norman abbey.  The little row of arches may be Roman in origins.  At the west end of the nave, the baptistry also features some superb Romanesque arches.  The present day refectory dates mainly to the late 13 or early 14th century, but the arch leading into it from the cloister is Norman, its arch featuring scalloped shaping.

Norman arches from the abbey’s pre-Gothic period

I thought I should say, before proceeding, that when I went back to take photographs on another day, the nave was filled with a purple light, and there was a raised platform, presumably for some upcoming event.  Apologies, therefore, for the slightly surreal purple lighting in one or two of the shots that follow.

The Gothic Abbey

Although the Norman abbey defined the layout of the cathedral complex, it grew upwards and outwards as new demands were made of it and new abbots (and restorers) wanted to put their own stamp on it.  The abbots and patrons of Chester, confronted with new abbeys being built all over England and Wales in the newly fashionable Gothic style with its soaring, upwardly mobile character, must have looked at their short walls and Norman curves and found them very dated.  Major programmes of modernization began in the 12th Century and carried on throughout the abbey’s life until the late 1530s, not in a smooth programme of architectural revision, but in fits and starts as energy and funds permitted.  One of the earliest of these transformations was the arch and window that accompanied the day stairs (leading from the former monks’ dormitory) in the east walkway, which are probably 12th century and are decorative but bold and unfussy.  In 1282 the abbey remarkably introduced running water, which was piped from Christleton, two miles away.

The chapter house

The mid 13 century remodelling of the important chapter house, where the monks met daily to discuss their work, address disciplinary matters and to hear a reading of a chapter from the Rule of St Benedict, included an impressive rib-vaulted roof, each vault slender and elegant.  The vestibule, the approach to the chapter house, has a lower and less elegant still very impressive stone rib-vaulted ceiling as does the neighbouring slype (a passageway, which acted as a meeting place for the monks, sometimes referred to as a parlour).

From the earliest history of the abbey, those who were important to the abbey were buried there.  An example is Ranulf de Blondeville, 6th Earl of Chester, descendant of Hugh Lupus, and the builder of Beeston Castle.  He died at Wallingford on 26 October 1232.  According to one of his biographers, Iain Soden, Ranulf’s remains were divided between different places. His viscera were buried at Wallingford Castle, and his heart was taken to and buried at the abbey he had founded, Dieulacres, near Leek in Staffordshire.  The remainder was carried to St Werburgh’s.  Today this seems bizarre, but it was not at all unusual in the 13th century.  (See my post about Ranulf here). The abbots of the abbey had the right to be buried at the site, and some of them were buried under the arches along the wall shared between the cloister and the church.  This cloister was used for reading and writing, and it must have been unnerving for the monks to be watched over in their work by the former abbots.

The Lady Chapel was one of the first major additions to be completed during the abbey’s reinvention of itself, completed in the late 13th century, providing a new eastern extension of the south aisle.  The “Lady” refers to the Virgin Mary, for whom a Mass was dedicated daily.  George Gilbert Scott had a hand in its 19th century modernization, but the colours date to a  sympathetic 1969  restoration of the chapel and are designed to replicate the types of colours that would have been used in in the medieval period.  One of the surviving ceiling bosses is an usual and terrific scene showing the murder of Thomas Becket.  Henry VIII ordered most of the scenes showing this event to be destroyed, making it a very rare survivor.  All of these roof bosses, showing some similarly fascinating scenes, are well worth taking the time to appreciate.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Gothic abbey is the quire area at the east end of the abbey church, where the monks delivered their liturgies, their songs and delivered their prayers, the opus dei  (God’s work) laid down by St Benedict in his monastery in Monte Cassino, Italy, in the 6th century, which were performed seven times during the day and once at night.  The Rule of St Benedict century states clearly that the opus dei should be delivered standing, which was a challenge for the elderly or otherwise impaired.

From the 12th century onwards a small ledge began to be added to cathedral quires, providing support for the monks, particularly valuable for the elderly or infirm.  Not a chair, more a prop to rest on, the misericords were the perfect opportunity to add decorative flourishes, and those at Chester are particularly splendid featuring scenes from a number of sources.  They were constructed in around 1380, probably by the craftsmen who were responsible for the quire stalls in Lincoln Cathedral.  It is worth taking some time to explore them.  The elephant with horse’s hooves and a castle on his back is a particularly well known favourite, but all of them have massive charm and merit.  If you are interested in the quire sculptures, a leaflet in the gift shop has an amazingly useful site plan of the quire, showing where to find each of the most interest corbels, misericords and bench ends.

The enormous south transept of the church, complete with side aisles, was a mid 14th century extension of the original south transept.  Originally the south and north transepts, the short arms of the cross, will have mirrored one another.  The extension was built to incorporate four new chapels for ordained monks to practise masses for the souls of the dead.  In the mid-14th century, the time of the Black Death and subsequent phases of plague, the subjects of death and the reception of the dead were very much on the minds of all people.

The pulpit and the stairs that lead up to it in the refectory, now used as a cafe

Another feature of the abbey that survives today is the refectory, where the monks gathered to eat, most of which dates to the late thirteenth or early 14th century.  One of my favourite details in the cathedral is the magnificent pulpit, built into the wall in stone, and reached via a stone staircase fronted by a row of five arches and itself framed by a pair of arches.  The arches, although clearly gothic in inspiration, also appear to echo the scalloping of the Norman archway that opens into the refectory from the cloister.  Meals were eaten in silence but, much like Cuban cigar factories, the silence was alleviated by readings.  Religious texts and hagiographies (biographies of saints) were favourite subjects.  The roof dates to 1939, and should not be missed.

As with the rest of Europe, the 14th century was scarred by successive plagues, the city was in crisis, labour was difficult to secure, the economy was under enormous strain.  There was a hiatus in work in the abbey between 1360 and 1490. 

Chester Cathedral garth. Photograph by Jeff Buck. Source: Geograph.

The garth, which would have been used for growing medicinal plants and herbs, is framed by a stone arcade, that today is sheltered by much later glass, about which more below.  The cloister, its rib-vaulted arcade, with ornamental bosses where the ribs meet, and its arcade are very fine indeed, and although built first in the late 11th century, it was modified several times over the centuries, including the 19th and early 20th centuries.  In spite of the different styles and ideas, it still manages to provide a sense of peace and orderliness.  All the walkways were used for processional purposes, but each of the walkways could be used for different activities.  In the north walkway, the lavatorium was located, a water trough in which the monks washed their hands before entering the refectory to eat.

In this cloister walkway, between the columns on the left, there desks called carrels where the monks wrote and copied from other texts. The arches on the right mark the burial places of former abbots.

During the medieval period, the role of literature became important in monastic establishments.  The copying of books, both religious and historical, to build libraries and to disseminate knowledge, was an important part of many abbatial activities, carried out in the south walkways of the cloister, between its pillars, at desks called carrels.  It is thought that the Chester “mystery plays” (dramatizations of episodes from either Old or New Testament) were written here and enacted by the monks up until the 14th century, when the Chester Guilds, of which 23 survive, took over, each performing a different play in the streets of Chester.  The Ironmongers Guild performed The Crucifixion, for example, whilst the Guild of Grocers, Bakers and Millers performed The Last Supper.  Opposite the carrels are arched recesses, which once housed tombs.  

There are two pieces of glass thought to be original are fragments, tiny details.  One shows a resurrected figure on Judgement Day, which is quite frankly the stuff of nightmares, and the other a man, crowned and bearded with a halo.  The light was too dim for me to even make the attempt to photograph, so the two below are by Jeff Buck, from the Geograph website.

Medieval glass fragments incorporated into a modern design with plain glass. Photograph by Jeff Buck. Source: Geograph

Originally the abbey was supposed to have two big towers at the west front, in the style of Notre Dame in Paris or Kölner Dom in Cologne, but the early stump of the southwest tower, started at around 1508, was blocked off.  It is interesting that ambitious construction was carrying on so late.  Not only was the wealth to do this available, but there appears to have been no sense, at least at Chester, that the monastic system was under any threat, a threat that became a reality only 30 years later.  The consistory court (see later) sits under the proposed site of the southwest tower and the baptistry under the northwest.

The abbey occupied 6 hectares of the town’s land, and was enclosed by walls with access controlled by gatehouses.  This was a source of ongoing dispute between the abbey and the town, and as late as 1480 seems to have resulted in something of a brawl between monks and tradesmen.  Greene comments that “the wall failed to prevent the monks from going out into the town to frequent taverns and consort with prostitutes,” behaviour that would not have endeared the monks to either the Church or to the townspeople.

The original monastic structure may have been quite neatly planned, but its growth over the centuries was clearly organic, responding to specific needs and ambitions, and even today continues to be modified as restoration and conservation require ongoing modifications. 

Henry VIII’s new England and the founding of the Cathedral

What children of my generation all knew about Henry VIII was that his physical appearance was quite unmistakeable, and that he chopped off the heads of his wives.  I am sure that our teachers tried to stuff us full of more relevant information, such as the importance of Henry’s decision to establish the Church of England, but rolling heads have a way of grabbing the attention in ways that ecclesiastical reform does not.  I confess that the chopped heads still horrify me, but history turns its attention to the consequences of one particular beheading, that of Catherine of Aragon, who failed to deliver an heir to the crown.  Henry wanted to divorce her but was denied permission by the Pope.  In order to legalize his marriage to Anne Boleyn, he pushed through the Act of Supremacy, putting himself and his heirs at the head of the Church of England.  Looking back at the earlier legacy of Henry I, whose only male heir had drowned, plunging the country into civil war on the king’s death, it was perfectly clear to kings that a legitimate male heir was essential for succession.  Elizabeth I proved them wrong, but the legacy of the civil war between Henry I’s chosen successor, his daughter Matilda (often referred to as the Empress Maud), and Henry’s nephew Stephen, who took the throne on Henry’s death, would not have encouraged anyone to have high hopes of a stable country under parentally-sponsored female succession.

Valle Crucis Abbey near Llangollen, founded in 1201, was dissolved in 1536 and thoroughly pillaged by Henry VIII, as well as being robbed for building stone by local people, and is now a ruin. This postcard shows it in 1905.

Henry VIII, now freed from Papal obligations, took the opportunity to “suppress,” or eliminate the monasteries.  He saw them on the one hand as a disruptive legacy of the Papal regime, potentially undermining his new order, and on the other as a source of much-needed wealth.  Some abbeys were merely pillaged for their leaded roofs, their valuable fittings and their treasures before everything else was auctioned off.  Some were converted into parish churches, and still others were gifted to Henry’s followers and became elaborate homes.  Other abbeys were less fortunate, and were razed to the ground.  Chester Abbey experienced none of these humilities, being one of the rare ecclesiastical survivals of Henry VIII’s rampage of pillage and, in some cases, persecution. 

As part of Henry’s reorganization of his lands, central England was divided into new regions.  Whereas formerly Chester had been part of the enormous diocese of Lichfield (a diocese being an ecclesiastical unit, including parishes, over which a bishop had authority), Chester became a diocese in its own right, and it needed a cathedral of its own with a bishop at its helm.  The former abbey was the perfect choice for fulfilling the role of an icon of Henry’s Church of England, stamping out the old and ushering in the new with the same sweeping wave of the royal hand in 1541.  It became the Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary.  

The Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary

Chester Cathedral in 1656. Source: British History Online

The post-monastic cathedral in the later 16th century to the beginning of the 19th century is worthy of more than a small section on a single post.  Chester Cathedral is so big and there is so much to see that it is difficult to pick out just a couple of features to talk about, but here are some that seem important to its role and its development.  Interestingly, most of the cathedral’s footprint belongs to the abbey, and only a few extensions were made.  That surprised me, but it is possible that an abbey that was home to an entire community of monks was more than enough for a non-residential cathedral.

The only Consistory Court to have survived history in Britain is now at the west end of the nave, a truly remarkable thing.  It was originally built in the late 16th century, and located in the Lady Chapel.  It was moved to the end of the nave in 1636, losing part of the canopy over the main chair in order to fit it in.  Although tiny by modern court standards, there is something about it that remains seriously intimidating.  The diocese had a significant role in legal issues, not merely wills and probate as one might expect, but also dealt with libel, witchcraft and heresy.  They were also responsible for fining those who failed to attend church.  It was a time-consuming role, and the chancellor was supported by to clerks, who flanked him, and an apparitor who sat in the seat raised at the corner to oversee the paperwork on the table below. 

A splendid memorial dating to 1602 is still in situ between the south transept and the crossing, brightly coloured and completely engaging.  It depicts Thomas Greene, Sheriff of Chester in 1551 and mayor in 1569, with both of his wives, both of whom he outlived. All of their hands were originally clasped before them in prayer, but during the Civil War in the middle of the 17th century, the hands were chopped off because they were considered to be popish, and it is something of a miracle that the rest of the memorial survived. 

The Civil War had a serious impact on Chester, culminating with the Siege of Chester that took place over 16 months between September 1644 and February 1646.  It must have been a time of great trauma for the cathedral, which must at the same time have supported the local community to the beast of its abilities.  The cathedral’s medieval windows, deemed to be idolatrous, were all smashed.  A tragedy.  It was all replaced with plain glass until modern stained glass was added.

The south transept

Nick Fry tells how the huge south transept effectively became a church in its own right towards the end of the 15th century, a story of some perseverance by the parishioners of the collegiate church of St Oswalt who had been given the right to use the south transept in the 11th century.  In the 13th century, the abbey decided to usher them into their own premises very close to the cathedral, in what is now Superdrug, but they managed to reclaim the south transept in the late 15th century, coming full circle.  Wooden screens were erected between the south transept and the rest of the church, effectively segregating it, and these were only removed in the late 1880s, when the south transept resumed its role as a component part of the cathedral proper.

Another, very fine feature of the cathedral, is an ornamental lantern dating to the 17th century that hangs in the baptistry over the 19th century font.  Both lantern and font are framed between two lovely Norman arches.
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The 19th Century Cathedral 

The 19th century modifications are pretty much as you would expect.  There are some rather unlovable features like some of the mosaics and some of the highly coloured stained glass windows that are teetering right on the perilous edge of being a step too far.  These are very consistent with a society that often valued lavishly rich and romanticized themes.  But there is also much to admire.  There are some imitation medieval windows, that capture at least something of the essence of the earlier periods, and there are some unexpectedly attractive ceilings.

Old Testament themed mosaics dating from the 19th Century in the north aisle of the nave

There are several mosaics from this period in the cathedral, some better than others.  Most are contained within relatively limited spaces, but the north aisle of the nave has an entire sequence dedicated to scenes from the Old Testament.  The one shown here from the 1880s shows the Pharaoh’s daughter finding the baby Moses in his basket on the Nile.  Others, behind the High Altar (showing the Last Supper showing Judas, isolated from the group and minus a halo) and the ones in the St Erasmus Chapel, patron saint of sailors and also known as St Elmo, which was co-opted as a memorial to Sir Thomas Brassey by his family, were designed by J.R. Clayton and feature a lot of gold and very bright colouring.

Thomas Brassey was an important personality in Britain’s head over heals expansion of the railways.  He was a civil engineer and railway entrepreneur who was such a prolific investor that by the time of his death in 1870 he is credited with having built one in every twenty miles of railway in Britain.  He had worked under Thomas Telford when he was young, on the London to Holyhead Road, and he later became a major investor in the company that was formed to rescue Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s enormous ship, Great Eastern after she was launched having bankrupted her owners (see my post about Great Eastern here).  He was born in Aldford, south of Chester, and the chapel of St Erasmus, includes a marble bust of Brassey by M. Wagmiller.

Not part of the aesthetic design but unmissable and absolutely endearing in the unfathomable way that so much 19th century engineering is, is the 19th century heating system.  In 1999 underfloor heating was installed in the cathedral, but it was not the first heating to be installed.  In the 19th century circular cast iron Gurney stoves were added, manufactured by The London Warming and Ventilating Company who bought the patent registered in 1856 by Goldsworth Gurney, surgeon turned engineer.  The stove looks like the filter in my wet-and-dry vacuum cleaner, with ribs standing out from a central cylinder, distributing heat in a full circle.  It was fired by anthracite, and the entire thing sat in a trough of water, helping to add humidity to the air.  The cathedral retains severalof them, and they are in at least 22 other cathedrals too.  One wonders what the monks would have made of it.  A smaller but still sizeable version was installed in Captain Scott’s hut in Antarctica, carried there by ship.  The mind boggles.  An interesting modification of Scott’s was the addition of a water tank about the radiator, to heat water, vital for the freezing conditions (for photos see the page dedicated to the stoves on the Antarctic Heritage Trust website).    

The most irritating aspect of the 19th century work was George Gilbert Scott, who clearly loved medieval architecture and sculpture, but could not prevent himself making what he believed were improvements on the original conceptualization.  Scott was given a regrettably free hand with the renovation work, and reimagined much of the original architecture with his own vision.  One cannot argue that he was attempting to do anything but good, albeit with a lot of self-indulgence coming into play, but he often got it rather dreadfully wrong.  On the other hand, I am a pushover for 19th century floor tiles, and he produced some rather good ones, including the rectangular section of the Crossing (beneath the tower).  He was also responsible for the current organ, which incorporated elements from an earlier 19th Century organ, and has been extended since.  It sounds marvellous.

Located next to the Romanesque arch in the north transept is a tiny and extraordinary back-lit copy of a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder.  What makes it extraordinary is that it was painted onto a caterpillar net, like a cobweb.  I had never heard of this 19th century tradition, but it apparently became very popular in Austria and there are only around 60 examples remaining in existence.

There are a lot of sculptural memorials to the deceased hanging from the walls, most of them relating to tombstones below, under the cathedral floor.  All of them are interesting, but some of them have slightly unusual inscriptions, of which three are shown below, and are side by side in the cathedral, all in the north quire aisle (number 15 on the plan at the top).

The Cathedral in the 20th – 21st Centuries

There was no sudden break between the 19th and 20th centuries, but the onset of war in 1914, and then again in 1936, must have raised the cathedral’s role as a place of solace and support.  In the south transept there are a number of memorials  commemorating military sacrifice from various periods, but those from the two World Wars are characterized by a brevity and understatement that makes them particularly touching.

At the same time, the cathedral continued to be developed architecturally.  One of the most remarkable innovations of the early 20th century, and one of its best, was the glazing of the cloister arcades the personal mission, in 1920, of the new Dean, Frank Bennett.  As well as the main window lights, which show saints, including St Werburgh and her aunt St Ethelreda, archbishops of Canterbury, holy days or important festivals, there are also little memorials that are far more personal and provide a link with some of the people who were part of Chester’s everyday life:  one commemorates the Cheshire mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine.  Another is dedicated to John Elliott “Physician of this City.”

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Moving more firmly into modern times, more recent experiments with modern sculpture and stained glass are worth thinking about.  How you feel about any of the modern contributions to Chester Cathedral is a very personal thing.  Some of the modern stained glass is inoffensive, some of it is a lot less successful.  The garth has been beautifully planted with spring bulbs, but its dominating feature is a substantial modern sculpture in the centre, and I would have preferred the monastic peace without the contrived intrusion, although I loved the sound of the fountain.  I could also seriously live without the big flat-screens, which show as white rectangles in the photograph on the left at the top of this section.  I mentioned above that there was purple lighting in the nave when I returned to take photographs on March 3rd.  The overall impact was distinctly weird, but probably had relevance to an upcoming event, and was only temporary.  

One of the modern touches does a good job of linking past and present, and draws some attention from visitors, a fascinating American quilted representation of the Mystery Plays.  Katie says that it was once kept in an inlet at the approach to the main entrance, and that it was stolen.  The police were involved and it was eventually returned and is now safely installed in the body of the cathedral.  We stood and looked at it for a while, picking out scenes that are particularly intriguing or amusing.  The Mystery Plays are still enacted today every five years, and are coming up again in 2023.

The former monks’ dormitory is now the Song School.  The dormitory had been replaced by a concrete roof by the time that the decision was made to build the Song School over the  rib-vaulted chapter house vestibule, the slype and the song practise room, and is accessed from the day stairs, by which the monks entered the cloister when it was still an abbey.  It has been very sympathetically done from the outside view.  The red sandstone is very new and clean, but will weather in time and I like that it is differentiated from the older stone, not pretending to be something that it is not.

Addleshaw Tower. Photograph by Mike Peel. Source: Wikipedia

Not part of the cathedral building, but in its surrounding gardens and best seen from the Chester Walls is the Grade II-listed standalone bell tower, the Addleshaw Tower, something that is likely to divide opinion.  I rather like it, although a lot of people don’t.  It was built to house the bells after they had been renovated, and when the original bell tower was deemed to be rather too fragile to support the weight without additional structural work that could have been excessively intrusive.  The idea of an external bell tower was a neat solution, but of course the design was controversial.  The design by George Pace was displayed at the Royal Academy of Art’s annual Summer Exhibition in 1969, and the foundation stone was laid by Lord Leverhulme in 1973.  The main external building materials are pink sandstone and Welsh slate, which hide a reinforced concrete frame.  It has been well maintained and still looks brand new.
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Those who are working behind the scenes today to sustain Chester Cathedral for the modern world have done an excellent job of making the transition from place of worship to tourist attraction, whilst ensuring that there are still spaces available for private prayer, with plenty of quiet areas in which to light candles.  I was particularly touched by the prayer for Ukraine placed in St Werburgh’s Chapel at the east end of the north aisle (number 16 on the plan above).  

Chester Cathedral works, and it is a good example of how to get it right.  I have always struggled a little with churches and cathedrals, mainly because the blend of old and new is often (but not at Chester) so jarring, and so difficult to process.  Tatty vestries, rows of plastic chairs, and aged sun-bleached pinboards with dog-eared notices often make for a dismal experience. In spite of modern seating, there is nothing remotely dismal about Chester Cathedral, which balances modern lighting (not usually purple) and underfloor heating with daily services, and a nice blend of dignity, heritage, practicality and the divine, celebrating its more remote past and retaining a sense of purpose.  I’m not quite sure how it has been pulled off. 

At the moment the far west end of the name is being restored, and that is one of the most notable and admirable signs of modern activity, but although this is just one restoration project, this is probably a never-ending story with small pockets and larger programmes of of work being undertaken all the time, and there are probably many more underway out of sight of the public.

Final Comments

Later pillar somewhat ruthlessly positioned in front of one of the Norman archways in the cloister. My favourite bit of the cathedral, because it is so human

It is interesting that when it comes to describing the cathedral today, it is the abbey that stands out as the main influence on everything that happened subsequently, even the 19th century attempts to give it a new touch.   I was expecting more 16th-18th century interventions, but even though the Norman has largely been eliminated by the abbey’s Gothic phases, it is the pre-Dissolution abbey that still speaks out, even through a veil of 19th century and even more recent modifications.

I tend to bang on about multi-layered experiences when talking about enduring archaeological and historical buildings, because the sense of time being both visible and concealed, thick and thin, horizontal and vertical, subtle and brash usually hits me like a tidal wave.  Chester Cathedral, incorporating the remains of the 7th Century shrine and remains of Saint Werburgh, was built, rebuilt, renovated and reinvented over 600 years, and is still in use today as both a place of worship and a tourist resort.  It fills the head with temporal chaos, but it’s a good chaos because it represents the accumulation of history, and even though it scrambles the brain, that historical scramble has an awful lot to say.  The challenge is to get to grips with the narrative.  

I am colossally aware of the futility of making the attempt to do justice to the cathedral in a single post.  The guide books help enormously, doing an excellent job of trying to compress a staggering amount of information into something digestible, but it’s still a big ask to contain centuries of change within a restricted format.  If you are are going, I recommend either booking a tour or buying a guide book online before you go and reading it first.

The organ, which dates to the 19th century, was being played whilst I was there to take photos, a stunning sound, and if you want to get a sense of how wonderful it is, have a listen to this YouTube video in which it is being played, with some great footage of the finger and amazing foot work by Jonathan Scott, as well as some internal views of the cathedral.


Visiting and accessibility

We drove in to Chester, and parked at the Little RooDee car park on Grosvenor Road, just round the back of Chester Castle.  It is a long-term car park, £5.00 for the whole day, and worth it for a visit to the cathedral, where there is so much to see, particularly when you are planning on lunch as well.

Full details of the cathedral’s opening times etc are at www.chestercathedral.com, and should be checked in case things change.  Photography is permitted, although lighting is very low. I didn’t check about flash and cannot find any reference to it on the website.  Access is currently free, but suggested £4.00 donations are very much appreciated and deserved – you can donate in the reception area by popping money into an enormous glass coffer, by handing it to the person on the till, or by buying Lego blocks of the superb Lego cathedral in the nave, which is such fun (a pound a block) and very useful for getting a birdseye view on the cathedral buildings.  All the contributions go to repairs, conservation and restoration.

Regarding accessibility, there is not much to worry about.  It has not been converted throughout for wheelchair access, at the time of writing, but there is a ramp from the reception area into the main cathedral and there is still a lot to be seen without tackling steps.  For those on foot, there are only a few stone steps here and there, and for most people these are too few to worry about.  Most are very shallow and easy to tackle, and those that are likely to trip you up in the low light are painted white along the edges.  Like all old buildings, however, keeping an eye on where your feet are going is a very good idea.

If you are keen on stained glass, be warned that nearly all of it is 19th Century and modern, and that if you want to get a good idea of it, a bright day helps.

On both visits I was very lucky to be trdated to live music.  There was choral singing in the south transept when I was there with Katie, the singers informal in jeans and comfy clothes, filling the entire cathedral with a gentle but lovely sound.  This happens between 10.30 and 12.00 on Fridays in the south transept, led by Ella Speirs.  According to her website, sing.dance.love., the music was developed by Taize, an ecumenical  community in France founded after the Second World War, which creates a harmony  in song using short phrases from scripture.  It was a fabulous accompaniment to the visit, for which my thanks to those who took the trouble to lend their voices to the morning.  On the day when I was taking photographs, the following week, an organist was playing, and the sound was glorious.

Our final stop was the monastic refectory, a tall, light-filled space, now a really good coffee shop/café where we had lunch.  Very appropriate.  As you wait for your food to arrive you can admire the glorious 1939 hammer-beam ceiling, the Gothic architecture, the modern stained glass window, and soak up the atmosphere.  I had latte and a Welsh rarebit, the latter served with a gorgeous coleslaw that tasted anything but synthetic and a light and ultra-fresh salad with crispy oak-leaf lettuce, crunchy cucumber and firm but juicy little cherry tomatoes, all tossed in just the right amount of balsamic dressing. The cheese was golden, perfectly melted, deliciously browned in places and gorgeous.  I’ll be stopping there again.

The garth within the cloister, a completely secluded area. The Water of Life sculpture is in the foreground, and the new sandstone of the Song School is clearly visible behind the cloister arcade. Photograph by Harry Mitchell,  Source: Wikipedia

We exited through the gift shop, as you do, where there are postcards, books, booklets, choral music, DVDs, jewellery, games and other items.  If you are interested in exploring the subject of the cathedral’s stained glass, you can buy a booklet about it, and the same with the misericords.  The shop is very nicely done, and you can buy your stamps for postcards at the same time.  I came away clutching postcards, stamps, a guide book and the little leaflets about the misericords and the cloister windows.

There are “Cathedral at Height” tours that take you to upper layers in the cathedral, all the way to the top of the tower, and although I haven’t yet done this, Katie says that a reasonable amount of fitness is required (216 steps), and anyone suffering from claustrophobia or vertigo may want to think twice.  I suffer from neither, and am seriously looking forward to the experience and the views from the top of the tower.  Find out more on the Chester Cathedral website.
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Sources

When the bells were removed, George Pace designed a ceiling decoration in gold on wood in 1973, to seal the bell tower, that still draws the eye and looks stunning

For the first time, my main source cannot be pinned down to a publication.  Thanks very much again  to Katie Achaibou, trainee Chester Green Badge tourist guide for introducing me to Chester Cathedral, who says that Nick Fry’s expertise on the cathedral’s history has been a great source of information for all those on the course.  I did not take notes, and the following sources helped me to nail down facts that I had half-remembered.  Any errors in the above are, as usual, all my own work 🙂

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Books and papers

Burton, J. and Kerr, J. 2011. The Cistercians in the Middle Ages.  The Boydell Press

Fry, N. 2009.  Chester Cathedral.  Scala

Greene, J.P. 1992.  Medieval Monasteries. Leicester University Press

Hiatt, C. 1898. The Cathedral Church of Chester.  A Description of the Fabric and A Brief History of the Episcopal See.  George Bell and Sons. Available on the Internet Archive

Hodge, J. 2017. Chester Cathedral. Scala

Smalley, S. 1994. Chester Cathedral. Pitkin Guides

Soden, I. 2021 (second edition). The First English Hero: The Life of Ranulf de Blondeville. Amberley

Pamphlets

Brooke, J., Fry, N., Ingram, B., Moncreiff, E. and Thomson, J.  (no date).  The Windows of the Cloister.  Chester Cathedral

Smalley, S. (additional research, Fry, S.) 1996. Chester Cathedral Quire Misericords. The Pitkin Guide. Chester Cathedral.

Uncredited 2010, with an introduction by the Dean of Chester.  Refectory Treasures. Chester Cathedral

Websites

Antarctic Heritage Trust
The Gurney Stove in Antarctica
https://nzaht.org/gurneystove/

British History Online
Chester Cathedral 
A History of the County of Chester: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London 1980, pages 188-195
https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/ches/vol3/pp188-195

Chester Cathedral
https://chestercathedral.com 

Historic England
Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary 
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1376398?section=official-list-entry

Chester Mystery Plays
About the Plays. Keeping History Alive and Well
https://chestermysteryplays.com/discover/history/

Earls of Chester Family Tree
Chester ShoutWiki http://chester.shoutwiki.com/wiki/File:EarlsTree2.jpg

Dr Thomas Pickles
Why did St. Werburgh of Chester Resurrect a Goose?
www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhWq2ZS3XkE

Historic England
Official list entry
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1376398?section=official-list-entry

JPP (CDM) Ltd
Song School, Chester Cathedral
https://jppcdm.co.uk/project/new-song-school-constructed-on-medieval-cloisters-at-chester-cathedral/

Sing.Dance.Love
Fridays 10.30-12 at Chester Cathedral in the South Transept
https://www.singdancelove.co.uk/taize-at-st-peters

Valle Crucis Abbey #3 – The architectural history of Valle Crucis Abbey

Inside the rib-vaulted slype (or passage) passing through the east range of the cloister, to the rear of the abbey. Source: Coflein

In part 1 of this series, the establishment of the Cistercian order of monks, a branch of break-away houses based on the rule of St Benedict is explained, and its spread into Wales during the 12th century is discussed.  Within this context, the foundation of Valle Crucis Abbey by Prince Madog of Powys Fadog is introduced, establishing the abbey as a member of a unique family of Cistercian houses that had its own particular Welsh character.

Part 2 looked at what each of the monastic buildings was for and how each room was used by the community of monks that lived at the abbey, potentially for the duration of their lives.  It is discussed how the layout of each abbey was unique, but was guided by the basic Cistercian model of mixing domestic and religious buildings around a square, the cloister, and how this is demonstrated at Valle Crucis.

This post, part 3, takes a look at the history of the abbey buildings, pointing out how how certain architectural features indicate developments between the time of the foundation of the abbey in 1201 to its dissolution in 1537.  Over this time, the occupants of the abbey responded to disasters, including fire and war; fluctuating economic conditions; changes of abbey leadership, and evolving outlooks, including eroding values, within the Cistercian order.  The architecture of the claustral buildings reflects many of these changes, whether imposed upon or chosen by the community, capturing them uncompromisingly in stone.

The row of arches that define the eastern range of buildings surrounding the cloister.

The entire abbey is a narrative of time passing, and the east range of the cloister is a good example.  In the photograph of the east range  to the left, this small but well preserved section of the abbey reveals an immense profusion of architectural change, during the lifespan of the monastery and beyond its closure by Henry VIII.  The  combination of the row of arches above the window frames, lines of holes and protrusions and the slate-tiled roof above it all, capture how change over time is revealed in the abbey’s architecture.  A simple list of just some of the architectural changes visible in the east range helps to illustrate the point.

  • The rounded entrance at the left is early 13th century, one of the earliest parts of the abbey, leading into the early 13th century sacristy.
  • Next to it, the ornate entrance to the book room in the middle is mid 14th century.
  • At the far right is a very elaborate passage from the cloister to the eastern part of the monastery precinct, and although this incorporates an earlier 13th century arch from elsewhere in the monastery, its construction dates to the late 15th or early 16th century, only a matter of decades before closure
  • The first floor was originally the monks’ dormitory when the abbey was first builtin the 13th century
  • Excavations found that the east range had been much longer in the 13th century, but for reasons unknown was later reduced in size, and when this happened the latrine (marked on the above photograph by rough masonry) must have been added
  • The row of holes are beam holes that supported the roof of an arcade (a covered walkway)
  • The two rows of stone protrusions, corbels, that stick out of the east range above arch level date to different periods.  The upper set supported the base of an ornamental parapet belonging to the early 15th century, whereas the lower set supported the roof of the arcade of the 14th century
  • The blocked doorway on the first floor is 16th century, but this in turn replaces a 15th century doorway that followed the demolition of the roof that covered the walkway, when the abbot converted the dormitory into his personal apartments; a wooden staircase would have led down into the cloister
  • The slate roof visible today was put on after the monastery had been abandoned, and when the east range had been converted into a farm house, as is the square window to the left of the top floor’s blocked 16th century doorway.

See the excellent booklet by D.H. Evans (B.A., F.S.A) for more in the same vein as the above (Valle Crucis Abbey by D.H. Evans, Cadw 2008).  Evans walks visitors through Valle Crucis building by building, room by room, picking out features from different periods in each.  In this post, I have used Evans as my main source for architectural change, looking at what happened at different periods in chronological order, so that the development of the abbey as a whole can be understood as a historical narrative.

The arrival of the Cistercians at Llanegwestl in 1201

The meagre surviving remains of Strata Marcella. Source: Coflein

The first abbey to be established in Wales was Tintern in 1131, in Monmouthshire, South Wales, only the second abbey to be established in the British Isles.  It was followed in 1151 by Whitland Abbey in Monmouthshire (also in south Wales, on the borders of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire), founded with monks from Clairvaux Abbey, of the Cistercian order in France.  Both were founded by Cambro-Normans, a bare century after the Conquest, but whereas Tintern remained firmly under Norman control, Whitland was adopted by the Lord Rhys, the Welsh prince of Deheubarth, who also adopted Whitland’s offspring, the abbey Strata Florida.  The Lord Rhys established a new tradition of monasticism in Wales, referred to as Pura Wallia.   As well as Strata Florida, Whitland provided the monks for Strata Marcella in 1170 and Cwmhir in 1176, which in turn provided abbots and monks for their own off-springs, resulting in three branches of Cistercian abbeys in Wales, spreading from south to north, an eastern branch a central branch and a western branch.   In the eastern branch, Whitland founded Strata Marcella in 1170, and Strata Marcella in turn founded Valle Crucis, at the top of the western branch, in 1201.

Map of the cantrefi of Wales showing Powys Fadog. Source: Wikipedia

By the end of the 12th century, northern Powys (Powys Fadog) was the only territory or cantref in Wales to be without a Cistercian monastery, a matter of some discontent amongst the other monasteries in the Whitland network, including Whitland itself, Cwmhir, Strata Florida and Strata Marcella.  Their abbots joined forces to persuade Prince Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor, ruler of northern Powys (Powys Fadog) to make the endowments required for the foundation of a new Cistercian monastery in northeast Wales.  As described in part 1, when Prince Madog founded Valle Crucis in the commute of Iâl, it was in partnership with the Strata Marcella Abbey in mid Wales.  Strata Marcella (founded 1170) provided the abbot and monks, and Prince Madog provided upland and lowland estates, mills, fishing rights and the agricultural infrastructure to enable Valle Crucis to establish and maintain itself.

Nant Eglwseg, running to the east of Valle Crucis

The site chosen by Madog and the Cistercians for the new abbey was remote from urban life, but was not an untamed wilderness.  There was, in fact, a settlement already there called Llanegwestl, and the abbey was often referred to thereafter by the former settlement’s name rather than by its official Latin name. The site was ideal for village life.  On the edge of a fast-flowing and generous stream it was sheltered by tall hillsides and benefited from both upland and lowland ranges, ideal for grazing sheep and cattle respectively, and was even sufficiently fertile on the floodplains for some agricultural or horticultural activity.  It was near enough to the village of Llangollen for local trade to be practical, and was within reach of outlying farms (granges) that belonged to it.  

The east face of Valle Crucis. View from the other side of the monastic fish pond. Source: Coflein

For the Cistercians, the proximity of water was integral not only to drinking, cooking and washing, but to their liturgies.  At all Cistercian monasteries, a complex and often impressive network of subterranean drains and sluices was established, by which water was moved around each abbey to where it was needed.  Water was also diverted form fish ponds.  Inevitably, in order for the monks to move in, the villagers were forced to move out, and this was the first step taken to establish the new abbey.  This was by no means an unusual, if unpopular event when a Cistercian abbey moved in, and Madog provided the dispossessed residents of Llanegwestl with land to the east, at Northcroft and Stansty (Bromfield) near Wrexham.  

In 1201, the abbot and monks supplied by Strata Marcella arrived at their newly vacated destination, and started work.  Although the following account is by no means not exhaustive, I have picked out some of the key points about the abbey’s architectural past  to give an idea of how the abbey began, what happened to it in the course of its history, and how both accident and design led to physical changes in the function and appearance of the abbey’s surviving buildings.
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The early 13th Century

Butler’s 1970 excavation was published in Archaeologia Cambrensis in 1976.

Archaeological excavations by Lawrence Butler in 1970 shows that once the villagers had been resettled, the site was cleared so that an initial set of essential buildings could be built rapidly in wood, probably including a small church, chapter house (where the monks met each morning), and sleeping and eating quarters, the core infrastructure that St Benedict had determined was the bare minimum for a monastic community.  Whilst living in the temporary buildings, the Valley Crucis monks set about overseeing the construction of their stone church, starting at the east end.  The church, as the focus of abbey life, was always the first building to be started, although others could subsequently start to be developed simultaneously.

The early Cistercian order required choir monks to engage in manual labour as part of their daily duties, but it is unlikely that they engaged in any significant work on building activities due to the demands of their seven daily prayer sessions.  Instead, specialist joiners, masons and labourers, perhaps with the assistance of any of the conversi (lay bretheren) not actively engaged in farming and related activities, will have carried out the bulk of the work.  It is thought that many of these craftsmen were itinerant, making a living out of building and repairing ecclesiastical buildings.

Each Cistercian abbey’s floorplan was an echo of the Cistercian order’s “Bernadine” plan, promoted by St Bernard of Clairvaux abbey, which itself echoed the layout of earlier Benedictine monastic establishments.  All Cistercian abbeys were guided by the principal of opus Dei, God’s work, and were organized to meet the needs of regular devotion in church, scholarly activity, economic self-sufficiency, personal poverty, communal support, all embedded in routines and activities that brought these ideas together and ensured their sustainability.  As Cistercian monks took a Vow of Stability, which bound them to a given monastery for life, unable to leave it without good reason and then only with the permission of the abbot, a strict regime of route and reinforcement of core values was essential, all embodied in the claustral arrangement.

Valle Crucis ground plan. Source: Valley Crucis Abbey by D.H. Evans (Cadw 2008)

The west front of Valley Crucis abbey church

As the church continued to go up and attention could be turned to the rest of the monastic complex around the cloister, one of the first tasks will have been to have laid out the claustral plan and to put in drains that would run under rooms and subsequently be covered with floors.  Butler’s excavation of the site, published in 1976, found several sections of stone-lined drains that passed under floors and under the garth, but he was unable to trace sufficient stretches to map them as a network.  Therefore, how they functioned as a network is still not fully understood, although they almost certainly led, at a minimum, to the kitchen, the lavatorium (water basin) in the garth, and to clear the latrine drains.

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As you leave the car park, look up, and you are confronted by the impressive west face, shown in the photograph above left.  It is evident, when you pause to take it in, that there are considerable differences in the masonry, which mark work carried out at different periods.  There is very little of the early 13th century remaining. The most noticeable features date to over 100 years after the abbey was founded, including the lancet windows and the arch that frames them, the doorway, the rose window and the finely dressed yellow sandstone ashlar (covering stone) in which the rose window sits, and will be discussed below.  The earliest parts of the west face are, unsurprisingly, at the base, where a dressed plinth in preserved, and rather severe dressed buttresses (supporting squared pillars built against the walls) rise from the ground to support the tall west face.

Vaulting shaft shown in red, string course between the two periods of masonry shown with the blue arrow, and one of the church windows, of which only the bases remain along the north wall, is shown in green. click to expand the image.

Moving inside the church, more of this earliest phase is visible in the north aisle (the wall at far left).  In the early 13th Century the walls were built  roughly faced rubble held in place by  a lot of mortar, combining bigger and smaller pieces that would have been plastered over when finished.  There is a clear change in the style of this construction, visible in the photograph to the right.  The lighter, lower part of the wall, consisting of poorly sorted masonry below is the earlier wall, and the darker, more regimented masonry above the stringcourse (row of projecting stones at the top of the lighter looking stonework) followed a fire that swept through the abbey at around 1240.  Also in the photograph, in the centre at ground level, is one of several “vaulting shafts,” the bases of small pillars built against the wall.  These too were part of the early 13th century vision.  Had fire not have swept through the part-built abbey, they would have supported stone-vaulted roofs over both aisles.  Instead, the early 13th century aisle roofs were built in wood.

There are five pairs of piers, or columns.  The first four of these help to mark out the original footprint of the nave, where the conversi, any guests and corrodians (paying residents) attended church services.  They were separated from the east end of the church, and the abbey’s choir monks, by a stone screen, called a pulpitum. The eastern end, where the choir monks carried out liturgies and services, with the presbytery, high alter, and two chapels in each of the two transepts, was started first.  The nave lay on the other side of the pulpitum.  The remains of the pulpitum today are where they were moved at a later date, and this later position is marked by the base of a spiral staircase.  However, the base of the spiral staircase has features that date to the early 13th century, so it looks as though that both this and the original pulpitum were simply moved one bay along, extending the nave and reducing the eastern end.  Originally it will have crossed the nave at the previous set of piers.  It is thought that the staircase probably led up to an organ loft.

The fabulous sacristy was also built at this time, shown in the photographs below.  The sacristy had doorways into the church and into the cloister.  Its role was to house the vestments and altar furnishings, and any other paraphernalia required during the liturgies and services.  It is an extraordinary part of the building, with a marvellous tunnel-vaulted stone roof, which is shown below, is a unique part of the abbey.   Seen from the cloister, the entrance to the sacristy also dates from the early 13th Century and retains the round-topped arch of the Romanesque style (see photograph below), which sits rather strangely against the pointed arches of most of the abbey’s early and later Gothic styles, but echoes the sacristy’s interior tunnel vaulting.  Today church sacristies and vestries are often rather dismal  spaces, little more than untidy cupboards, but at Valle Crucis the magnificently built room was also an interface between church and cloister, and was given an appropriately dignified character.

On the left: The entrance to the sacristy with its rounded arch, dating to the early 13th century. Above it is a hotch-potch of later changes of direction. Note the pieces of facing stone above the arch and beneath the square window, coloured red by the later fire (my photo); On the right: the interior of the sacristy (source: Coflein)

All of the north transept is early 13th century.  Although alterations were made at a later date, none of these survive.  The north transept incorporates two chapels, each with some nice features original to its construction, including two small cupboards (aumbries) where communion vessels would have been stored, and a stone basin (piscina) for cleaning them following use.  The south transept and its chapels also belong to the early 13th century, but all of its upper levels belong to the period after the fire.  The entrance between the dormitory and the night stairs in the south transept dates to the 13th Century.  This doorway led directly from the first floor dormitory to the east end of the church via a flight of wooden stairs (10ft / 3m) above the ground level of the church) for access to the church for the night-time liturgy.

South transept. The door to the day stairs is at far right, the stairs now long gone. To its left is the entrance to the sacristy. The big arch at the far left is the entrance to one of the two chapels.

Out in the cloister, the base of the water basin (lavatorium) is still in situ, and was almost certainly there since the establishment of the abbey.  Excavations found that the east range of the cloister found that it extended for another 12m (40ft).

The east end of the abbey church, seen from the other side of the fish pond.  The early 13th century pilasters with quoins are framed in red

Walking through the slype, the passageway at the end of the east range (itself of a later date), and heading outside to look back at the eastern end of the abbey, there are more original 13th century features.  The lower level of walls and pointed lancet windows date to this time, although the central lancet window would have been taller, reflecting the arrangement of the west end windows.  The church buttresses that lie flat against the walls (pilasters) are later in date.  However, the buttresses that are visible to the left of the church, against the south transept.  Instead of being completely covered in stone dressing, like the church buttresses, they are  built of rubble and provided with dressed stone, quoins, on the corners.

The 12th and early 13th century Cistercians valued simplicity and rejected ostentation, associating it with adulation of the material, wealth, self-indulgence and a tendency to succumb to luxury.  However, even in the early 13th century one or two pieces of decorative stonework were erected and have survived.  One of the very few pieces of early ornamentation is the ceremonial arch that leads from the church in the north corridor of the cloister into the cloister, and has very beautiful sculpted columns topped with stiff-leaf capitals, which can be seen on the photograph below.

South transept arch with stiff-leaf capitals. Source: Coflein

The cemetery was also established in the early 13th Century.  The abbey’s abbots and its most conspicuous contributors to the abbey’s property, possibly its founder Prince Madog, whose gravestone was found at the site would have been buried within the church.  Ordinary monks would have been laid to rest in the cemetery that grew to the north and east of the abbey within the abbey precinct.    A 13th century tombstone was used, post-dissolution to make a fireplace in the dormitory, which by then had been converted into a farmhouse, but is evidence for high profile 13th Century burials both within the abbey and in the abbey precinct.

Evans says that by around 1225 the eastern half of the church was well advanced, work had started on building the stone roof over the presbytery, transepts and crossing.  By about 1240 the western church had been laid out and the lower parts of the walls and piers were underway.

The monastic precinct must have been growing at the same time.  The full extent of the abbey’s immediate precinct is unknown, but must have been home to a number of ancillary buildings, as discussed in part 2.  The core buildings that exist today did not live in a vacuum, although its full extent is unknown,  The main entrance into the abbey precinct, was probably overseen by a gatehouse on the outer edges of the abbey precinct, perhaps were the buildings at the top of the lane leading to the abbey are now located.   Once within the abbey precinct, visitors could attend the church to participate in services in the nave (the long, west end of the abbey church).  Just as it is today, in 1201 the main entrance to the abbey church was in the west, nowadays approached from the car park.

The mid-13th Century fire and its consequences

The fire in the first half of the 13t Century swept through the abbey church, changing some of the yellow sandstone pink. The design of the church had to be changed to a rather more modest design with a wooden roof, rather than the vaulted stone roof originally envisaged

When Madog, the founder of Valle Crucis, died in 1236, his son Gruffudd II Maelor (d.1269) confirmed his father’s gifts to the monastery in a new charter, rather like renewing a contract, ensuring that the abbey retained its lands and continued to be viable.

Around 40 years after its establishment in 1201, the abbey was coming along nicely, with the stone walls rising impressively from the ground.  The community must have had a very real sense of progress and achievement.  The eastern end of the abbey church was approaching completion.  The short presbytery at the east end of the church, where the most sacred liturgies took place, was complete.  So too were the transepts, the two eastern piers and the two eastern chapels.  The west end of the church was probably laid out and work was underway on the walls and piers of the nave. Buttress bases were established, ready to support the tall walls on all sides of the church.  The entire building must have been a cat’s cradle of wooden scaffolding.  The refectories and other south and west range buildings were probably built, but made of wood.

Although it is not recorded in any surviving documentation, it is clear that there was a major fire at Valle Crucis.  It was fierce and spread fast through the wooden scaffolding, turning yellow sandstone features pink.  Given that the source of the fire seems to have been the kitchen area, it is probable that the fire was connected with the preparation of food for the refectories.  The refectories were probably the first to burn down.

Entrance to the nave at the west end of the church.  The shape of the arch is early Gothic, but the decoration imitates Norman predecessors

Repairs were immediately implemented, but the overall design was subjected to a rethink.  Instead of vaulted stone ceilings, the church aisles were provided with wooden roofs.  The same walls continued to go up, but instead of mixed sizes of stone, only smaller, flatter and thinner pieces were selected, laid flat.  Romanesque curves were largely eliminated, and early Gothic features dominated.  It was all about height and drawing attention to it with tall, pointed lancet windows and doorways with pointed arches.

Some of these features, far more ornamental than the early 13th century vision, are clearly seen on the west front.  The arched ceremonial doorway that was added to the earlier west face dates to after the fire and is also early Gothic in style.  It was inserted into the west front, probably replacing an earlier and simpler version.  The wall had only just reached the level of the windows by the time of the fire.  When work resumed, tall lancet windows were provided with elaborate “lights” (ornamental dividers) that divided each into two.

Wall support for bell tower after the fire at the right, at the end of the south aisle and in front of an arch that opens into the cloister. Source: Wikimedia Commons, J. Armagh

The structural integrity of the bell tower that rose above the crossing point beneath the two transepts and the main axis of the church was apparently undermined by the fire.  A new wall was built along the south aisle where it approached the south transept, and a filled relieving arch was added to the south wall of the tower, at the end of the south aisle.  

Looking at the exterior of the east end of the church, which can be reached by passing through the passage at the end of the east range, the buttresses that lie flat, but sit flat between and either side of the church windows form a remarkable arch at the top.  The upper windows, thin lancets, echo the lower windows but are incorporated into the buttresses.  These feature all date to the mid 13th century , when the rebuilding took place.  

The east and south ranges also had to be rebuilt and the opportunity was taken to build it of stone.  Postholes within the lowest surviving course of the refectory walls show the position of the timber supports for the roof of the building.  The refectory pulpit may have predated the fire, but by only a short time.  The kitchen was also rebuilt at this time.  The western range appears to have had relatively insubstantial stone courses, which has led to suggestions that first storey half-timbered and therefore more lightweight and requiring less support.

The later 13th Century and Edward I

Edward I, from Westminster Cathedral. Source: Wikipedia

One of the challenges that the Welsh monastic houses confronted in the latter half of the 13th Century, was the military ambition of Edward I (1239-1307) in Wales.  Edward’s grandfather King John (1166-1216) had lost the bulk of the French territories that kings of England had sought to retain since the arrival of William the Conqueror.  Edward I had both the leisure and the inclination to  bring the rest of the island under his control.  In 1276-77 and again in 1282-83 Edward concentrated his energies on Wales, allowing nothing to stand in his path, including religious houses, a few of which he made use of and some of which experienced severe damage to buildings, land and agricultural resources.  Some monasteries were  occupied, and many suffered financial loss due to damage of the main abbey or its related granges (farms) and by devastation of its herds and crops.  At least one Cistercian abbey’s entire community, Aberconwy, was forcibly moved to new premises and its old premises were occupied by Edward’s troops.  In spite of its proximity to the well-sited Castell Dinas Brân (Castle of the Crow), the ruins of which continue to overlook the Vale of Llangollen and Valle Crucis itself, Valle Crucis  was subjected to the indignities of war.  Interestingly, there is little evidence that the abbey core buildings. The evidence underlying the suggestion that property owned by Valle Crucis had suffered some form of financial harm comes from payments made to the abbey by Edward I following the conquest of Wales, by way of compensation.  It is possible, therefore, that whilst Valle Crucis properties were damaged, the core of the abbey itself was protected.

Cadw signage showing the layout and possible appearance of Castell Dinas Brân

The stone castle was built in the late 1260s by Prince Gruffudd ap Madog (c.1220-1270), but may have been preceded by a wooden structure, and it is uncertain whether Valle Crucis was built under the eye of the castle, or whether the castle came later.  Dinas Brân was passed on the death of Madog to his four sons in 1236.  Although it is not known which of the brothers made the decision to resort to a desperate measure, when confronted by English attack, under the Early of Lincoln, the castle was burnt by the the Welsh soldiers who held the castle in 1277, perhaps to prevent the English taking it.  In fact, the English found that it could be repaired and, greatly admiring it, retained it and held it until 1282, after which it was abandoned.

Edward, a veteran of the eighth crusade, was a solid supporter of religious establishments, founding the Cistercian abbey of Vale Royal in Cheshire in 1270.  Valle Crucis received £26 13s 4d in 1238 and £160 in 1284.  In the absence of signs of damage to the abbey itself at that time, it seems likely that either abbey granges had been damaged, or that abbey resources, including crops and livestock, were pillaged by Edward’s armies.

Page from Peniarth Ms. 20, folio 260v. (c.1330), the earliest copy of Brut y Tywysogion. Source: Wikipedia

At some time during the later 13th Century, Valle Crucis began to be an important source of scholarly texts.  Cistercians were often formidable scholars and had a mission to perpetrate both religious and historical literature.  Valle Crucis is thought to have been one of the important centres of literary output, possible the primary centre, for the copying and distribution of a series of historical and religious, of which more on a future post.  One of these documents is known as Peniarth MS 20 (its National Library of Wales reference number), is the one that is thought by some to have been copied at Valle Crucis.  It consists of a number of different texts, including a version of the Brut y Tywysogian (Chronicle of the Princes), Y Bibl ynghymraec’, (a version of The Bible in Welsh), Kyvoesi Myrddin a Gwenddydd (the prophecy of Merlin and his sister Gwenddydd) and a summary of bardic grammar, as taught to fledgling poets.

The 14th Century

View of Valle Crucis from 1905, with gravestones in the foreground at the east end of the church, with the west front at the end. Source: Wikipedia ( Illustrations and photographs of places and events in Welsh history from a childrens book called ‘Flame Bearers of Welsh History’)

In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, Valle Crucis was apparently still supported by Madog ap Gruffudd’s descendants.  A 1290 tombstone from the site names “Gweirca daughter of Owain,” who may have been Madog’s great granddaughter, and in 1306 Madog’s great grandson, another Prince Madog ap Gruffudd, was buried at the abbey.  In 1956 his grave stone, with his grave beneath were found in front of the church’s high altar, a very high honour.  The beautifully carved slab includes a heraldic shield showing a lion rampant, a sword, a spear and a riot of fruit and foliage.  The inscription surrounding the shield names the prince.  These grave stones were shifted from their original locations and placed in the former eastern range dormitory.

It is in the east range that the 14th century changes are most obvious.  Although  individual monks took a vow of poverty, the reality is that many monastic establishments  could become very wealthy if they were well endowed and well managed.  Individual abbots could become very highly regarded, and abbeys noted for particular achievements might host important guests.  Throughout the late 14th and 15th Centuries, the role of Valle Crucis and its abbots in particular, began to change, becoming both more worldly and more prestigious, and some of the signs of these changes are visible in the architectural embellishments at this time.

Inscription on the west face of Valle Crucis, above the rose window

The west front of the abbey was rebuilt under the abbacy of Abbot Adam, c.1330-44.  Just above the rose window, is an inscription in Latin, with Lombardic lettering that reads ADAM ABBAS CECIT HOC OPUS IN PACE QUIESCAT AMEN (Abbot Adam carried out this work; may her rest in peace.  Amen).  The repair work restored the arch that contained all three lancet windows on the exterior, but failed to do so on the interior. The rose window was added , a popular architectural convention at this time, with eight lights, providing an ornamental focal point for the west face, inside and out.  At the same time the surrounding gable was elegantly faced with sandstone blocks.

In the east range there were a number of changes.  First, the entire east range was reduced from its early 13th century length by some 40ft (12m).  Although the east range had a chapter house from day one, in the mid-14th century it was rebuilt and replaced with something far more ambitious than the early 13th century monastery would probably never have attempted or approved of.  The entrance was replaced with something much more impressive, and the door to the book cupboard, with its ornate tracery, is now one of the most remarkable features of the ruined abbey, perhaps accompanying the rising importance of Valle Crucis as a literary centre.  The ornate detail of the east range with its impressive chapter house would certainly have drawn the attention of important guests, including other monastic scholars, who came to contribute to or learn from the work of the Valle Crucis monks.  It should be noted that the windows at the rear of the chapterhouse were reconstructed in the Victorian period and the flagstone floor was probably laid in the 18th century.

Artist’s reconstruction of the east range as it might have looked in the mid 14th Century, complete with the book room entrance, the arcade and a dormitory separated into individual cells by wooden dividers. The lean-to latrine is at the end. By Chris Jones-Jenkins. Source: Evans 2008

This trend to incorporate ornate gothic elements that had become so popular in ecclesiastical buildings was found throughout the Cistercian tradition at this time.

The lovely rib-vaulted passageway at the far end of the east range, the slype, was either completely new or, more probably, was an extension or rebuild of an earlier version.  There is a photograph of it at the top of this post.  A 13th Century arch was incorporated into the end of the passage, perhaps moved from the chapter house to make room for the new chapter house door.  The elaborate character of the passageway is unusual, and it has been suggested that although a passage located in this position would originally have lead to the cemetery, this more ostentations version may have led to the abbot’s personal house, marking his increasingly public role at the abbey.

Stairs built into the relocated pulpitum, perhaps leading to an organ loft. Source: RCHAMW

In  the late 14th or early 15th century, within the abbey church the pulpitum and east end choir were moved an entire bay east towards the end of the church, so that it now sat between the two piers immediately in front of the transepts. At the same time, a stone screen was added as an extension to the pulpitum across the north aisle.  This  happens at other monastic churches at this time, and may be because the space at the west end was no longer needed for lay congregations, or perhaps because there were fewer choir monks.  At around the same time, the cloister arcade was probably built or rebuilt.  Excavations were unable to shed any light on the subject.

During the mid-14th Century the Black Death tore through Britain, wiping out much of the population, including the conversi (lay brotherhood), which had already been on the wane during the late 13th Century.  Managers and servants had to be employed to do their work.  The western range, discussed in part 2, was no longer required for the conversi, and must have been adapted for other uses.  Unfortunately, so little of it left that even excavations have been unable to cast much light on the subject.

The 15th and to the early 16th Century

Owain Glydwr’s coat of arms, found in Harlech. Source: National Museum of Wales

Further damage was thought to have been inflicted on the  abbey during Owain Glyndŵr’s uprising between c.1400 and 1410.  Excavations found evidence of another fire early in the century, which destroyed much of the western and southern ranges, the latter containing kitchen and refectory, which may or may not have been an outcome of the Owain Glyndŵr rebellion.  However the fire started, both ranges were apparently rebuilt under Abbot Robert of Lancaster, who arrived in 1409 and was simultaneously bishop of St Asaph.  The kitchen was supplied with a new fireplace with a large external chimney.

The abbey seems to have struggled in the following years.  Unlike Edward I, Glyndŵr appears to have made no provisions to the Welsh abbeys to compensate them for damage caused, probably because although he made some short term progress, he was ultimately unsuccessful, vanishing in around 1412.  It also seems as though the incumbent abbots in the years after these events, between 1419 to 1438, were unable to turn the abbey’s fortunes around.  It was not until later in the century, between 1455-1527, that new abbots and new patronage combined to inaugurate a new era for Valle Crucis, again as a centre for Welsh literature and poetry, this time with an emphasis on the work of the Welsh bards rather than more scholarly historical or religious texts.  Further elaboration to the design of the abbey, giving it yet another ornamental flourish, was the addition of a parapet to the church, as well as to the east range.  Corbels, the protruding stone supports that remain visible today, are all that is left of this.

Valle Crucis dormitory on the first floor of the east range. Source: Coflein

It is always difficult to stifle ambition, and the abbots of Valle Crucis became increasingly differentiated from the choir monks.   Three abbots in particular, attracted attention to themselves as patrons of Welsh literature and poetry between 1455 and 1527, building a scholarly reputation for Vale Crucis.  These activities may be been enabled or at least assisted by the patronage of the Stanley family who were granted Bromfield and îal  (today known as Yale) in 1484.  Once the princes had ceased to support the abbeys, after the conquest of Wales by Edward I at the end of the 13th Century, the monasteries were forced either to make the most of their existing assets or to find new ways of generating income.  This will be discussed in a future post.  However, finding a new patron so late in its history was an important and very lucky break for Valle Crucis.

In the early 16th Century the dormitory had been converted into a great hall for the abbot, and at least part of the arcade had been removed to allow a staircase to be added to the former dormitory. By Chris Jones-Jenkins. Source: Evans 2008

In the 12th and 13th Centuries the Cistercian custom had been for the abbot as well as all of the brothers to share a dormitory on the first floor of the east range, but the abbot became more isolated, often moving into a private dwelling on the precinct, near to the core abbey buildings.  In the 15th century at Valle Crucis the dormitory in the first floor of the east range was replaced with a new suite of rooms for the abbot, and possibly accommodation for  particularly important guests.  Cistercian monasteries were committed to providing for guests, but it is probably that most guests were quartered somewhere else within the precinct.  Only the most prestigious of guests would have been accommodated in the east range.  This required the removal of at least one side of the arcade to allow a staircase to be built from the upper storey of the east range down into the cloister.

The monks who had inhabited the dormitory must have been accommodated elsewhere in the abbey, perhaps in the west range, which had been abandoned during the mid-14th century.  Although they had been housed in an open-plan dormitory in the early 13th century, this custom changed over time throughout the Cistercian order, and monks were given some privacy by separating their beds by divisions, into separate cells.  As other rules were relaxed and the dormitory was co-opted by the abbot, more comfortable quarters might have become available.

By the 16th Century it was not only the living arrangements that had changed.  The style of architecture now included decorative elements, and stained glass is thought to have been added to some windows. Most of the stricter Cistercian rules were relaxed.   As Greene puts it “Valle Crucis had become unrecognisable as a Cistercian abbey in comparison with its early thirteenth century beginnings” (p,108).

Unfortunately, its comfortable lifestyle seems to have attracted quite the wrong sort of abbot  between 1528 and 1535, of which more in the next post.  The abbey had to be put under the care of the prior of Neath, but before he had time to make any significant input, Valle Crucis fell victim to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.  In January 1537, it was wound up.  Although parts of the building were re-used for secular activities, and the church survived as a ruin, it would never again serve as a monastic establishment.  The details of the dissolution and the former abbey’s subsequent history will be looked at in a later post.

Final comments

One of the striking things about Valle Crucis is the process of change visible in the architecture.  People with archaeological training tend to be a bit change-fixated but at Valle Crucis the architectural developments mirror changing ideas about how strictly Cistercian rules should be obeyed, how the abbot was perceived, and what sort of role the abbey should perform in cultural terms.  At the same time, traces and subsequent impacts of the mid 14th century fire can be tracked throughout the abbey.  Changes to the east range, for example, reflect the switch from the early Cistercian focus on austerity and simplicity to a far less demanding approach to monastic life, which included ornamental display and the expansion of the abbot’s quarters.  Modifications of the west face of the abbey church, which included the addition of an ornamental doorway and a rose window, followed damage inflicted on the building, but the opportunity was taken to add ornamental flourishes to a previously plain façade.

By the time of Henry VIII and the reformation of the Church, which resulted in the suppression of Valle Crucis in the first round of monastic closures, the abbey had developed in fits and starts from a strictly governed house of the Cistercian order to a community living under a less regulated, more nonchalant interpretation of Cistercian rules, barely differentiated from other monasteries that were nominally but not actually practising in the original Benedictine tradition.  The monks no longer worked the land themselves, and a much more elaborate selection of foodstuffs than the Cistercian order originally permitted was consumed, including meat.  Meat had been banned by St Benedict because he thought that it would inflame passions, but passions were perhaps no longer quite as worrying as they had been in the 11th Century.  The plagues of the 14th Century wiped out what remained of the lay brethren, and their work was now carried out by paid servants.  Income was derived not from hard work but from tithes and rent.  The abbot was provided with finely specified quarters incorporating a room for entertaining, and .  Although the monastic community at Valle Crucis experienced deep troughs, including fire, war, conquest and rebellion, as well as its own troubled leadership, it was also a centre of literary output and became a lodging for some of the great Welsh bards.  Ambition and display had replaced austerity, self-discipline and communal privation, but the abbey had also left its mark on history with its literary output and its lovely buildings.

Next

Part 4 looks at how life was lived within the abbey, what individual responsibilities were, how the monks were organized and what sort of problems they experienced over a period of 376 years of political, social and ecclesiastical change.  All parts are available, as they are written by clicking on the following link: https://basedinchurton.co.uk/category/valley-crucis-abbey/
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Bibliographic sources for parts the Vale Crucis series:

For sources see the end of part 1.

Today in 1201: The foundation of Valle Crucis Abbey

Happy Birthday, Valle Crucis!

Had it survived Henry VIII’s nation-changing tantrum, otherwise known as the dissolution of the monasteries and the birth of the Church of England, the Cistercian monastic order’s abbey at Valle Crucis would be 821 years old today.  Today its lovely ruins are managed by Cadw and although a caravan park has been plonked right on its doorstep, it is still a glorious place to visit, sitting on the edge of a classically bubbling brook and overseen by the brilliant colours of the hills above.

I have already written first about the background to the abbey and then about how each of the monastic buildings was employed, and there are more parts to come.

In the meantime, here are a couple of photographs of one of my top favourite places, taken on 26th January.  I should mention that although the Cadw page for Valle Crucis says that it is open, it is actually currently closed to the public due to Covid, with a big, chunky padlock barring access.  The Cistercian monks would probably have applauded 🙂

 

Valle Crucis #2 – How the abbey buildings were used

Ivor Mervyn Pritchard illustration showing elevation view of Valle Crucis. Source: Coflein

When I first visited Valle Crucis, I was so bound up in the architecture and its complexity that it took me some time to get to grips with the idea that this was a place not merely where people spent time in worship, but where they spent their entire lives, an enormous amount of it taken up with liturgies.  The entire abbey complex is all about how those people’s lives were lived.

The foundation of Valle Crucis is covered in part 1.  Monastic communities conformed to a vision of life in the 13th century that had been first conceived in the 6th century.  The Cistercians were one of a number of reforming orders that were attempting to return to the 6th Century values of St Benedict.  St Benedict was long on attention to detail, but devoted less time to the bigger picture, so there was plenty of scope for incorporating his Rule into a broader vision of monastic life.  Each order approached the task differently, and the Cistercians did it by establishing remote communities where they could live out their lives, bound together by vocation, devotion and the cohesive regulations that laid down how their lives should be lived.

Plan of Valle Crucis. The buildings on the plan beyond the core abbey unit are all post-Medieval, mostly modern caravans and holiday chalets.  Source: Coflein

The Cistercians, with their centralized approach to the management of their European network of abbeys, understood all about the bigger picture, and knew how to impose its vision via standardization and conformity.  They had a system of government, and when they colonized a new country or region, they had mechanisms for ensuring that their operational procedures and their beliefs endured.  One abbey supplied the abbot and monks of the next, and the new abbey was answerable both to its parent abbey and to the founding abbey in Citeaux.  This was not just an idea; it was implemented.  The abbots of all abbeys went to Citeaux each year to attend the General Chapter where all Cistercian decisions concerning the order were made, and each parent abbey was responsible for visiting its daughter abbeys each year to inspect and judge it.  The Cistercian system was one not merely of self-discipline but of accountability.

The organization of the abbey, both its hierarchy and the functional components embedded into its architecture, promoted the Cistercian vision of monastic life.  It was ambitious and powerful, and it attracted both founders and members.

The organization of the abbey

Early pencil sketch showing archway at Valle Crucis Abbey. Source: Coflein

An abbey, priory or nunnery combined a church with monastic buildings, making up a community in which all the residents chose to devote themselves not merely to religious observance, but to a set of commitments that seems fairly daunting today.  Some must have been unnerving to the prospective novice even in the Middle Ages.  Once a novice had passed through a number of stages and was ready to make this final vows, he or she entered a life of devotion, self-denial and hard work.  The vows of personal poverty, celibacy and obedience were accompanied by the vow of stability, perhaps the most daunting vow of all.  It was a commitment to remain at the abbey for life.  All the vows were binding, and breaking them could result in punishments, including imprisonment for the most serious infractions.

As a novice, the future monk would experience the monastic code in practice, based on prayer (ora), manual labour (labora) and contemplative reading of religious texts (lectio divina).  The Cistercian order was guided by the principle of opus Dei, God’s work, and their abbeys were laid out to meet the needs of regular devotion in church, scholarly activity, economic self-sufficiency, communal support, and, when required, punishment for transgressions.

Detail of a 13th Century illuminated manuscript depicting St Benedict of Nursia, showing him with a tonsure. Source: Cover of Carolinne White’s The Rule of St Benedict (Penguin Classics)

As well as providing a church, the abbey had to make provision for its inmates.  The Cistercian hierarchy within each monastery was headed by the abbot or abbess, responsible for the smooth running of the abbey and the well-being of the monks.  The strict discipline, clear regulations and multiple routines were essential for cohesion, consistency, reassurance and morale.  Often there was a prior who was deputy to the abbot.  The main community of abbeys like Valle Crucis was made up by “choir monks.” Like other Benedictine-based orders, the Cistercian choir monks were tonsured, meaning that the top of their heads were shaved bare, leaving a ring of hair that represented Christ’s crown of thorns.  Up until the mid-14th Century, at the lowest level of the Cistercian abbey hierarchy, were the lay monks, conversi, who were allocated their own quarters within the monastic precinct.  Some had supervisory duties, but the main body of the conversi carried out most of the agricultural labour.  They did not have the tonsure. These roles, and others, will be discussed in part 4.

Aerial view of Valle Crucis (with caravan park).  Source:  Coflein

Each Cistercian abbey’s floorplan was an echo of the order’s founding abbey, Citeaux, which itself echoed the layout of earlier Benedictine monasteries.  The earliest abbey in Britain to conform to this layout was St Dunstan’s at Glastonbury in the 10th Century.   Although every abbey and priory is unique, all conform to the basic template.  Valle Crucis provides a very useful example of this template, simple enough to illustrate the principles of the Benedictine model, but elaborate enough to demonstrate some the options exercised by individual abbots over time.

Annotated plan of Valle Crucis showing the central cloister around which all the other buildings were focused, including the church, the south wall of which makes up the north wall of the cloister.  Source:  Evans 2008

The above plan of Valle Crucis shows the main organizational elements of the abbey, with the church at the north, and the rest of the buildings arranged around the cloister.  The monastic buildings surrounding one or more cloisters are called “ranges.”  Each range consisted of several rooms with doorways out into the cloister.  At the centre of the cloister was a garden or “garth.”  Around the garth was a walkway, usually termed an alley or walk, linking all the rooms in all the ranges. The monks’ formal and domestic buildings made up two sides, to the east and south, and in Cistercian abbeys the rooms for the conversi made up the fourth, western side until the mid-14th century, after which the west range was used for different functions.  Both the east and west ranges, facing each other across the cloister garth, were two-storey buildings.  This formulaic plan was a very effective organizing principle.

Standing at the east end looking west.   The dark block at centre marks the position of the original pulpitum, which divided the west end nave from the east end

In an ideal world, an abbey church would be orientated east-west, with the main entrance at the west opening into the nave, where general worshippers such as lay brothers and guests would attend services.  The nave was separated from the east end choir, chapels and presbytery (the domain of the choir monks) by a stone screen called a pulpitum or a rood screen.

The church’s south wall would make up the north wall of the cloister.  The cloister would ideally be located on the south side of the church to protect it from the wind and expose it to the sun.  Valle Crucis exemplifies this arrangement, but there are monasteries where it was not possible to orientate the church west-east or to position the cloister to the south of the church, such as Tintern in south Wales, founded in 1131, the second Cistercian abbey in Britain and the first in Wales.

14th Century window tracery in the chapter house, east range, Valle Crucis. Source: Coflein

The early Cistercians valued simplicity and rejected ostentation, associating decorative features with adulation of the material, wealth, self-indulgence and a tendency to succumb to luxury.  Monks who were supposed to be engaged on scholarly religious reading and profound, introspective contemplation needed no distractions, so the earliest buildings of the 13th Century had very few decorative flourishes.  From the mid-14th Century, however, more elaborate architectural features common to other monastic orders were added, such as window tracery and stained glass.  The chapter house in the east range, shown left, is an example of this elaboration of style.

No two abbeys were alike, which could be due to any number of variables including the richness of the original endowment, the preferences of the founding abbot, the accessibility of building materials, the availability of skilled craftsmen, financial constraints, changes in direction during the initial building phases, later re-building after fires or floods (common phenomena) and the incorporation of new ideas and technologies.  However, all abbeys share enough features to make their layout instantly familiar, with the function of many of their main rooms immediately identifiable.  Once you have got to grips with the layout of one abbey, you have the essentials for finding yourself around any other one.

The exterior

Rear view of the abbey’s east range.  From left to right, the grand passage leading from the cloister towards the fish pond, the rear view of the east range with its three tracery windows of the chapter house (with the monks dormitory overhead), and the ground floor window of the sacristy

Valle Crucis west front. Source: Coflein

For Medieval monks and modern visitors alike, the main experience of Valle Crucis takes place in the interior, but the first impression was provided by the impressive west front.  In the 376 years of the abbey’s life, local people will have seen little more than the imposing walls and tower, whilst pilgrims, guests and novices (trainee monks), will have had all the layered responses of a first impression when they arrived.  Most had probably seen other abbeys, or at least substantial churches.  For all, the view of Valle Crucis in its isolated valley setting was one of height, solidity and worthiness.  The 12th and early 13th Century Cistercians eschewed most architectural decoration, their focus on the serious business of doing God’s work without distraction.  The restored west front (which is the end at which today visitors enter the church) has the rose window and elaborate arch that were probably added after the fire that swept through the church 40 years after its foundation, and would have been considered trivia by those who founded the abbey in 1201.  For those invited to enter the church, the early 13th Century doorway would have been big, but relatively plain.  The overall impact of the ornamental details was more impressive, but less Cistercian. The east face, shown below, with its almost grim austerity, is far more consistent with early Cistercian ideas.

The innovative and austere east end of the abbey church, with the rose window of the west end showing through the left lancet window

On all of the church’s outer walls there are buttresses, long, flat vertical sections that sit against the wall, sometimes to its full height.  You can see them right, imaginatively incorporated into the design of the east end of the church. and below on the north wall, in both cases with splayed bases.  A buttress supports and reinforces a tall masonry wall, sometimes to the full height.  It counteracts the outward force of a wall to prevent it buckling by providing a counteracting force, preventing a wall from bulging by pushing against it.  These are often faced with fine stone (ashlar) or at least cornered with it (quoins).  The photograph below shows the buttress bases along the north wall of the nave of the abbey church.

Ashlar covers most of the church and monastic buildings, although some was robbed for building material after the dissolution.  The smooth surfaces, neatly carved lines, tightly fitting corners and fine joins give a much finer appearance to a building.  Being far more expensive to make and install than the roughly carved interior stone, its use also communicate something about the abbey’s status.  It really must have been quite a sight when first built.


The Virgin Mary

St Bernard of Clairvaux by Juan Correa de Vivar, 16th Century

Cistercian abbeys were dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  St Bernard, the charismatic and highly influential abbot of the 12th Century Cistercian abbey, Clairvaux, promoted Mary as a personage who encompassed all the most important Christian virtues.  She had a central role in the Christian story, she was sacred, approachable, empathetic and she had the ear of both Christ and God.  “If you fear the Father, there is Christ the Mediator.  If you fear Him, there is His Mother.  She will listen to thee, the Son will listen to her, the Father to him.”  This was St Bernard’s view of the matter, and one that he promoted energetically.

In spite of this, there is little sign of Mary in early Cistercian monastic establishments due to a Cistercian mistrust of effigies.  In most of the other monastic orders there would have been architectural carvings, paintings, tapestries and sculptures to commemorate the most venerated religious figures, but in accordance with St Benedict’s view of monastic life as pared down and austere, Cistercians rejected art works and instead venerated the Virgin only in their liturgies and rituals.  She was revered in their worship, and presumably in their hearts, but only occasionally in their architecture or art.  When the abbey was dissolved, all its possessions were sold off to raise funds for the crown.  It is thought that two chandeliers, one now at Llandegla parish church, and another at Llanarmon yn Ial may have been sourced from Valle Crucis.  I have not seen a picture of the one at Llanarmon yn Ial, but the one at Llandegla is topped with a statuette of the Virgin Mary.  If it was indeed from Valle Crucis, the depiction was from late in the abbey’s history, dating to the late 15th or early 16th Century.

Procession and Horarium

Artist’s impression by G.Pickering of monks in the east end of the Valle Crucis abbey church, having filtered down the night stairs from their dormitory, at far right.  Source:  Coflein

All buildings, whether religious or not, are about access, movement and visibility.   Doorways, walls, screens, corridors, passages and stairways all constrain and direct the sort of movement possible.  It is sometimes difficult to remember, when wandering around a roofless abbey, that the presence of windows, or the absence of them, impacts not only what can be seen from the inside out, but how clearly interiors can be seen based on the amount of light available, and whether candle light would be needed in key areas.  With the Benedictine plan,  control of movement and lighting were all about the main activities of the abbey.  All abbey activities had to be scheduled around the daily liturgies, which were at fixed times of the day.

The canonical hours or horarium scheduled the daily liturgies.  There were seven daytime gatherings, and one night-time gathering in the abbey church for prayer, psalms, chants, lessons, readings and hymns, as described by St Benedict in the Rule.  Attendance was obligatory.  In the Cistercian order these began at daybreak with Lauds, which was followed by Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers (at around 6pm) and Compline (at Sunset) with Vigils (known in some orders as Matins) at night.  Between these liturgical assemblies were the daily meeting in the chapter house, mass (once a day and twice on Sundays and feast days), eating (once a day in winter, twice in summer), manual labour and intermittent sleeping.

Cistercian monks shown on a mural in the Cistercian Abbey Osek, North Bohemia, before 1756. Source: Wikipedia, from the Cistercian Abbey of Osek, North Bohemia

Every Sunday, and on feast days, the abbot led a procession of the entire community from the east end of the church around the cloister.  In larger abbey communities this must have been a spectacular sight as they monks lined up in pairs behind the abbot in their white habits and proceeded along the alleys of the cloister.  First holy water was blessed at the high alter, and then the abbot led the whole procession through the eastern part of the church, spreading holy water on altars in chapels.  Then they proceeded into the eastern alley of the cloister and walk the full circuit, sprinkling holy water into each of the rooms, before entering the nave at the west end of the church, again sprinkling altars with holy water, and finally returning, through the pulpitum, to the east end of the church.

Valle Crucis ground plan. Source: Valley Crucis Abbey by D.H. Evans (Cadw 2008)

In the order in which the procession visited them, here are the rooms at Valle Crucis, at least as it was when the abbey was suppressed in 1537, although the configuration was quite clearly somewhat different during the 13th Century.  It might be worth opening the above site plan in a new window so that you can follow the descriptions on the plan.

The Abbey Church

Cadw sign at Valle Crucis showing a cutaway of how the church may have appeared, with the nave where the lay brothers worshiped, separated by a pulpitum from the area used exclusively by the monks.

The procession began and ended in the abbey church.  The Valle Crucis church walls are preserved to a reasonable height throughout, and it is easy to see that its footprint was cruciform and orientated along the preferred east-west axis.  St Bernard of Clairvaux is usually given the credit for certain aspects of the Cistercian plan, particularly popular during the second half of the 12th Century,  which includes a short squared-off presbytery, low transepts, an aisled nave and a short tower.

The church was divided, physically, functionally and spiritually, into two main sections.  The west end of the church was the nave, flanked by two aisles, achieved by building two runs of walls supported on arches of which only the piers (columns) remain.  This is where the conversi, guests, and corrodians (permanent residents who were not choir monks) would attend services.

Cadw signage at Valle Crucis showing how the east end of the church may have looked in the early 16th Century. Note the undyed habits worn by Cistercian monks, giving them the name the “white monks.”

A screen, the pulpitum, divided the west end from the east end, the domain of the choir monks.  Beyond this screen was the choir and the presbytery, where the monks would have carried out their liturgical ceremonies eight times a day (including one at night).  Here there were a number of important architectural details shared by most Cistercian abbey churches.  The base of a spiral staircase may have led to an organ.  The pulpitum was moved towards the east end later in the church’s history, perhaps reflecting the decline in numbers of the resident choir monks.

The two arms of the cross formed wings to the south and north, the transepts.   Each  transept contained two chapels, side by side, originally both with rib-vaulted roofs, very beautiful.  The south transept chapels are still present with much of the vaulting in tact.  Chapels were required for ordained monks to give mass.  Most monks were not ordained, and although many liturgies were required, mass performed separately.  It was the duty of the ordained priest-monk, and had to be catered for with one or more chapels, each with its own altar.

Between the transepts is the crossing, the section at which the north-south and east-west axes cross.  Here a short tower was built overhead.  Beyond this section, forming the top of the cross, was the most sacred part of the church, the high altar.  If you stand in the crossing facing the east end of the church, look right and there is a doorway hanging 10ft\3m above the ground.  A flight of stairs from the first floor dormitory gave access to the east of the church for the night time liturgy. Offset from the dormitory entrance at ground level is the entrance into the sacristy.

The sacristy

13th Century sacristy

If you walk through the entrance into the sacristy, the room that housed the religious vessels and other items used in the liturgy and other ceremonies, you will find yourself in a remarkable barrel-vaulted room, worth a visit to the abbey in its own right.  It is lit by two windows, a lancet window at the end and a peculiarly oblique square window in the opposite wall to the entrance from the south transept. In some Benedictine layouts this in turn had an entrance into the chapter house, but in this case it opens instead into the cloister at one end.

The cloister

Lavatorium in the garth, with a view to the remains of the west range on the far side, and the south wall of the abbey church, together with its west end

The cloister is the core organizing element of the abbey.  It is made up of the garth (the lawn or garden) and the cloister alleys or walks that run along all four sides of the garth.  The garth still contains the base of the base of the lavatorium, a raised stone basin, used by the monks to wash before proceeding to the refectory to eat.  Drains under the west range were found during the 1970 excavation, running in the direction of the basin, perhaps fed by a hillside spring.  The cloister walkway, which surrounded the garth and linked the buildings that surrounded it, is thought to have been covered by the 14th Century, with the roof fittings still visible on the wall of the east range.  The left-hand illustration below by Chris John-Jenkins shows how it might have looked when the roofed arcade was first built.  Later, it seems as though part of the roofed section was removed to enable a door and staircase to be added to the top floor of the east range, when it was the private quarters of the abbot.  Again, Chris John-Jenkins’s illustration below shows how this may have looked.

Reconstruction of Valle Crucis east range and cloister in the mid-14th and early-16th centuries, showing how both the cloister walk and the upstairs dormitory may have changed over time. On the left, the cloister is surrounded by a roofed arcade, but this has been removed in the early 16th century and a staircase to the abbot’s new quarters has been added.  By Chris John-Jenkins, in Evans 2008, pages  41 and 43.

Like the layout of the church, the buildings that surrounded the garth also conformed to the basic Benedictine model and contained the functions of daily life, organized around the cloister in “ranges,” often in exactly the same order from one abbey to the next, with the chapter house and dormitory on the east range, the refectory on the south range and the conversi and cellarer (in charge of the monastic stores) occupying the west range.  The ranges at Valle Crucis are described below.  The east range is the most complete, partly protected by its use as a farmhouse after the dissolution, but the rest was robbed for stone, and only a few courses of stonework survive, which is just enough to give an idea of the layout just before the monastery was abandoned.

The East Range

Vaulted roof of the chapter house

The Sunday procession, having exited the church proceeded along the east range of buildings, which still stands to the original two storeys thanks to post-dissolution roofing.   The ground floor has one of the most important room in the complex – the chapter house.  Here the monks gathered daily to listen to the abbot read a chapter from the Rules of St Benedict, or a hagiography (the biography of a particular saint), to discuss the work of the day, and to hear confession and mete out punishments.  Readings about saints could focus on any saint from anywhere in the Christian world, but it is likely that in a Welsh abbey populated mainly by Welsh monks, hagiographies would have focused mainly on the numerous Welsh saints.  This beautiful room is rib-vaulted and contains various large niches, one of which was a fireplace.  Windows at front and back, with fine tracery, provided views over the cloister and the narrow stretch of land that ran down to the river.

The ornate door leading into the book cupboard and, beyond, into the chapter house. The main entrance to the chapter house, for daily use, is on the right. The entrance to the sacristy, which also has access to the abbey church, is partly visible on the left.

Accessed from the chapter house was the book room, which at Valle Crucis could be seen through an arched window with elaborate tracery.   This embellished entrance dates to the mid-14th century, and a simpler version of this would have been in place during the 13th century.   The cupboard is where the most important documents belonging to the monastery were held, some of which may have been borrowed from other monasteries either for studying or copying.  Two of the Valle Crucis books survive.

In the photograph below, the book room is flanked by the the entrance to the sacristy on the left and the main entrance to the chapter house at the right.  The next entrance to the right, much smaller, led to the dormitory.  Finally, the big arch at the end is a passage to the rear of the abbey, known as the slype.  The roof was removed after the dissolution in 1536, but replaced in the later 16th century.

The east range

Over the top of the sacristy and chapter house were the 13th Century dormitory and the latrines.  The dormitory can be seen in the illustration by Chris John-Jenkins above, at far left.  The latrines were built over a drain that was intended to flush away the waste (see photograph below).  These upper levels are still accessible but behind a locked door and would require special permission to visit.  They are much altered from monastic times, due to having been used as a farm house after the dissolution, and one fireplace has a 13th century gravestone incorporated into its design.  At the time of construction the dormitory was a communal room used by all of the monks.  Initially it was one large open space, but in the later Middle Ages a demand for more privacy usually led to divisions between beds that provided individual spaces.  The stone-lined  drain that ran along the base of the latrines still survives at the south end of the east range.

Stone-lined latrine drain

Later in its history the dormitory was converted into a private dwelling area and grand hall for the abbot, heated with fire places.  Evans makes the comment that so few monks were left that they could have lodged elsewhere within the monastic complex.  An obvious candidate would have been the west wing, which had formerly housed the lay brethren.  It seems peculiar that the abbey could have sustained the conversion of the dormitory into an ambitious private space for the abbot and his guests if there were so few monks remaining, but Evans does not comment on this.

The passageway at the end of the east range is located where  the “parlour” was usually located, where the monks could meet up, but here it seems to have been merely a passageway.  Originally it may have led to an infirmary, although no infirmary has yet been located.  In its later form it is much more elaborate than usual passageways.  Evans speculates that this was because it may have led to the abbot’s quarters at a time when the abbot was becoming a far more prominent figure.  This end of the range was longer in the 13th century and it was clearly modified extensively.  The far end, where it gives access to the rear of the monastery, the stream and the fish pond, has a 13th century arch that was removed from another part of the abbey and put in place here.   Whatever the incumbent abbot’s reasons, he went to some trouble.

The part of the east range on the other side of the passage, which looks like a wall of unsorted rubble, is the inner stonework of the latrine.  The latrines were on the first floor, at the end of the dormitory, and waste fell into the drain, where it was flushed away with water.

The South Range

Monks’ refectory with spiral staircase in the opposite wall. This will have lead to a pulpit for reading to the monks as they ate. Monks were rarely allowed to converse in the Cistercian refectory, but readings accompanied the meal.

Again following the procession, having turned right into the south range, the small room on your left may have been the calefactory, or warming room, in which the monks could warm themselves after work outdoors or in unheated parts of the abbey. No hearth was found here, so if it was indeed a warming room, it must have been heated by braziers. Alternatively, it may have been the access to the location of the day stair (the stairs that gave access from the dormitory to the cloister), later relocated.

The main room of note in the south range is the refectory, where the monks met to eat.  In earlier claustral layouts the refectory was parallel to the walkway, but from around 1170, the refectory could be built perpendicular to the walkway, allowing for more seating, more windows for light, and the positioning of the kitchen alongside.  The lavatorium, usually a raised basin in the garth containing water (for which the base survives at Valle Crucis), was always situated close by because the monks always washed before eating.  Conversation at mealtimes was forbidden.  Instead, readings might be delivered during meals.  The remains of a short 13th century spiral staircase are visible, leading to a pulpit where a monk would have read from a religious text which, as in the chapter house, was often a hagiography.

A very finely sculpted head was found during excavations of the refectory. Source: Evans 2008

A carving of a human head was found during the 1970 refectory excavations, now considered to be one of the finest pieces of Welsh Cistercian sculpture carved from sandstone that was used for all decorative features at the site.  It may have fallen from the pulpit.  It has an inscribed crown that reads “+MORVS.”  It has been much debated, and in the absence of any princes or other local leaders with a similar name, is thought to represent either St Maurus, or early medieval religious scholar Rabamus Maurus.  The excavator says that its style suggests a 13th Century date, and is a good example of the north Welsh school of stone carving.  As with many objects of significant archaeological value deriving from North Wales, it was removed to the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.

The last room in the south range was usually the kitchen, and this is no different at Valle Crucis where the kitchen not only linked to the south range refectory, but being on a corner, also served the west range refectory built for the conversi.  In some refectories, such as Basingwerk in Holywell, the refectory was linked to the kitchen by a hatch, through which food could be passed, and it is possible that at Valle Crucis, built after Basingwerk and in a position to copy some of its most useful features, hatches in two of the kitchen walls were included for delivery of food to both south range and west range refectories.

The West Range

Part of the west range, showing the south wall of the abbey church at far right

There are only very few courses of the stonework left in the west range, making it difficult to get to grips with how it was used and what it looked like.  In his 1976 excavation report, Lawrence Butler says that the west range was badly disturbed by Ministry of Works clearance of the site after they took it over, enthusiastically destroying archaeological levels and making it very difficult to determine historical sequences, and to tie sequences in with each other across the site.

In a typical Cistercian monastery, the west range was the domain of the conversi, at least at the time that the abbey was built in 1201.  Butler’s 1970 excavations found four rooms, and parts of the abbey’s drainage system passing under the floors, one of which probably drew water from a natural spring further up the hill to make use of gravity to flush through the monastery’s drainage system.  Most of the rooms were floored with small slate tiles.

There was a passage, and there was probably a day room.  It is not entirely clear how day rooms were employed, but it is possible that when weather was poor or when an indoor location was required for the type of tasks carried out, they were where monks undertook craft work and other indoor activities.  There was a refectory and there was a ground-floor cellar at the end of the range that served both conversi and choir brothers.  Mirroring the east range, a second storey, which may have been half-timbered, contained a dormitory and latrine for the conversi.

The Black Book of Basingwerk, National Library of Wales reference NLW MS 7006D, probably copied at Valle Crucis.  .Source:  National Library of Wales

The tradition of using lay workers for maintaining abbey lands went into decline in the late 13th Century and early 14th century, and the Black Death wiped them out by the end of the century, so these premises would have undergone a change of use after that time.  The dormitory probably served as sleeping quarters for the choir monks when the abbot took over the top storey of the east range.  Some abbeys used the west range for extending their book collections and for copying books.  As Valle Crucis was clearly an important centre for the production of Medieval literature, the west range may have been the most obvious place for the monks to work, once the conversi had left.  The Black Book of Basingwerk, mainly containing the work of Welsh bard  Gutun Owain, was kept at Basingwerk Abbey at the dissolution but is thought to have been copied at Valle Crucis.  Remarkably it survives, and is the National Library of Wales

The North Range

The southern wall of the abbey church nave, marking the north alley of the cloister

The north alley of the cloister, which ran along the outer wall of the church, would have been  fitted with desks along one wall, and used for reading Cistercian, hagiographic, historical and biblical texts.  Reading, copying and  meditating took up much of the monks’ time.  Silent reading was uncommon, so a gentle murmur of sound would have accompanied the reading of texts, one of the few unregulated sounds that would have emanated from the otherwise quiet, if not completely silent Cistercians.  There was an entrance here into the nave of the abbey church, into which the monks proceeded during their procession, and from there they returned to the east end, and their own inner sanctum.

The cemetery

There is very little left  to see of the cemetery.  The best of the surviving tomb stones were moved into the former dormitory in the east range, and only a few token examples remain outside.

For 376 years monks had been living and dying at Valle Crucis, all of whom were granted burial rights within the abbey’s own cemetery, which lay to the south and east of the main buildings.

Original founding monks of the abbey, sent from their home abbey of Strata Marcella, would have been permitted to return to their home monastery to be buried, should they wish to do so.  The abbots, priors and most notable donors would have been buried in the abbey itself.

Cleanliness and hygiene were built into the Cistercian way of life, and this will have helped avoid disease and illness, but the close proximity of monks leading the cloistered life must have led to much higher risks of transmission than those living in the surrounding countryside. Even with a infirmary on the doorstep, medicine was still in its very early infancy, and illness must have been endemic.

The abbey precinct

Artist’s impression of the Newry Abbey precinct.  Newry was also Cistercian, another daughter of Whitland Abbey, founded nearly 50 years before Valle Crucis. Source: Philarm.com

Valle Crucis as it stands today, with its abbey church and four ranges, was the core of a much larger abbey precinct that would have contained a number of other buildings and features.  A well house and a fishpond were preserved, but this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg.  Unfortunately, no  surveys or excavations have extended beyond the abbey itself.

A standard component of Cistercian monastic precincts was an infirmary, often with its own cloister, near to the main cloister, usually to the southeast.  It would have been unusual for a Cistercian monastery to be without an infirmary, but so far none has been identified.

Typically, the precinct might include any of the following:  a formal gatehouse; guest quarters; stables; a home farm with barns, dairy, hen house, animal sheds and slaughter house; a granary; a bakehouse; one or more mills; herb and vegetable gardens; an orchard; a smithy; a dovecot; and a brewhouse with malting lofts.  Not all precincts with have had all of these, and some only a handful of them.   Sometimes the entire precinct was surrounded by some sort of boundary that was more symbolic than defensive.  Some abbeys and priories even had moats.  Unfortunately it is not known whether Valle Crucis had any of these within its precinct.

Final Comments

The abbey’s fish pond. It is the only surviving monastic fish pond in Wales.

With an impressive church, substantial monastic ranges, a cemetery and a fish pond, Valle Crucis was a well built and admirably self-contained unit.  It was built along the lines adopted by most Benedictine orders, and whilst it served the three main concerns of the Cistercian ethos:  ora, labora, and lectio divina, it also served the economic, administrative and domestic needs of a community of monks bound together by the vow of stability for the duration of their lives.

The character of the rest of the abbey precinct remains unknown.  There may have been an infirmary nearby, and there must have been a much larger precinct that could have included farm-related and other buildings, but it is not known where they were or how they were organized.  A caravan park now covers part of the precinct area, and there is farmland on the other side of the stream, where other parts of the precinct may have been located.

There is considerable scope for future field investigations to understand at least some of the precinct and its limits.

Postcard of the interior of the abbey church, looking west, with gravestones lined up in the foreground (now in the former dormitory over the east range). Photochrom Print Collection. Source: Wikimedia.

Although the above description of the church and the ranges is a fair stab at the way in which the abbey was designed for monastic activities to be carried out, there are many unanswered questions about the exact layout in the abbey’s early history and how its drainage was organized (an important aspect of Cistercian monasteries).  It is also unclear exactly how the west range was used after the demise of the conversi.

The next post, Part 3, takes a chronological romp through the architecture to see how the monastery changed physically over time, reflecting changes not only in Valle Crucis but in the Cistercian order itself during the 376 years of the abbey’s life.  All parts are available, as they are written, by clicking on the following link: https://basedinchurton.co.uk/category/valley-crucis-abbey/

Bibliographic sources for parts the Vale Crucis series:

For sources see the end of part 1.  Although I usually include a bibliography at the end of each post, the Valle Crucis posts have been rather long, so it seemed sensible to post all the sources used in the series on only the first and last posts.

Valle Crucis Abbey #1 – An introduction to the Cistercians and Valle Crucis

Valle Crucis is a superb example of a ruined Cistercian abbey, located less than an hour’s drive from the Chester-Wrexham area, in a lovely valley on the edge of a quiet stream that flows into the Dee.  It has been extensively surveyed, the few documents relating to the site and its antecedents have been studied and the site has been excavated both in the 19th Century and in the 1970s.  Importantly, most of the main features of the core buildings are identifiable, and can be discussed in terms of how the monastery was planned and used.  All of  these resources form a good basis for understanding how Valle Crucis was established and used, and what happened to it after it was “suppressed” or decommissioned following Henry VIII’s dissolution of most of Britain’s monasteries.

This is the first of a series of posts looking at monasticism in this part of the northwest, on both sides of the Welsh border, and heading some way down the Marches as far south as Shrewsbury on the English side, and Strata Marcella near Welshpool on the Welsh side.  These posts are quite long.  Valle Crucis, is used in this series of posts to introduce not only this particular abbey, but also the ideas that lead to monasticism, different monastic orders and the  distinctive architecture that defines most of the monastic orders in Britain.

An “order” is a shared monastic tradition, a set of spiritual ideals often spelled out in considerable detail in rules that covered everything from how many times a day a monk should pray, communally or individually, to where and when they could speak, eat and sleep, and what work they should engage in.  All orders involve a degree of renunciation and isolation by communities of monks.  Monastic architecture reflects both the need to gather a community in one establishment, adhering to a single set of rules, and the need to divorce that establishment from the rest of the world.  Unlike monks, friars could leave the monastic community (friary) to preach and tend to the poor, and were often located in urban contexts, but other orders chose to confine themselves to an abbey to focus their attentions on worship and scholarly activities that celebrated God.  Some chose to locate themselves far from other human habitation.  All were what is now termed Catholic, and all owed allegiance to the Pope, as well as to the heads of their own order, and to the founders who endowed their properties with land and resources.  The religious orders of the 12th and 13th Centuries in Britain were differentiated from one another based not on their religious beliefs, but on their ideas about how best to worship and celebrate God.  They dedicated themselves to spirituality and worship in different ways, based on traditions established in the history of monasticism.

St Pachomius in St Shenouda Monastery, Egypt. Source: St Shenouda Monastery website

Monasticism grew out of an early tradition in 3rd-4th Century A.D. Egypt where the devout might abandon their communities to live as hermits in the desert hills and mountains, divorced from anyone else.  They had as their models St John the Baptist and Jesus, both of whom had engaged in devout isolation in the desert.  Hermits began to organize themselves into communities that focused on offering guidance and communal prayer whilst still offering isolation from the distractions of secular life.   In the 4th Century, former soldier Pachomius, having followed the eremitic path in the Egyptian desert to live the life of a hermit, heard a voice telling him to establish a community for hermits like himself, a coenobitic (“common living”) way of combining isolation from the outside world with communal support and guidance.  This acknowledged that whilst individuals might seek out a life divorced from the material, they could well need help to achieve the sort of enlightenment that they were seeking.  These communities were therefore sources of knowledge, wisdom and education as well as worship.   He established his monastery in Tabennisi in Egypt, and simultaneously began to develop the first set of formal rules for guiding life in a monastery, which grew over time.  The rules combined prayer, solitude and work in a communal and very isolated environment, a difficult balance to strike.  This  was successful and soon spread.  Monasteries began to appear throughout the Mediterranean from where they spread into Europe.

A 12th Century interpretation of St Benedict delivering his monastic rule in the 6th Century AD. Source: Wikipedia, via Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes France (1129)

In 6th Century Italy, St Benedict developed another set of rules for monastic living that required not only individual prayer and communal worship, but outlined a strict regime of living that included eating merely for fuel rather than enjoyment, a largely vegetarian and very narrow diet, and the requirement for manual work, including contributing to building projects and labouring in the fields.  The concept of an abbey emerged, a religious establishment consisting of both a monastery and a church in a single complex, housing a community of monks who do not leave the premises.  St Benedict’s form of monasticism was popular and spread throughout Europe.

As Benedictine monasticism spread and developed its own personality over the centuries, the strictness of St Benedict’s rules was often abandoned to enable a much more comfortable lifestyle, with an emphasis on liturgy rather than work, a varied and rich diet that included meat, and an emphasis on glorifying God through rich works of art and generous patronage.  Some abbots became involved in religious and state politics beyond the abbey walls, and became influential in their own right, far from the unworldly vision of  monks that St Benedict had promoted.  In the 12th Century this more opulent version of Benedictine monasticism was epitomized by the Cluniac order of monks (named after their abbey at Cluny in France).  The Cluniac order was the apogee of this desire to express devotion through liturgy and art, the elaborate and rich monasteries home to opulent treasures, art works, tapestries and fabulous stained glass that were intended to both reflect and celebrate the glory of God, and the monks entertained lavishly, rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful.  This trend sat ill with those who sought a simpler, modest, withdrawn and hard-working way of serving God, true to St Benedict.

Johann Petr Molitor, Cistercian monks, murals in the Capitular Hall, Cistercian Abbey Osek, North Bohemia, before 1756. Source: Wikipedia, from the Cistercian Abbey of Osek, North Bohemia

During the early Middle Ages, the Cistercians, named after their first abbey, the 1098 New Monastery at Cîteaux (Cistercium in Latin) in France, set about returning to the values of St Benedict, which led to the reformation of some branches of Benedictine-based monasticism.   New Cistercian abbeys were established as a network of child abbeys, each secondary to its own mother, and all owing allegiance to the founding house at its core, Cîteaux.  Each new abbey could spawn one or more other abbeys.  The third abbot of the new Cistercian order, Stephen Harding, wrestling with the problem of how to ensure that the Cistercian principles would not submit to similar decay, retained the Cluniac’s governing principle of the first abbey being the mother for all subsequent houses of the order, to ensure consistency and standardization throughout the order.  This contrasted with Benedictine abbeys that adhered to the same 6th Century monastic rules proposed by St Benedict, but were wholly independent of one another.

Harding’s own guidelines, building on those of St Benedict, also included obligations that had to be acted upon on a regular basis by the entire family of abbeys.  One of these was that all the same liturgies should be used in all abbeys.  A unique requirement was that all abbots should attend, annually, the General Chapter at Citeaux, a meeting of all the abbots that discussed changes, challenges and difficulties, and enforced discipline.  Another innovation was that when an existing abbey founded a new house, the mother abbey was obliged to arrange annual visits to its daughter houses to ensure that the standards, values and rules of the Cistercian order were being maintained.  In this way, for the 11th,12th and much of the 13th centuries, the Cistercians maintained control and uniformity over a vast family of monastic houses, including Valle Crucis.  The monks wore undyed habits, unlike the other Benedictine orders whose habits were dark brown or black.  Accordingly, they became commonly known as the White Monks.  

Citeaux Abbey. Source: Wikipedia

The Cistercians combined worship with hard work in remote places that encouraged contemplation, eliminated distractions and enabled focus on a communal but pared down livelihood that was far more in keeping with St Benedict’s more spartan ideals.  After Cîteaux, the most important Cistercian monastery, responsible for evangelizing on behalf of the Cistercians, was Clairvaux (founded 1115), which was the home base of abbot St Bernard.  St Bernard was a restless and vocal monastic propogandist of the 12th Century who, in contradiction to the rules of the order, travelled far and wide to bring the Cistercian message to the western world, and whose sayings are still widely quoted: “Arouse yourself, gird your loins, put aside idleness, grasp the nettle and do some hard work.”  He was an advocate of crusades, connected with monarchs, politicians and other religious hierarchy, promoted the cult of the Virgin Mary, and became an unexpected and influential celebrity and icon, the poster-child of the Cistercian message.  Gascoigne calls him “the most influential monk of the Middle Ages.”

St Bernard in his white robes holding a delightfully improbable demon at his feet.  Marcello Baschenis, c.1885. Source: Wikipedia

Very quickly, new Cistercian abbeys proliferated in Europe and across Britain, always in isolated locations, each connected as a daughter to its mother abbey, to which it owed homage and loyalty.  Clairvaux was the mother abbey for Whitland in south Wales, which was established by monks from Clairvaux itself.  Whitland in turn established other abbeys including Strata Marcella near Welshpool, and this abbey in turn established Valle Crucis.  It took 86 years from the foundation of Clairvaux until the foundation of Valle Crucis, but it was only four monastic steps from St Bernard, and that sense of proximity must have resonated at Valle Crucis, as with all the abbeys in Wales.

Every Cistercian abbot had to return from his abbey to Citeaux every year for what was known as the General Chapter, a great conference of abbots.  This was the case even for abbeys that were located overseas, and the British abbeys were subject to this costly and time-consuming annual trek.  Also on an annual basis, the abbot or his prior if he had one (the abbot’s second in command) would visit a given abbey’s daughter abbeys to ensure that everything was running according to the original Benedictine plan.  This led to a degree of standardization and adherence to the order’s rules that was not necessarily seen in the other orders.

The remains at Valle Crucis offer a great opportunity for discussing the main points of Cistercian architecture, life and economic strategy.  It is a site that reinforces many of the observations that have been made about Cistercian monastic traditions throughout Britain, but which is also interesting in its own right.  The Welsh abbeys provide a particular opportunity for considering how their circumstances may have differed from their English counterparts, due to a series of factors including the patronage of Welsh abbeys by the Welsh princes, the wars fought on monastic land by Edward I and Owain Glyndŵr, and the character of the landscape in which the abbeys were built.  Other orders will be discussed in the future.

Introducing Valle Crucis

The East Range

Valle Crucis was built in a scenic valley beneath the Horseshoe Pass near Llangollen, on the banks of Nant Eglwyseg, a fast-moving stream that ran into the Dee and now feeds the Llangollen canal. 

Both choir (or quire) monks and lay brothers were housed at Valle Crucis.  The choir monks and lay brothers lived different lives.  Their refectories, dormitories and latrines were all quite separate, and their roles within the abbey were clearly delineated.  Although the lay brothers would worship in the church, they were confined to the nave and a screen separated them from the choir brothers.  The lay brothers ate more advantageously, as they needed a better diet to support them in their daily work.  Cistercian orders worshiped seven times a day and once at night, and engaged in scholarly pursuits, but were also expected to engage in manual labour, contributing to the work carried out by lay monks.  Lay monks (conversi) were illiterate and worked the land, but were resident at the monastery.  They had their own separate quarters for sleeping and eating, and were confined to a section of the church that was divided from the parts of the church used by the quire monks.  Their church worship was much less frequent than that undertaken by quire monks, as most of their day was taken up by agriculture, crafts and building works.

The name of Valle Crucis is Latin, meaning Valley of the Cross, a reference to the 9th Century inscribed Pillar of Eliseg that was erected to commemorate the ancestors of Concenn of Powys, a  Welsh chieftain who died on pilgrimage to Rome in 858.  Eliseg was Concenn’s great-grandfather.  The inscription is now illegible but was recorded in 1696 and lists great deeds of ancestors, presumably with a view to establishing an incontrovertible connection to the lands on which the cross was constructed.

Survey, excavation, restoration and modern research

Carved head found in the refectory during excavations, and now rather a long way from home in the National Museum in Cardiff.  Source: Evans 2008, p.47

Documentary resources are few and far between for Valle Crucis, so other ways of exploring the history of the site have been employed.  The documentary archives of other monasteries and of related properties have helped to provide some additional information, but the documentary picture remains very threadbare.

Because of the architectural and functional standardization of monastic establishments, it has been possible to extrapolate the roles of much of the site’s key buildings by comparison to other Cistercian abbeys, but this only takes one so far.

Observing the above-ground architecture has taken matters a lot further, telling a story of a major fire forty years after the foundation of the abbey, and the changes in architectural direction that had to be taken as a result.  As the decades and centuries passed, changes in Cistercian values and ideas are captured in the architectural features and new decorative motifs.  This rich source of information has been supplemented by data that has come from the ground.

One of the illustrations from Butler’s 1970 excavations, published in 1976

One of the fads of the 19th Century was antiquarianism, the investigation of ancient sites of all ages.  Excavations became popular activities, although often hair-raising in the level of destruction achieved in the process of the pursuit of dazzling objects.  Valle Crucis did not escape this attention, and a series of archaeological excavations were carried out in both the middle of the 19th century, and in its latter half.   An anonymous letter to Archaeologia Cambrensis dating to 1863 by a visitor to Valle Crucis condemned the mid 19th Century excavations by W.W.E. Wynne, but the subsequent excavations by Harold Hughes appear to have been carried out with rather more integrity.

In 1970 the site was excavated by Lawrence Butler.  He reported on the findings, including the chronological sequences from the site, and full details of the pottery in 1976.  The pottery was limited in type and form but covered the full range of the site from construction to dissolution.  The faunal remains were analyzed by the ever excellent Graeme Barker as part of that project’s post-excavation work, to provide information about diet and economic activities, and his report was published in the same year.  The results of this particular project are of great interest as Butler found evidence of the earliest clearance of the site and was able to clarify details of fire, flood and alterations to the architecture in line both with these events and in response to the relaxation of Cistercian rules.

Because work has been concentrated on the core abbey buildings, it is less clear how the larger monastic precinct was organized.  This is the area surrounding and beyond the abbey’s heart, that were essential to the abbey’s economic survival, in which agricultural and activities took place, and in which vital supplies were stored for consumption or trade.  

Illustration from the 1895 excavation report by Harold Hughes.

Restoration work began with clearance of the site for excavation, but more ambitious work followed.  Sir Gilbert Scott, the renowned Victorian architect, was employed to repair the west front of the church in 1872, and Sir Theodore Martin restored part of the east end in 1896.  The difference in the stonework at the  and the site has been made safe for visitors.

After passing into the hands of the Ministry of Works in 1950, Valle Crucis was eventually transferred into the care of Cadw in 2008, which retains responsibility for the site.  Between them the site was made safe for visitors and Cadw has expended some effort on information signage to help visitors understand some of the site’s history.


How Valle Crucis and other Welsh abbeys were founded

12th Century links between Cistercian monasteries. Source: Evans, D.H. Valle Crucis Abbey (Cadw). Although Citeaux, the node for all Cistercian abbeys, established early new bases in France, it was Clairvaux under the lead of St Bernard that was responsible for the earliest new abbeys in Wales. Of these Whitland was the most important for the northward spread of monasticism. The green lines emanating from Savigny reflect the Savignac order, which merged with the Cistercians after only 20 years, in 1147. So although Basingwerk in the north and Neath in the south were founded as Savignac orders, after 1147 they were brought under the rule of the Cistercians at Citeaux.

Valley Crucis was at the northeastern end of a branch of a monastic chain that spread from south Wales to the north over a period of some 60 years during the 12th Century, building on a much older European monastic tradition.  The Cistercian order of monks spread through Wales during the 12th Century AD from the of Wales where it was established by monks from the French monastery Clairvaux, forming an eastern and a western chain of monasteries.

The first new Cistercian abbeys were established in Wales in the wake of the Norman conquest, the earliest at Tintern in 1131, and had a distinctly Anglo-Norman flavour.  However, a second strand of Cistercian monasticism spread in Wales.  It began at Whitland (Abaty Hendy-gwyn ar Daf), founded in 1140 by monks from St Bernard’s abbey at Clairvaux, second only to the Cistercians’ founding abbey at Citeaux.  Whitland spawned a series of abbeys that were funded by the native Welsh princes and were populated mainly by Welsh monks, a pura Wallia (Welsh Wales) version of Cistercian monasticism that nurtured Welsh literature and learning.  This spread into the poorer and more remote areas of Wales.

Valle Crucis was founded in 1201, the daughter house of Strata Marcella Abbey (Abaty Ystrad Marchell) near Welshpool, founded by Owain Cyfeiliog, prince of southern Powys, itself a daughter house of Whitland.   Establishing an abbey was an expensive undertaking, both in terms of its construction and providing it with the resources to ensure ongoing economic security. Accordingly, every new abbey required an endowment by a donor, someone with enough land and wealth to give some of it away in return for divine good will and the prayers offered by the monks for the souls of the donor and his family.  The donor usually required a guarantee that they would be buried within the abbey church, and that their family would be buried either within the church itself or within the monastery precinct.  Monks were considered to have a hotline to God.  Having dedicated their lives to Him, and living sin-free lives, they built up a surplus of virtue and influence that could be employed on behalf of the living in order to provide for them in the afterlife, an intercession to minimize the impact of sins committed in life.  Valle Crucis Abbey was founded by Prince Madog ap Gruffydd. 

Original sacristy entrance, 13th Century.

Prince Madog ap Gruffydd controlled the territory of Powys Fadog from the Tanat valley in the south to the edge of Chester from 1191 until his death in 1236, and was an ally of his cousin Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great), prince of Gwynedd, d.1240.  In accordance both with tradition, and to fulfil the terms of his original financing and support of the abbey, he was buried in the abbey church at Valle Crucis, although the exact site of the grave has been lost.  The map above left shows the territorial divisions in Wales in 1267, with Powys Fadog bordering Chester, Gwynedd, southern Powys (Powys Wenwynwyn) and England. 

Valle Crucis was supplied with at least twelve monks (considered by St Benedict to be the minimum number for founding a monastery, following the twelve apostles), possibly thirteen, who were installed in temporary accommodation with a wooden church.  Work would have begun immediately on the stone church, the sacristy and the accommodation, and the 1970 excavation found unmistakeable signs of this work.

Choice of location

The map to the left (Ordnance Survey SJ24/34) shows the relative locations of Valle Crucis Abbey, the Pillar of Eliseg and Castell Dinas Brân, all a short drive from Llangollen, which was probably a large village that would have benefitted from the proximity of the monastery and its associated farms (known as granges).

Ordnance Survey map SJ24/34, showing the relative locations of Valle Crucis Abbey, the Pillar of Eliseg and Castell Dinas Brân (the latter not built until 1270, 69 years after the foundation of Valle Crucis)

The Cistercian ideal of a contemplative existence away from distractions meant that new abbeys were sited where monks could practise their devotions in relative seclusion, although not in complete isolation.  They were often near to well-established routes, and they always located themselves near to water that would be used for drinking, cooking, cleaning, ritual purification, as well as fishing and sometimes for powering water mills.  Abbeys were supposed to be economically self-sufficient, so abbeys still needed to be near enough to manors and villages to enable them to trade their produce, mainly agricultural, in exchange for the basics required for sustaining the abbey, both the choir monks (the dedicated monks within the monastery) and the conversi or lay brotherhood.

Although little is known about Llangollen in the late 12th Century, there was some type of settlement recorded there based around a church, and in 1284, Edward I granted the manor of Llangollen to Roger Mortimer, together with the rights for a weekly market and two annual fairs.  Llangollen was far enough away for monks to feel that they were isolated from civilization, but near enough to a village to enable contacts to be established if required for sourcing produce, raw materials and other goods.  The site of the abbey was clearly idyllic.  The following is an evocative excerpt from a paper by John Williams, who reported on the abbey in 1846 in the journal Archaeologia Cambrensis:  

Luxuriantly watered by a clear stream and sheltered by high hills, the sides of which are gracefully ornamented by trees, the place altogether appears as if especially intended to be the home of peace and happiness – a paradise for restored man, where he might securely worship his Creator and cultivate the graces of heaven implanted in his soul.

The sad remains of Strata Marcella Abbey, which supplied the founding monks of Valle Crucis.  Source: Coflein website – RCAHMW, taken by C.R. Musson, 2/1/1995.

The founding monks of Valle Crucis from Strata Marcella near Welshpool certainly thought so.  They moved the residents of the existing hamlet of Llanegwest to a new location in order to establish themselves in this particular paradise in the form of a fine abbey.  Llanegwest was probably a fairly tiny settlement, and it was relocated to Maelor Gymraeg (on the far northeastern border).  This was by no means unusual, and there are enough records of hamlets and villages being moved to make way for a monastic establishment for this to be seen as a fairly standard (if somewhat ruthless) act in the establishment of a new Cistercian abbey.

The fish pond at Valle Crucis

The Cistercians were renowned for their use of water, which in some abbeys included sophisticated networks of sunken drains that fed into and out of monastic buildings.  The siting of Valle Crucis next to the Eglwyseg was essential for sourcing water that was used for cooking, cleaning, washing, for use in rituals and for creating a fish pond and a drainage system to flush both the choir monks’ and lay brothers’ latrines.

The pond is an expanded version of the original one, and is the only one surviving in Wales.  As early Cistercians could not eat meat under St Benedict’s rules, except on certain nominated days, fish was often an important component of the diet.  As the rules relaxed, meat found its way into the diet on more than just special days, but in the early abbeys fish was often responsible for providing much-needed protein.

The latrines, located on the first floor at the end of the dormitories, were flushed by drains below, which diverted fast-moving stream water to clear waste back into the stream,  presumably downriver of the monastery.  Cleanliness was an important component of monastic life, with monks washing their hands before each meal, and latrines associated with the devil.

Pillar of Eliseg by David Parkes 1809. Source: National Library of Wales

Finally, the Pillar of Eliseg may or may not have influenced the location of the abbey, even though it provided the abbey with its name.  It is, however, entirely possible that the presence of the ancient cross as a clear and ancient statement of Christian affiliation would have been particularly attractive to the new abbot and his monks.  Perhaps more significantly, it was probably particularly resonant for the founder-patron of the abbey, Prince Madog ap Gruffydd, embedded as the monument was with memories of the past inhabitants of the region who sought to defend it against all-comers.  With the Marcher Lords at the borders and the English beyond, Madog probably felt a close affinity with Concenn and his predecessors.   The cross still stands to the north of the abbey, but is considerably shorter, with bits missing, including the top, base and arms of the cross.  In the view to the right by David Parkes, dated 1809, the remains of Valle Crucis are visible at the lower left of the image.

I had initially assumed that the siting of Valle Crucis took into account the proximity of Dinas Brân, a Medieval castle that was also located in the Vale of Llangollen and can be seen from the abbey.  The castle was not, however, built until 1270.

View from the interior of Valle Crucis. I find it hard to get my head around the idea that this and other very narrow views were all that the monks would have seen. They could not explore the environment in which their abbey was located, because they were confined to the monastic precinct.  They could merely see it, never truly experience it.


The remains of Valle Crucis

Valley Crucis provides a very useful template for understanding other monasteries in the Benedictine tradition, all incorporating a church and the main monastic buildings arranged around a square cloister, consisting of a walkway connecting the buildings around a garden or “garth.”

Cadw site plan, with photographs of mine added to show the relative location of some of the key features (click to expand).

Above is a site plan of Valle Crucis, which adopted the typical layout of a Benedictine abbey that the Cistercians had adopted, basing themselves on the Benedictine rule.  The earliest known abbey in Britain that adopted this basic layout was Glastonbury Abbey.  Part 2 will show this image again, and look at these and other features in detail, discussing how they reflect historical developments from the foundation of the abbey at the beginning of the 13th Century, via fire, flood, fluctuating fortunes and changing ideas to its dissolution in the mid 16th century.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, Valle Crucis is not merely of interest as a component of the Vale of Llangollen landscape, but is a useful representative of both Welsh and English Cistercian traditions.  It both exemplifies many of the historical details that have been assembled about Cistercian monasticism in Britain, and provides an impressive volume of data that both reinforces existing knowledge and adds to it.  Some of this will be explored further in the next three posts.

This post, Part 1, has introduced the Cistercian order and explained why Valle Crucis was located where it is.  The next post, part 2 looks at the organization of the abbey in terms of its purpose and how it was built to meet the needs of the monastic community, looking at each room in turn.   All parts are available, as they are written, by clicking on the following link: https://basedinchurton.co.uk/category/valley-crucis-abbey/

 

Sources for the Valle Crucis series

Resources that were of particular use are picked out in bold.

Books and papers

Anonymous (A. Traveller) 1863.  Valle Crucis Abbey – Correspondence To the Editor of Archaeologia Cambrensis.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 3rd series, No.33, January 1863, p.68-72
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2995788/67#?xywh=-1466%2C103%2C5111%2C3522

Aston, M. 2000. Monasteries in the Landscape.  Tempus

Barker, G. 1976.  Diet and Economy at Valle Crucis:  The Report on the Animal Bones.  Archaeologia Cambrensis 125 (1976), p.117-126

Butler, L.A.S. 1976.  Valle Crucis Abbey:  An Excavation in 1970.  Archaeologia Cambrensis 125 (1976), p.80-116
https://journals.library.wales/view/4718179/4747123/95#?xywh=-1521%2C-15%2C5975%2C3940

Burton, J. and Kerr, J. 2011.  The Cistercians in the Middle Ages.  Boydell Press

Burton, J. and Ströber, K. 2015.  Abbeys and Priories of Medieval Wales. University of Wales Press

Cantor, N. 2002. In the Wake of the Black Death and the World it Made.  Perennial

Carr, A.D. 1970. An Aristocracy in Decline: the Native Welsh Lords after the Edwardian Conquest.  Wesh History Review 5 (1970), p.103-29

Clwyd and Powys Archaeological Trust.  Historic Settlement Survey – Denbighshire – 2014.  Llangollen SJ 2150 4190, 105978.
https://cpat.org.uk/ycom/denbigh/llangollen.pdf

Coppack, G. 1990.  Abbeys and Priories. Batsford.

Davies, J. 2007 (3rd edition).  A History of Wales.  Penguin

Evans D.H. 2008, Valle Crucis Abbey, Cadw

Edwards, N. 2008.  The Pillar of Eliseg.  In: Evans D.H., Valle Crucis Abbey, Cadw

Gascoigne, B. 2004 (revised edition).  A Brief History of Christianity. Constable and Robinson

Greene, J.P. 1992.  Medieval Monasteries.  Leicester University Press

Gresham, C.A. 1968. Medieval stone carving in North Wales: Sepulchral slabs and effigies of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. University of Wales Press

Hughes, H. 1894, Valle Crucis Abbey. Archaeologia Cambrensis, 5th series, 11:43 (1894), p.69-85, 257-75
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/3009987/#?xywh=-853%2C-196%2C3885%2C3913

Hughes, H. 1895. Valle Crucis Abbey. Archaeologia Cambrensis, 5th series, 12:45 (1895), pp. 5-17
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/3010260/#?xywh=-853%2C-196%2C3885%2C3913

Huws, D. 2000.  Medieval welsh Manuscripts. University of Wales Press

Jenkins, G.H. 2007.  A Concise History of Wales.  Cambridge University Press

Jones, O.W. 2013. Historical writing in Medieval Wales.  PhD thesis, Bangor University
https://research.bangor.ac.uk/portal/files/20577287/null

Jones, O.W. 2020. The Most Excellent Princes: Geoffrey of Monmouth and Medieval Welsh
Historical Writing.  In Henley, G. and Smith, J.B. (eds.) A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth.  Brill

Kelley, J. 2006.  The Great Mortality.  An intimate history of the Black Death. Harper Perennial

Kerr, J. 2006. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum

Lewis, S. 1849.  Holt in A Topographical Dictionary of Wales: ‘Heyop – Holyhead’, p.418-430.
Available on British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-dict/wales/pp418-430#h3-0009

Long, J.F. 1992.  1147 Rejected: A study of Cistercian and Savignac Possessions in England and Wales 1127-1176.  Master of Arts Dissertation, University of Manitoba, December 1992

Miller, D. 2017.  Sing a New Song. The Spirit of Cistercian Liturgical Reform and the 1147 Hymnal. M.A. Thesis, Central European University, Budapest. https://www.etd.ceu.edu/2017/miller_dane.pdf

Morris, R.M. 1987. Bare Ruined Choirs. The Fate of a Welsh Abbey. Stanley Thornes Ltd.

Platt, C. 1984.  The Abbeys and Priories of Medieval England. Chancellor Press

Pratt, D. 2011.  Valle Crucis abbey:  lands and charters.  Denbighshire Historical Society Transactions

Price, G.V. 1952, Valle Crucis Abbey. Hugh Evans and Sons / The Brython Press

Rees, W. 1920.  The Black Death in England and Wales, as Exhibited in Manorial Documents.  Transactions of the Royal History Society.  vol.3, Dec.1920, p.115-135

Robinson, D. 2006.  The Cistercians in Wales. Architecture and Archaeology 1130-1540.  Society of Antiquaries London

Rogers, M. 1992.  The Marcher Lordship of Bromfield and Yale.  Unpublished PhD.  University College Wales, Aberystwyth.  Available on EThOS at
https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.262474

Silvester, R.J., and Hankinson, R., 2015. The Monastic Granges of East Wales. The Scheduling Enhancement Programme: Welshpool. Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust (CPAT)

Southern, R.W. 1970. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. Penguin

Stephenson, D. 2016. Medieval Powys.  Kingdom, Principality and Lordship 1132-1293. Boydell and Brewer

Ströber, K. 2008. Social Networks of Late Medieval Monasteries.  In Burton, J. and Ströber, K. Monastery and Society in the British Isles in the Late Medieval Period.  Boydell and Brewer

Venning, T. 2015 (second edition). The Kings and Queens of Wales. Amberley

Waddell, C., 1993. Towards a new provisional edition of the Statutes of the Cistercian General Chapter, c. 1119-1198. In (eds.) F. R. Swietek and J. Sommerfeldt.  Studiosorum Speculum: Studies in Honour of Louis J. Lekai.  Kalamazoo, p.384-419.

Williams, D. 1984.  The Welsh Cistercians.  Cyhoeddiadau Sistersiaidd

Williams, D. 1990.  Atlas of Cistercian Lands in Wales.  University of Wales Press

Williams, G. 1976 (second edition). The Welsh Church from Conquest to Reformation.  University of Wales Press

Williams, H., Smith, G, Crane D. and Watson, A.  2018.  The Smiling Abbot: Rediscovering a Unique Medieval Effigial Slab. Archaeological Journal, 175, 2, p.255-291
DOI: 10.1080/00665983.2017.1366705

Williams, J.  1846.  Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1 , 1846 p.17-32, 151-153, 279-280
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2989093/17#?xywh=-893%2C45%2C3900%2C3929

Wynne, W. W. E. 1848. Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 3:11 (1848), p.228-229
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2991333/41#?xywh=-913%2C-241%2C3920%2C3949

Wynne, W. W. E. 1849. Excavations at Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 4:13 (1849), p.22-27
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2991554/21#?xywh=-849%2C-1035%2C3920%2C3949

Wynne, W. W. E.  1851. Excavations at Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, new series, 8 (1851), p.282-284
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2990655/21#?xywh=-893%2C-221%2C3920%2C3949

Wynne, W. W. E. 1852. Excavations at Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, new series, 10 (1852), pp. 93-96
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2990849/12#?xywh=-893%2C-199%2C3900%2C3929

Yorke, T. 2004.  The English Abbey Explained.  Monasteries – Priories.  Countryside Books

Ziegler, P. 1969. The Black Death.  William Collins, Sons and Co.

Websites

Ancient and Medieval Architecture
Llantysilio – Valle Crucis Abbey
https://tinyurl.com/8fuybma9

ArchaeoDeath – Death and Memory, Past and Present (blog)
Valle Crucis – Reused Ruins, Water and Death In Absentia by Professor Howard Williams
https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/valle-crucis-reused-ruins-water-and-death-in-absentia/
The Smiling abbot of Valle Crucis
https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2016/03/31/the-smiling-abbot-of-valle-crucis-an-archaeodeath-exclusive/
Valle Crucis tags
https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/tag/valle-crucis/

Coflein
Valle Crucis
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/95205/

English Heritage
Valle Crucis Abbey
https://cadw.gov.wales/visit/places-to-visit/valle-crucis-abbey

An Essay on Cistercian Liturgy by Dr Julie Kerr
Cistercians in Yorkshire, University of Sheffield
www.dhi.ac.uk/cistercians/cistercian_life/spirituality/Liturgy/Cistercian_liturgy.pdf 

Monastic Wales
Valle Crucis (Abbey)
https://www.monasticwales.org/browsedb.php?func=showsite&siteID=35

The Cistercians in Yorkshire Project
https://www.dhi.ac.uk/cistercians/

WordProject
Psalms (audio readings)
https://www.wordproject.org/bibles/audio/01_english/b19.htm

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