Category Archives: Walks suitable for unwilling legs

New Chester Walking Tour: Women of Chester

Chester Visitor Information Centre. Source: Experience Chester

On the Chester Heritage Week’s tour of the Medieval features of Chester Cathedral by Nick Fry, Green Badge tour guide Katie Crowther was in attendance and mentioned that she was leading a new weekly tour themed around Cestrian women, “Women of Chester”, bookable in person in the Chester Visitor Information Centre.  So on Sunday 3rd July at 1130, I presented myself punctually to join the hour-long walking tour outside the Visitor Information Centre, geared up for sun, cold, and/or rain.  Although slightly cool, it stayed dry and it was a very good day for an outdoor walk.

The Green Badge is only awarded to Chester tour guides after a lengthy course and a tough practical exam, so is a good indication that you’re in safe hands.  Katie is one of life’s natural communicators, avoiding any temptation to swamp visitors with paralyzing volumes of data, and instead delivering an information-packed and enjoyable tour in an entirely digestible and memorable way.

The introductory talk took place midway between the Visitor Information Centre  (itself incorporated into the 19th Century Town Hall), behind St Werburgh’s Cathedral, with a randomly placed Roman column in view.  It was a well-mixed architectural locale for the enormously helpful potted history of Chester, providing the key chronological framework onto which the rest of Katie’s narrative was neatly hooked.

Tombstone of Curatia Dionysia

This is not a tour about famous women married to famous men at the top of Cestrian society.  Nor is it a feminist agenda.  Instead, it is part ancient history, part social history, delving into how political, cultural and economic life shaped the lives of women whom in turn, responded to the drivers of Chester life in different ways.  In short, the tour has tentacles that reach into most parts of Chester’s rich and varied past.  As well as looking at women who, in sometimes surprising circumstances, have performed conspicuous and/or leading roles in Chester life, the tour also looks at those who fell foul of religion, convention and tradition, and suffered for it.  

Roman women are the earliest to be recorded in any detail in Chester, and are particularly visible on Roman tombstones, representing the upper echelons of Chester’s Roman society, those who experienced the most comfortable contemporary life.  By contrast, a horribly unfortunate woman accused of witchcraft in the 17th century suffered terrible conditions in the local prison whilst others were burnt at the stake. 

St Werburgh pilgrim’s badge. Source: British Museum

Two of the earliest women who are known to have played a pivotal role in Chester’s history, were Anglo-Saxon.  It is remarkable that the revolutionary diplomat and strategist Aethelflaed (c.870-918), daughter of Alfred the Great and wife of Aethelred Lord of Mercia is so unrecognized in Chester.  She came came to Chester during the illness of her husband to take on a critical role in the defence of Mercia against the Vikings here.  The second Anglo-Saxon name that is intimately tied to Chester is St Werburgh, who died in about 699.  Her remains were brought to Chester Hanbury in Staffordshire at some time between 875 and 907 by the aforementioned Aaethelfaed, raising the profile of Chester as an important Christian centre and destination for pilgrimage.  Chester Cathedral is still dedicated to her.

Sylvia Brown. Source: CheshireLive

Amongst some of the many other women of Chester with great stories was one who kept an evocative record of what it was like to be under siege within the walls during the civil war, an 18th century pioneering commercial and retail entrepreneur, a mayor, a sheriff and two women who lost, respectively, three and four sons in the Second World War.  Of course, Queen Victoria visited, and a famous Chester landmark is dedicated to her, although there is kink in the tail of this story that raises a smile.  Suffrage and music hall provide equal, if slightly contrasting examples both of women’s attitudes and of attitudes to women. Coco Chanel adds more than a touch of glamour to Chester’s story.  Sculptress Annette Yarrow’s life-size female elephant calf called Janya is a fun way of highlighting the connection between the city and Chester Zoo and is a great presence.  For those of us living in Churton, there is even a link to Churton Lodge!  I won’t repeat any of the specifics, partly because I couldn’t possibly do justice to all the information imparted (particularly some of the funnier stories), but also because it would spoil the experience.

The walking tour ranges freely around Chester within the city walls, going up on to the walls for a chunk of the talk, and taking in a number of both famous and lesser known sites along the way.  We also walked through the town, which retains the original Roman plan and in turn gave definition to the Medieval and modern town.  As well as describing women in terms of Chester, and Chester in terms of the women who, though often invisible, helped to define it, the tour gives an excellent sense of the variety of architectural styles, old and new, and the use of space within the walls.  Again, I won’t spoil the experience by saying which sites we visited or why, but there is something for everyone in the tour.

In terms of accessibility for those with unwilling legs, but there are disabled and pushchair options that avoid stairs.  If your legs are fairly co-operative but hesitant, the number of staircases you have to tackle is minimal, with a couple of short flights of stairs up to and down from the city walls and the rows, all with good banisters to hold on to.   If in doubt, ask on the day, and the guide will sort out either wheel-friendly or leg-friendly options.  Apart from some slightly uneven pavements and the cobbled abbey square, there is nothing more challenging to tackle.

Coco Chanel. Source: medium.com

The “Women of Chester” walking tour is well worth an hour on a Sunday, with lots of other places to visit afterwards to turn it into a day out.  The tour offers a different slant on Chester’s history and it takes you to some interesting and sometimes unexpected parts of Chester’s heritage.  The entire group of us, leaning perilously over a section of city wall to achieve a good view of a section of the wall immediately below us that had been rebuilt using Roman tomb stones, must have been a most peculiar sight!  Some of those wonderful carved tomb stones are now in an excellent display in the Grosvenor Museum.

It was a good outing, with a lot to make us smile.  

The “Women of Chester” walking tour has been  developed by three of the Green Badge guides, shown in the photograph left, and they take turns to deliver this tour, so that each of the guides usually only delivers it once in every three weeks, ensuring that for each of them the material remains fresh.   As new information is discovered it will be incorporated into the tour, meaning that it will be updated over time.  At the same time, women who made a mark on Chester are being incorporated into a new database that it is hoped will provide a foundation for future research projects.

You can follow the Green Badge tour guides on Twitter at @visitchester and you can ask for more details about the Women of Chester tours on Twitter at  https://twitter.com/WomenofChester

 

Eaton Hall Gardens Charity Open Days 2022

My father and I booked for the open day on Sunday 26th June.  All tickets have to be booked in advance, both for the gardens and for the train a narrow gauge railway.  We skipped the train option so I don’t know what that experience was like (lots of children, I would imagine) but the gardens were superb, and in some ways unexpected.  Brief comments on practicalities for those considering July or August visits, in terms of parking, suitability for those with mobility issues etc, are at the end of this post.

The Eaton Hall Gardens are open to the public three times this year, the last Sunday in June, July and August, all in aid of three different charities.  If you are intending to go, but have not yet booked a ticket, I suggest you book immediately via EventBrite, as it sells out every year. I missed the chance last year.  The benefiting charities for the 2022 events are Cheshire Young Carers, Cheshire Wildlife Trust and Kidsbank.

We entered via the Belvedere gate just north of the Grosvenor Garden Centre on the old Chester to Wrexham road (the B5445).  It is an ostentatiously long approach to the property.  Just in front of a gigantic obelisk is a checkpoint where you show your tickets.

Young RAF Air Cadets were on hand everywhere to direct traffic and answer questions, and did an absolutely splendid job of keeping the traffic moving.  Once we had followed their directions and parked in a field (but see my notes on disabled access at the end), and walked up towards the estate buildings, you pass through a gate where your tickets are checked again.  Here you are handed a leaflet about the charity being supported, and another highlighting garden features that you might want to visit by head gardener Jan Lomas, with an excellent map on the back showing the locations those features, with  recommended routes between them, which is absolutely necessary if you are not going to miss anything.  You can download my battered copy of the map here if you want to plan your visit in advance.

We were lucky with the weather, because although it was overcast, with only short burst of occasional sunshine, it remained dry, and it was warm.  You can click on any of the photos to see a bigger version.

The description of the gardens on the EventBrite website gives some idea of the treats in store:

Eaton Hall Gardens extend to 88 acres and have been developed over many years by prominent designers, most recently by Lady Arabella Lennox-Boyd. The gardens have a wide variety of planting, including four formal colour-themed rose gardens and grand colour-themed herbaceous borders. There is a newly completed hot border design and a stunning bedding scheme in the Dragon Garden which is not to be missed. Visitors can also enjoy the walled Kitchen Garden, as well as the wildflower garden and the lake walk, where you can take in fabulous views of the Hall and grounds. Finally, the Tea House is filled with roses and herbs and sits perfectly at the end of a short walk past the lake area.

We found all the gardens except the wildflower garden (up a flight of stairs out of the Dragon Garden), and we didn’t do the lake walk simply because it was getting rather late, but looks like a brilliant venue for the picnics that were being carried by more organized visitors.

The first place that we visited was the camellia walk, a long, slender glass corridor lined with camellia bushes.  Although none of the camellias were in flower (they are a spring flowering species), the conservatory building itself was a thing of real beauty, and the sense that it goes on and on without visible end is wonderful.

Nearby are the sheds and the platform for the narrow gauge railway (with open-sided carriages pulled by a steam engine, which used to connect to a Chester-Shropshire railway line siding some 3 miles away).  We walked along a track round the walled kitchen garden towards the courtyard entrance, which is an intriguing little walk, as there is a lovely tree-lined walk towards the kitchen garden, and a couple of quirky buildings, but no signs that it is in use for anything.

The first port of call for most people is the former stable block surrounding a courtyard.  The stable courtyard is open to the public, and there is a horse-drawn carriage display in the light-filled atrium that gives access to it.

The open courtyard itself is laid out with tables and chairs, and is one of the places where refreshments are served in aid of charity (for cash only), and was very congested, but the surrounding buildings were not at all busy.

The former stables themselves, built by Alfred Waterhouse in around 1869, are open.  The saddle horses and harness horses were stabled separately, and there was a harness room and a carriage house too.  There is some information about the horses stabled there and a reconstruction of the stud manager’s office, as well as the family history and exhibition rooms.  You can also, from the stable courtyard, access the bizarre shell grotto and the 1870 Eaton Chapel from the courtyard (stained-glass windows by Frederic James Shields).  Live organ concerts were being played in the chapel, majoring on Johann Sebastian Bach, a lovely, intimate sound in that small space.   

After visiting the courtyard, which is the first place that everyone seems to filter into first, the nearest of the gardens to visit is the walled kitchen garden.

Along one of the walls is a broad border filled with brightly coloured flowers, many of which grow on a massive, upwardly skyrocketing scale.  Within the walls, the beds are divided into squares and rectangles by multiple pathways, many of which are provided with colourful arches.  Some of the beds are defined some defined by short hedges of interlaced apples.  Some of the flowers are exotic and gaudy, others are more humble and subtle, and there is a lively mix of floral displays and vegetables, with lots to see.  The overall impact is one of careful husbandry with a real eye for colour, scale and shape.

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From there we walked down to the Parrot House, a little round building looking rather like a Graeco-Roman temple, but designed to keep tropical birds.  It was built in the 1880s by Alfred Waterhouse and was fitted with heating to create suitable conditions for such birds, but apparently never housed anything more tropical than some budgies.  There were hay bales outside for visitors to sit and watch the band.

From here it was a short walk to the rose gardens, which sit in front of the Eaton Hall house, offering the first real glimpse of the house and the great clock tower of the neighbouring chapel.  The Country Seat website offers the following very useful potted history of Eaton Hall (not open to the public, but an unavoidable presence).

A Victorian Gothic iteration of Eaton Hall in the late 19th Century. Source: Lost Heritage

The first notable Eaton Hall was designed by William Samwell and built in 1664 but was replaced by a vast Gothic creation by William Porden in 1803, which was then enlarged by William Burn in 1845. This was then replaced by the Victorian Gothic of Alfred Waterhouse in 1870, before the whole edifice was swept away in 1961 as the trustees of the then young Duke couldn’t imagine anyone living in such splendour again. Faced with being a Duke with no seat in his 11,500-acre estate in Cheshire, in 1971 the 5th Duke commissioned a starkly white modernist country house from John Dennys, (who also happened to be the Dukes’ brother-in-law) which was as striking as it was controversial. This was then given a vaguely ‘chateau’ style makeover in 1989 for the 6th Duke, to designs by the Percy Thomas Partnership. So of the five major houses which have been graced with the name Eaton Hall, the current one, though impressive, still doesn’t quite have the gravitas of the others. Perhaps, in time, a future Duke may decide to replace it again.

The current house is an ugly great block of a thing looking not unlike Faengslet prison. I daresay it has more going on in its favour on the inside.  Next to it, rather more endearing in a uniquely Victorian way, is the Eaton Hall chapel clock tower and the chapel itself, behind which is the the stable courtyard.  Although the history of the house is of interest, the visit is all about the gardens, which are excellent.

The gardens are dotted throughout a park that sits above a lake and extends to the east.  Instead of being clustered around the house, as in most houses and estates of this type, the different gardens are dotted around, approached both via metalled surfaces and grass paths mowed through stretches that have been allowed to run wild.

The rose gardens are probably the highlight of the gardens at this time of year.  The twin gardens flank a long rectangular ornamental pond that runs towards the house.  The pond is often shown with fountains, but they were not operating when we visited.  The rose gardens are the most remarkable of a set of terraces.  The top terrace, not accessible to the public, is on the level of the house.  The rose gardens are next down, and below this is the lioness and kudu pond, which in turn overlooks the slope down to the lake, which is fed by the River Dee.

The rose gardens and the pond are flanked by wooden arches connected with thick ropes, and both the arches and the connecting ropes support white and palest pink roses.

On each side of the pond are two square rose gardens, separated by yew hedges, cleverly offset so that one garden cannot be seen from the next, giving the impression of being the entrance to a maze.  Each of these rose gardens has a central focal point, a circular path, and four beds, each with a massive obelisk in its corner.  Each of the gardens is colour-themed.  One, for example, is blue and yellow, whilst another is pure white.  The roses are certainly the dominant flower, but they are supported by penstemons, clematis, geraniums and various other species that help to create a mass of different textures and shapes.

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The Dragon Garden is named for the dragon sculpture in the centre of the garden.  A formal geometric garden, planted with small species  of blues, purples, lilacs and mauves, this is a delightful sight, highly structured and precise.  There is a statue of a figure on each corner of the garden, possibly former family members.

After a pause to enjoy the view at the end of the terrace, and to look down over the lioness and kudu sculpture (a truly bizarre thing) we went towards the Dutch Tea House and the accompanying Tea Garden.  Outside this garden, and elsewhere on the estate, several of the vast oaks are wrapped in fine mesh.  I had seen this on a previous visit to the Aldford Iron Bridge on the other side of the estate, and had wondered what it was all about.  A helpful sign explained that it was an experimental measure taken against acute decline disease, thought to be caused by a parasitic boring beetle.  The mesh restricts the movement of the beetles and prevents them spreading.  At the same time, the roots of the tree, under soil compacted over the decades, prevents water and nutrients reaching the tree, so a programme of mulching has been undertaken to help retain water and help the transfer of nutrients and water via the roots into the trees.

The Tea House is a little ornamental building, approached via a path that leads through the pet cemetery, and look out for a delectable little wooden Wendy house on the other side of a low hedge.   If you have a pushchair or wheelchair / buggy, there is a side entrance to the garden that avoids the steps down from the Tea House.  Giant fennel plants give a wonderful bitter-sweet scent on approach to the garden.  The garden has a statue of Mercury at its centre (standing on a personification of the wind).  The garden is beautiful in a less formal way than the rose gardens, with a more unaffected feel, with lovely block-paved paths and beds filled with flowers and highly aromatic herbs that deliver a gloriously chaotic range of different aromatic scents that follow you around.  On a hot day I imagine that it would be even better as the aromas heat through.  

From here there was a choice of walking down to the lake, or taking one of the grass paths to another little temple-like building, referred to as a loggia.  We opted for the walk to the loggia, rectangular this time, which was flanked by two genuine Roman columns and housed a genuine Roman altar, the latter found to the east of Chester between the Tarvin and Huntington roundabouts, about 320 metres east of Boughton Cross, and 1.8 km due east of The Cross, Chester.  Given how much Roman architecture has been lost from Chester, it was probably a kindness to remove and preserve them.

The altar is today known officially as RIB 460.  On two sides it reads “Nymphis et Fontibus
leg(io) XX V(aleria) V(ictrix),” translated as “To the Nymphs and Fountains the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix (set this up).”  It was rediscovered first in 1821.

There is a grass avenue from here back to the Parrot House via the terrace with the lioness and kudu pond.  The band’s little white marquee is stationed in front of the Parrot House so you don’t really get a sense of the connection between the two buildings, but it is a nice arrangement.  As you walk onto the pond terrace, you pass through a grass path flanked with two borders filled with lavender.  We paused to run fingers through it and release the splendid scent.  The wall that runs below the upper terrace where the rose gardens were located is covered in white hydrangea petiolaris, a form of hydrangea that climbs. The pond itself has a vast greened sculpture in the middle showing a lioness about to leap on and kill a kudu (a deer-like animal).  As you walk up behind it, the change of perspective gives a strange sense that the lioness is in motion. It is absolutely not my cup of coco, and I would have it moved somewhere a lot less conspicuous, but it is certainly attention-grabbing.

From the Parrot House it was a short walk along the bottom edge of the walled garden to the field where we were parked.  We found the Air Cadets who were stationed around all the entrances and exits very helpful in sorting out somewhere where I could easily pick up my father.

Later, whilst my father was masterminding a fabulous culinary extravaganza in his kitchen, I read the leaflet about the Cheshire Young Carers charity that the day’s takings were to support.  It was something of an eye-opener to learn how many children care for their parents or their siblings, unsupported by any official mechanisms.  I was so pleased that our tickets had gone towards helping this excellent organization, which not only helps with practical support but organizes away days for children, activities that allow them to escape their responsibilities for a short time.
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Visiting Practicalities

The parking arrangements were very well managed with plenty of Air Cadets and other personnel at the ready to give directions and advice.  The car park was a field.  The field surface was dry buy very uneven.  A brief conversation with one of the parking officials enabled me to drop my father off on the hardstanding that led up to the gardens, and park nearby, where some spaces had been kept free, but if you have a disability badge, there are is special parking right by the entrance to the gardens.

There is a disability stand where disability scooters and other aids can be collected, and the gardens as a whole are generally easy for those with mobility issues, as well as for wheelchair and pushchair users. The gardens are connected with the lake by metalled paths leading between gardens, and within some of the gardens and in the park between them, there are level grass surfaces and light slopes throughout, which (at least on a dry day) are suitable for wheelchairs and pushchairs.  There are not many benches or seats around, and none between the gardens.

It was only moderately busy.  The car parks seemed to be stuffed full of cars, but the park and gardens seemed to swallow visitors very easily.  Only in the places where people tend to convene, like refreshment areas and places where there was live music, was there a sense that it might become crowded.  The gardens themselves gave no sense at all of there being too many people for the space.

Full details of the event, plus booking information, are on the Eventbrite website at:
https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/eaton-hall-gardens-charity-open-day-tickets-308591705097

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Sources:

EventBrite
Eaton Hall Gardens Charity Open Days 2022
https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/eaton-hall-gardens-charity-open-day-tickets-308591705097

Historic England
Eaton Hall Park and Garden
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000127?section=official-list-entry

Lost Heritage
Eaton Hall
http://www.lostheritage.org.uk/houses/lh_cheshire_eatonhall_info_gallery.html

Roman Inscriptions of Britain
RIB 460
https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/460

The Country Seat
Country houses of the 2014 Rich List – Top 10
https://thecountryseat.org.uk/tag/eaton-hall/

A walk from Telford’s Horseshoe Falls to the outskirts of Llangollen

Photograph taken from the top of the path leading from the car park, looking down at the Horseshoe Falls

The Horseshoe Falls are just outside Llangollen, a remarkable and lovely feature developed by Thomas Telford as part of his solution for supplying the Llangollen canal with water.  As the name suggests, it is a semi-circle of falling water, actually a man-made weir, which combines human symmetry with the natural beauty of water.  It looked spectacular in the sun, more art than engineering.

I usually make my comments about accessibility for people with uncooperative legs at the end, but in case the above photo makes you think I have lost my mind to categorize it as suitable , this is because there are other ways to approach the falls than from the top of the hill, approaches that are completely on the flat along the canal towpath.  Bear with me; clarity will emerge 🙂

Map of the Horse Falls area. Source: Pontcysyllte Aqueduct website

I had not set out to do this walk yesterday (Friday), and was actually on my way back from Valle Crucis (open once again to the public, but closed Tuesday and Wednesday each week), and was not ready to go home, so decided to drive down the road to the car park for the Falls, which is clearly signposted, and do a short walk to find out what it was like with a view to returning for a longer walk on another day.  The car park is pay-and-display but it is only a pound for the entire day, payable by cash or by swiping your debit card.  There are also public toilets.  I imagine that it gets quite busy at the weekends.

It is a short walk from there up a very slight slope along a metalled path to the top of the hill, from which the valley unfolds below.  There is an information sign here too.

I covered the basics of the building of the canal on earlier my post about the fabulous Pontcysyllte aqueduct, which you can find here, so won’t repeat that on this post, but the Horseshoe Falls deserve an explanation in its own right.  To secure water from the Dee, which ultimately comes from Lake Tegid at Bala, Telford gained permission from the owner of the lake to take off water  from the Dee for the new canal. The water had to be diverted from the Dee into the Llangollen canal by means of a feeder channel, some 1.8 miles long.  The distinctively shaped weir helps create a pool of water that can be pumped into the feeder channel. 

This link between the river and the canal required the installation of a pumping station by the side of the pool below the weir.  It was replaced by a new  Meter House or “valve house” in 1947, which still stands.  A massive pipe, 20ft long and 3ft in diameter runs 8ft below the ground to supply the Dee water to the Llangollen canal feeder.  This flow is released and slowed by means of guillotine valves which are controlled from the valve house.  By using the water of the Dee as it fell from Snowndonia via Lake Tegid, over 11 million gallons of Dee water a day, is fed into the Llangollen canal, eventually emptying into Hurleston reservoir, just north of Nantwich, where the Llangollen Canal meets the Shropshire Union Canal and contributing to the greater canal network. It was completed in 1808.

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It is a short and not particularly steep walk down to the falls from the car park, and the hillside is, at the moment a sheer delight, with the slopes covered in giant buttercups, purple thistles and daisies, with a few blue speedwells dotted in amongst them.  Once down at the falls, you are at the source of the Llangollen canal, a remarkable thought.   The valve house for the canal is at your left, and the footpath runs both left (east) and right (west).

I cannot yet comment on the footpath heading west, but if you head left, towards Llangollen, you find yourself immediately on a wide, level path, the towpath, which runs deliciously between the canal on your left and the Dee on the right.  The canal is very narrow at this stage, just a feeder, and not navigable.  The Dee too changes character, from a wide, deep run of uninterrupted river to fast, impressive rapids channelling itself through large slabs of natural rock.  Although the towpath runs above the level of the Dee, there are paths down to the river, and people were sunbathing on the huge slabs and paddling in the water.

The sound of the river coursing over the rocks is glorious, and a fabulous contrast to the peaceful, mirror-surfaced channel of canal that runs along the base of a solid wall of local rock, infiltrated by all sorts of rock-loving plant species and overhung by trees.  The canal widens as it goes, but remains un-navigable because, even where the canal is sufficiently wide and deep, there is no winding point (an indent where narrow-boats can turn around.  Long, sinuous weeds signal the direction of flow in the apparently motionless water, and fish, swimming against the current, hold a stationary position.  With the sun on it, when not mirroring the vegetation and sky above, it appears gold and velvet brown.  There are bridges all the way along, some modern and metal, but there are also traditional stone canal bridges, clearly numbered, with ramps for horses.  There is also an impressively substantial bridge spanning both the canal and the river.

One bridge is a delightful exception, and very unexpected.  The Chain Bridge Hotel contains within its Dee frontage, access to a small but perfect suspension bridge that provides access from the tow path to the railway station on the other side of the river, and some height above.   There is a small car park at the hotel, which can be used by the public.  I didn’t stop for a for a drink or a bite to eat, but the views from the terrace, over the bridge and the Dee rapids, are excellent.  This would probably be a good place to start and end your walk (particularly if the food is any good) if your legs like things simple, because the whole walk is on the flat.

I didn’t go much further because it was already getting rather late and I had other things to do.  I suppose I must have walked for about half an hour, with breaks to take photos, and then turned and walked back. Another way of tackling the walk would be to start in Llangollen and walk out towards the Horseshoe Falls.  This would be a much longer walk, and one for another day,  and again on the flat all the way along the towpath.  I am looking forward to it.

I went some way past the Motor Museum, which was to the right and below the level of the towpath.  The walk was particularly good on a day like yesterday, with hot sun and a light breeze.  At this time of year, with leaves on the trees, the towpath is in dappled shade, perfectly warm but not too hot.

Here are the rest of the photos:
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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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Day trip: Bodnant Gardens in Conwy are looking fabulous

Bodnant Gardens are currently stunning.  Bodnant is always stunning, and it gets better every year.  This time of year is one of its particularly shining moments, with the laburnum walk and the last of the azaleas, the rhododendrons in full bloom, the wisteria flowing like water, fabulous guelder rose (actually a viburnum), a few glossy camellias still in flower, some charming early roses, and enormous pieris shrubs the size of trees blooming with flowers that look like lily of the valley.  These are complemented at ground level with some brightly coloured arrays of perennial flowers, glossy and eye-catching, even in the deep shade, where careful choices have produced fabulous results.  The formal ponds were dignified and peaceful, whilst the bubbling brook at the bottom of the valley was utterly stunning, with birdsong and water over stones combining to create an audio-visual sense of peace and harmony that was really rather magical.  Even the views are wonderful from the formal terraces, looking out over the river Conwy across to the hills that lie between Bodnant and the Menai Strait.  I have  run out of superlatives, but Bodnant merits it.

Visiting notes, including notes for those with unwilling legs, are at the end.

 

 

 


Visiting notes

Although we had set out for Valle Crucis Abbey, just outside Llangollen, it was closed.  I did not bang my head helplessly against the nearest wall, in spite of all the emails I have sent down the black hole of Cadw‘s multiple “contact” email addresses to find out when it would be open again.  Instead we took out the road atlas and considered our options and Bodnant looked like a distinctly uplifting improvement on the day to date, particularly as we were planning to go next week anyway.  The weather was a bit dodgy, but what the heck; we decided that the A5 was just down the road, and with a swift right turn onto the A470 at Betws y Coed we could be at Bodnant Gardens in no time – which is to say about 45 minutes from Llangollen.  It was only noon, which gave us plenty of time to get there and spend the rest of the day wandering, especially if we returned to Dad’s in Rossett via the A55 dual carriageway and had a pub meal afterwards to avoid the need to cook (which we did).  The weather improved all the time and by 4pm it was sunny, blue-skied, hot and perfectly gorgeous.  In spite of a false start to the day, it became a marvellous day.

As you would expect with a National Trust property, there is loads of parking.  As Bodnant is on a hill, the car park is quite steep and if you have anyone with leg issues, there is a drop off point (and a pick up point opposite) with some benches considerately provided.  It was impressive that a new pedestrian underpass has been built.  It was always a bit of a take-your-life-in-your-hands moment to cross the road from the car park to the ticket office, but the new walkway, flanked with some lovely plants (including the biggest euphorbias I have ever seen), is a major contribution to the experience.

One of the truly admirable things about Bodnant is that so much thought has gone into making it friendly not only for those with unwilling legs, but for wheels, which includes wheelchairs, push chairs and wheeled support frames, all of which were being used when we were there.  The map above was downloaded from the National Trust website, but on the map that they hand you in the ticket office, there are two routes marked, one in red (step-free) and one in blue (suggested route with wheels).   Wheel-friendly paths are not only marked on the map, but are signposted.  Other tracks and pathways are also shown, allowing people without leg issues additional freedom to explore. Those trails not picked out in blue or red are, when appropriate, marked with triple chevrons to show where there is a steep gradient.  The whole thing is really well thought out.

Exiting through the gift shop, the eternal formula for visits these days, is given a slightly different twist to it, as not only is there a garden centre with some very healthy plants that were being snapped up by visitors, but a series of small Welsh craft shops.  Within the garden centre there is a rather tatty coffee shop (although it did a good latte).  There is also an official National Trust gift shop as you reach the exit.  When you return to the car park via the new underpass, a much more upmarket café is available, which was well attended.

For official visiting information, including opening times and prices, see the Bodnant pages on the National Trust website at: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/bodnant-garden

When I read that Storm Arwen had taken down some trees that were over 100 years old, I felt a sense of real loss on their behalf.  Sincere credit is due to the design strategists at Bodnant, because you really wouldn’t guess that 50 trees (fifty!) had come down, including some enormous redwoods.  The impact of the existing trees is just as good as it ever was, and if there are one or two gaps, they are being speedily filled with replacements.  Only one tree remains prone, its roots encased in earth, its footprint so enormous that it looks like something geological or vastly palaeontological, and completely anachronistic.  It was planted in 1897, and now lies like a bitter accusation against Storm Arwen, itself a symptom of climate change.  I didn’t have the heart to take a picture of it, but you can read more about it, with a picture of some of the damage on the Bodnant Gardens website.

 

 

Valle Crucis Abbey #4 – Patrons, abbots and priors

Cadw sign at the site showing a cutaway of how the interior of the Valle Crucis abbey church may have appeared

Part 1 of this series about Valle Crucis Abbey near Llangollen introduced the background to 12th Century monasticism in Britain, via St Pachomius and St Benedict, and talked about the Cistercians, the spread of the Cistercian order in Wales and why Valle Crucis was located where it was.  Part 2 looked at how the buildings at Valle Crucis were used and how the monastic community functioned.  Part 3 looked the architectural development of the abbey, an architectural jigsaw of a story from foundation in 1201 to dissolution in 1536.

Part 4 and upcoming part 5 look at how the patrons, abbots, priors and monks of the Cistercian Order contributed to life at Valle Crucis.  In Part 4, the top levels of the abbatial hierarchy are introduced, and in Part 5 the main body of the monastic community is described, all helping to build a view of what sort of people were to be found at the abbey, and what life was like within the cloister.

It is the way of the literate world that more is known about those at the top of the hierarchy than those of the main body of the community, because it is the patrons and abbots whose names were on formal documentation, and who were accountable to the mother abbey at Strata Marcella, to the General Chapter at Cîteaux, to the pope, and ultimately to God. More mundanely, the abbots were also subject to the vagaries of political activity and war, and as leaders of the abbey were named as its representatives.  Even so, there are considerable gaps in the list of abbots at Valle Crucis, many of whom are simply unrecorded and others are known only by their names, and even then not always with certainty, and sometimes only partially.
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Normans, Cistercians and Welsh princes

The remains of Strata Florida in midwest Wales. Photograph by Jeremy Bolwell. Source: Wikimedia

Although Wales had its own monastic tradition both before and after the Norman invasion in 1066, by 1150 Norman lords had established houses attached to a number of monastic orders in Wales, connected with French orders.   The Normans also set about normalizing the priesthood, bringing it under the archdiocese of Canterbury, and a number of new dioceses were established, each under a new, Norman-sponsored bishop.  Welsh Cistercian monasteries were spawned by  the Anglo-Norman abbeys in Tintern and Whitland in the south.  Whilst Tintern remained embedded in the Norman-Marcher tradition, Whitland’s fortunes became bound up with the Welsh princes in the 12th century when the Lord Rhys ap Gruffudd restored the fortunes of Deheubarth by claiming it from the Anglo-Norman Robert fitz Stephen.  Lord Rhys assumed patronage of both Whitland (founded with monks from Clairvaux) and Strata Florida in mid-west Wales (founded with monks from Whitland), the latter initially founded by fitz Stephen.  The new Welsh monasteries spawned by Whitland spreading from south to north, were all founded with this sense of being true to the Cistercian order, the spirts of St Benedict, the Virgin Mary and Christ, but were, at the same time, Pura Wallia, pure Welsh.

The regulations and charters of the Cistercians formalized the original intentions of St. Robert of Molesme Benedictine Abbey, who founded the Cistercian order in 1098.  Robert was was conscious that the  labora component of the Benedictine motto “ora et labora” (prayer and work) had been largely abandoned.  In the Cluniac order in particular there was too much comfort, a lot of elaborate and time-consuming ora and very little labora.  Cistercian abbeys were intended to be self-sufficient, combining work, prayer and solitude, distant from the distractions of urban areas.  This was Robert’s vision for the New Abbey at Cîteaux.  Robert was recalled somewhat forcibly to Molesme to resume his role, but was succeeded as abbot at the New Monastery by Alberic (1099-1109), who built on Robert’s initial work and successfully obtained papal privilege for the new abbey and its community in 1100.  Alberic was in turn succeeded by Stephen Harding in 1109, an English monk and theologian who consolidated his predecessors’ work over the next 25 years.

The New Monastery at Citeaux as it is today. Source: European Charter of the Cistercian Abbeys and Sites

Abbot Stephen Harding is usually credited with much of the underlying structure that ensured the success of the Cistercian order.  He appears to have understood that new abbeys, each one its own world isolated from its predecessors and peers, meant that standards would be difficult to maintain.  One of his priorities was to standardize life throughout the Cistercian network of abbeys, to ensure conformity to both the Benedictine Rule and Cistercian values, and it is generally thought that he produced the official constitution for the Order, the Carta Caritatis (Charter of Care), ratified by the Pope in 1119.  Amongst other regulations were a number that dealt with governance and accountability.  The governance was to ensure that all abbeys had the resources to conform to the Cistercian vision.  The accountability was the means by which abbeys were monitored, disciplined and assisted.  

Aerial view of Valle Crucis. Source: Coflein

Records of life at Valle Crucis are sketchy.  To complicate matters, as the centuries passed and the Cistercian order relaxed some of the more severe of its dictums, daily life changed accordingly.  This means that there is no single Valle Crucis way of life because as ideological decay set in, so did the way in which lives were lived.  This phenomenon of gradual departure from early Cistercian values is by no means unique to Valle Crucis, and was remarkably consistent across the Cistercian abbeys and across the centuries.  Some of this is visible at Valle Crucis, and the records that do survive give some insights into a few of the peaks and troughs at Valle Crucis.  Between what is known about Valle Crucis and what is known about Cistercian abbeys in general, we can make a fair stab at getting to know some of the people and their roles.
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Patronage of the abbey

The founder and first patron of Valle Crucis

Cistercians might seek relatively remote locations, but they never made any decisions about founding new abbeys without the input of the Cistercian order, local senior clergy and influential secular local dignitaries.  The most important of these secular authorities was the patron who put up the money for the building of the core monastic buildings, including the church, and provided the abbey with lands to secure its income.  Welsh monasteries were not merely religious but had a political and territorial role.

Valle Crucis Abbey in its valley setting today. Source: Archwilio

Prince Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor of Powys Madog (north Powys, northeast Wales) was the last of the major landholders in Wales to invest in a Cistercian establishment, and was convinced by four of the nearest abbots that he should found a monastery in his territory, extending the reach of the Cistercians in Wales.  Investing in Valle Crucis was not a light-hearted undertaking.  As well as land on which to establish the monastic precinct (the monastery buildings, the abbey church, the gatehouse, storage facilities and possibly farm buildings), the abbey had to be allocated lands to ensure that it could at least achieve self-sufficiency and, ideally, to make a profit to fund future activities.  Although monks took a vow of poverty, some abbeys and priories became very wealthy in their own right.  In the case of Valle Crucis, endowment  first meant relocating the village that already occupied the land chosen for the abbey, and providing it with land and other properties, such as mills and fishing rights.  The lands subsequently allocated to the abbey, both highland and lowland, suitable for livestock grazing and agricultural development respectively, had previously fed into Madog’s own coffers.

Depiction of purgatory in the 15th Century Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry. Source: Wikimedia

In return, what did Madog acquire to compensate himself for the ill-will of villagers and farmers, the loss of a useful revenue stream?  The position, prestige and identify of the Welsh princes in the 12th Century was dependent not merely upon political power, but also on spiritual security, which could be secured by investment in monastic establishments and the prayers that would be dedicated to them by the monks.  Richard Southern’s epic narrative about the Middle Ages emphasises the importance of monasteries to patrons (p.225):

The battle for the safety of the land was closely associated with the battle for the safety of the souls of their benefactors.  It was this double objective that induced great men to alienate large portions of their property for monastic uses.  They and their followers and families . . . believed that their temporal and eternal welfare equally depended on the warfare of the monks.

At the same time, his personal prestige would grow along with the monastery.  He had achieved a new status, a validation of his authority and a connection into the wider European world of erudition, culture and divine integrity represented by the spread of the Cistercians and their influence.  With a Cistercian abbey in his heartland, no-one could accuse any ruler of presiding over an uncivilized land.  The spread of the Cistercians in Wales was often connected with reinforcing power, prestige and identity, whilst still maintaining a Welsh personality all wrapped up in a nicely Christian package.  A neat trick.

By investing in a monastic establishment, Madog also stayed on the good side of the Church.  More importantly, what he obtained for himself and his family was the most important direct commodity that the abbey had to offer – its prayers.  As the horrors of purgatory loomed ever closer, patrons hoped that the strength and integrity of monastic prayer would offer powerful intercession.  The prayers of monks who were so close to the divine might work wonders on behalf of the deceased and his family.  Although the Cistercians initially banned burial of secular people within monastic premises, no matter how important, this rule was not observed at many Cistercian monasteries, and certainly at Valle Crucis part of the arrangement seems to have included the burial of Madog and members of his family within the monastic precinct, yet another step nearer to God.

Patrons descended from Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor

When Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor, prince of Powys Fadog (north Powys) died in 1236, his son Gruffudd Maelor ap Madog (c.1220-1269/70), appears to have taken over most of the responsibilities of Madog’s role, although the domains were split between all five of Madog’s sons.  It was Gruffudd who in the year of his father’s death re-confirmed the founding charter, meaning that Valle Crucis retained the properties and assets that had been bestowed upon it by Madog.  He had two sons, Gruffydd Ial ap Madog and Madog ap Gruffydd Maelor.  The family had complicated allegiances, swapping sides between the Welsh and the English, but retained their lands until Edward I took Powys Fadog in 1277.  Gruffudd’s sons were both buried at Valle Crucis, and had presumably taken over the patronage as their father had done before them.

Patronage under English rule

Map showing Bromfield and Iâl (Yale). Source: Rogers 1992, p.444

Valle Crucis, located in a part of Powys known as Bromfield and Iâl, found itself in the middle of several political tugs of war and it is difficult to know what sort of patronage followed between the death of Gruffyd and the suppression of Valle Crucis in 1536.  The answer lies somewhere in the history of Bromfield and Iâl, which had become something of a diplomatic bargaining chip. It seems worth recounting some of that history in order to highlight how political complexities could impact both Valle Crucis and other monastic establishments in Wales.  

Following Edward I’s conquest of Wales Edward I’s reparations to Valle Crucis were generous, but these were intended for replacement of stock, repairs to property, and general compensation for the injury to the dignity of the monastery, but Edward did not replace the Powys princes as patron.  Madog ap Gruffyd, the great-grandson of founder Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor, was buried in the abbey in 1306, as was his cousin Gweirca, implying that they continued to support the abbey even after Edward I.  However, on the death of Madog ap Gruffyd everything changed.

Much of the following has been based on information from the 1992 doctoral thesis The Welsh Marcher Lordship of Bromfield and Yale 1282-1485 by Michael Rogers (any errors are, of course, my own).  Rogers quotes a charter of Edward I from 7th October 1282 at Rhuddlan:

Notification that the king, for the greater tranquillity and common benefit of him and his heirs and of all his realm of England, has granted by this charter to John de Warenne, earl of Surrey, the castle of Dinas Bran, which was in the king’s hands at the commencement of the present war in Wales, and all the lands of Bromfield, which Gruffudd and Llywelyn, sons of Madog Fychan, held at the beginning of the said war . . . saving to the king the castle and land of Hope . . . ; and the king also grants to the earl the land of Yale, which belonged to Gruffudd Fychan, son of Gruffudd de Bromfield, the king’s enemy; doing therefor the service of four knights’ fees for all service custom and demand . . .

Seal of John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey. Source: Wikipedia

Two years later in 1284, John de Warenne granted Bromfield and Iâl to his son William, who died young in 1286.  The crown once again took possession whilst John tried to claim his rights to the lands, but in the following year Bromfield and Iâl were restored to John, in spite of possible claims of William’s baby son, also John, born in 1286.  When John de Warenne died on 27th September 1304, his grandson and heir, William’s son John was still a minor and became a ward of the king, with Bromfield and Iâl remaining in crown hands until 1306.

The history of Bromfield and Iâl was tied closely to the history of the village of Holt, which was also given to John Warren on Madog’s death, and which also passed to William.  John began the castle, which William subsequently continued to build.  Holt and its castle passed by marriage into the hands of the Earl of Arundel, who fell foul of Richard II and was executed.  After reverting to the crown and again being granted to the Earls of Arundel, Holt and its castle were granted by Richard III to Sir William Stanley, together with Chirk Castle the lordship of Bromfield and Iâl (now known as Yale) in 1484. It is this family that appear to have taken on the patronage of Valle Crucis.  Unfortunately Stanley was himself executed for treason in 1495.  Holt Castle next passed to William Brereton, who was apparently also a patron of Valle Crucis, before being executed in 1536 under Henry VIII for most foolishly tinkering with Ann Boleyn.  Bromfield and Iâl was then transferred to the crown under Henry VII and subsequently Henry VIII.

Sir William Stanley. Source: Wikipedia

In 1536 the Act of Union withdrew the special status of the Marcher lordships, and Bromfield and Iâl were incorporated into the new county of Denbighshire, together with Chirkland, Denbigh and Dyffryn Clwyd. 1536 was a momentous year for Bromfield and Iâl, and marked the dissolution of Valle Crucis.

After the death of Madog, with Bromfield and Iâl passing to John de Warenne, Valle Crucis had now of passed from the Welsh line to the English.  In spite of its location in the territory of Bromfield and Iâl, it is by no means clear whether Valle Crucis received any real material support from de Warenne or subsequent owners of the land.  On the other hand, it seems as though the descendants of the former Welsh ruler of Powys Madog still took an active interest in the abbey, and that local landowning patrons may have been involved with the abbey’s writing of Welsh history and its connection with Welsh poets, whom local gentry also supported.  The Trefor family, from whom two of the 15th century abbots as well as bishops of St Asaph were derived, is one example.

It was not until the arrival of Sir William Stanley in the picture that clear support for the abbey is once again demonstrated.  Whilst it is possible that the Stanley family may have continued to support the abbey on a private basis after Sir William’s death, it is more likely that reversion to the ownership of the crown changed the abbey’s circumstances yet again.  Eventually Bromfield and Iâl passed to Henry Fitzroy, duke of Richmond and Somerset, who became the patron of Valle Crucis and who was involved in untangling the problems that ensued, not long before the dissolution, under Abbot Robert Salusbury.

I suspect that there is a lot more to be said on the above, and hope to dig out some more details as I continue to look into Valle Crucis.

Abbots of Valle Crucis

One of the ways in which Cistercian standards were maintained was in the strict hierarchy of the abbey.  The senior position was abbot, who was supported by a prior and, at larger establishments a sub-prior.  Beneath them were the choir monks who made up the primary community of the monastery.  Although monks were in theory equal in status, many of them had particular responsibilities, and the requirement for self-sufficiency meant that these roles were very clearly delineated and were of importance to the smooth running of the abbey.  The monks assigned certain roles were called obedientiaries.  The monks will be discussed in part 5.

The role of the abbot

The remains of Strata Marcella, the abbey from which Valle Crucis was founded. Source: Coflein

The most important person in the abbey was the abbot (from the Greek abbas, father).  He would normally be assisted by a prior, the second in command.  The abbot was responsible for maintaining order according to the Cistercian regulations.  He was accountable to both the mother abbey, Strata Marcella in mid Wales, as well as the founding abbey, Cîteaux, for the abbey’s performance and adherence to Cistercian standards, as well as for internal morale and discipline.  An abbot could have been a prior or an experienced monk before being elevated to the most senior position within a new abbey.  He could be promoted internally from within his own abbey or another Cistercian abbey on the retirement, death or elevation of a predecessor. Alternatively, when a new abbey was established the mother house provided the abbot and monks, and the new abbot was responsible for managing not only the monks but also for overseeing the building of the monastery and its church, a process that could take 40 years or more.

Most importantly, the abbot was responsible for ensuring that salvation was ensured for all of of the monks under his authority.  Salvation could only be achieved by undivided focus on God, achieved by adhering to the Order’s rules, including obedience, commitment and remarkable self-discipline.  Individual breaches of internal order would be profoundly disruptive to the community as a whole and, depending on the nature of the transgression, could place the individual’s soul in jeopardy.  Even the most dedicated and devout might find frustrations and difficulties associated with such a life.  Maintaining strict discipline, albeit with compassion, empathy and care, was of fundamental importance for a community that lived together, usually for life, and the abbot was responsible for the wellbeing of both individual monks and the community as a whole, the father of his community.

Salvation.  God seated in glory with angels to either side, proclaims salvation; the archangel Michael fights the 7-headed dragon as devils are hurled by other angels from the sky.  From the Cistercian Abbey of Citeaux. Source: Wikipedia

The abbot was also responsible for the welfare of the monastery’s finances and its economic  self-sufficiency.  Each abbey received land and associated assets to ensure that it was self sufficient, but these resources did not manage themselves and, with assistance from key obedientiaries, the abbot was responsible for ensuring that the abbey achieved ongoing financial security.  Obedientiaries, monks with specific roles within the community, were each allocated a budget to finance their particular area of responsibility, and the abbot would have been responsible for overseeing how to allocate funds, and how these individual budgets, once allocated, were employed.  The running of a monastic establishment was equivalent to running a business, and the abbot was its managing director.

Each year, abbots were obliged to proceed to the heart of the Cistercian order, the New Monastery at Cîteaux, to attend a meeting called the General Chapter, which discussed matters of policy, changes to the rules and statutes, and disciplinary matters and ensured that standards were maintained. Sometimes abbots at lesser abbeys such as Cymer near Dolgellau, or abbeys going through economically rough patches, were forced to borrow the funds required for this long trip, which might place a heavy burden on the economic resources of the monastery.    

Abbots of Valle Crucis

The abbey took its tone from the abbot, and there were both successes and failures recorded at Valle Crucis.  Nothing much could be done about the war waged by Edward I on the abbey’s properties, and although reparations were made by Edward twice in the late 13th Century, the financial constraints and perhaps even some privation within the community may have been felt.  It would have been the job of the abbot at that time of these and other difficulties to mitigate the impacts of the worries and any challenges that the abbey experienced.

There are no likenesses of any of the abbots of Valle Crucis, with the possible exception of a stone effigy that may have been Abbot Hywel, shown below and discussed further in part 5.  The Cistercians did not believe in adorning their monasteries with art works, and even though later Cistercian abbots might have indulged themselves with portraits, during the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII commanded that all the assets of the monasteries be sold or destroyed.  Only a few Cistercian portraits therefore survive, and none of them were from Valle Crucis.

Sculpted face at the far end of the slype. Source: Wikimedia

Valle Crucis, founded in 1201 with monks and an abbot, Abbot Philip, from Strata Marcella, received an annual visitation from the abbot of Strata Marcella, or his proxy, throughout its life to ensure that it was conforming to the rules and values of the Cistercians.  Nothing is known of Abbot Philip, except that his appointment as abbot of an important new house marks him out as a highly responsible and suitably motivated individual, in all ways suitable for the daunting task of bringing up a monastery and its economic infrastructure from scratch.  Certainly the architectural development of the abbey argues that Abbot Philip was very capable in at least that respect, but a statute issued early in his tenure refers to him rarely celebrating Mass or receiving the Holy Eucharist.  He was apparently not alone, as the Abbots of Aberconwy and Carleon were also found guilty of the same lax behaviour.   

There is mention of an an Abbot Tenhaer in 1227 and again in 1234.  Nothing about him is known, but three dates tie in roughly with his tenure.  In the mid 1225 and 1227 Valle Crucis was recorded as being in dispute with neighbouring monasteries Strata Marcella and Cwmhir respectively, probably in connection with grazing rights.  In 1234 the General Chapter recorded that the incumbent abbot had allowed women to enter the monastic precinct.  The name of the abbot is not given, so the guilty party could have been either Tenhaer or his immediate successor whose name is not recorded.

Between approximately 1274 and 1284 an Abbot Madog or Madoc is known, his name recorded in two notable documents.  The first was a letter to the Pope in 1275, in which seven of the Welsh Cistercian abbots defended the reputation of Llywelyn against charges made by Anian, Bishop of St Asaph. The other six abbeys were Aberconwy, Whitland, Strata Florida, Cwmhir, Strata Marcella and Cymer.  Valle Crucis is recorded in the same year as having only 5 monks.  The second document is a document dating to December 1282, which notes a loan from Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffud of £40.00 to “expedite and sustain Abbot Madog” on abbey business.  That was a substantial sum – the National Archives Currency Convertor estimates that today this would equate to £27,762.78 (or 47 horses, 88 cows or 173 stones of sheep wool) It may well have had something to do with Edward’s two major assaults on Wales in 1277 and 1282–83 respectively.  Edward’s generous compensations to Valle Crucis and other northern abbeys indicate the level of damage inflicted on the monastic establishments, allocated to Valle Crucis in 1283 and 1284 (£26 13s  4d and 160 respectively – the latter the highest sum paid to a Welsh Cistercian monastery).

Fragment of a gravestone, possibly from Valle Crucis and perhaps showing Abbot Hywel. Photograph by Professor Howard Williams. Source: ArchaeoDeath blog

An Abbot Hywel is mentioned in February 1294 and July 1295. The dates tie in with a record showing that Edward I placed the estates of Roger of Mold in the care of the abbey in 1294 (whilst Roger was on Crown work in Gascony), and then visited in person in in 1295, making oblations (religious gifts) of “two cloths.”  It is possible that he is the same Hywel Abbas shown in the fragment of a gravestone effigy showing a tonsured monk, first recorded in 1895 and now in Wynnstay Hall near Ruabon, which was on loan for a period to Llangollen Museum. A photograph of the effigy is shown left.  Professor Howard Williams and colleagues have researched the fragment, the style of which is consistent with the late 13th century, and believe that it probably came from Valle Crucis.  Whilst it may have been one of the choir monks, the investment in the carving of the slab argues that it was someone of more importance.  

Abbot Hywel was succeeded by a number of abbots about whom, again, almost nothing is known, but in 1330 Abbot Adam was appointed and is apparently mentioned on several occasions until perhaps January 1344.  It is thought that the inscription that remains clearly visible on the rebuilt gable on the west façade of the abbey church belongs to this abbot, claiming credit for the restoration work.  His inscription was not consonant with Cistercian ideas of modesty and humility, but this type of autograph was by no means unknown in the Cistercian Order.

St Asaph Cathedral, which dates back to the 13th Century. Source: Wikipedia

Again there are some names or partial names recorded, but this was the period of the Black Death that arrived in 1349, when keeping up to date records was probably the last thing on most people’s minds, and it is not until Abbot Robert Lancaster that more details are again available.  Abbot Robert was installed as abbot of Valle Crucis in about 1409, the year in which the papacy was reunited under pope Alexander V after the Great Schism of 1378.  Shortly afterwards he was elevated to the bishopric of St Asaph.  He held the positions of Abbot and Bishop simultaneously, until September 1419.  His is an interesting case, although not unique.  In that same year, 1419, a petition to the pope records that he had undertaken repairs to the monastery following a fire possibly inflicted during the Owain Glyndŵr rebellion.  Another extension to his twin role was granted In June 1424 for another fifteen years.  The conflicting demands of St Asaph and Valle Crucis may have tested his leadership skills because there is papal correspondence to the monastery, reminding the monks of their vows of obedience to the abbot, implying that there had been at least one serious breach of discipline or a challenge to his authority.  Abbot Robert may have retained the abbacy of Valle Crucis up to the time of his death in March 1433.  It is somewhat ironic that 6 generations on from Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor, the founder of Valle Crucis, the damage inflicted on the abbey during the Welsh rebellion between 1400 and 1410, was lead by Madog’s own descendent Owain Glyndŵr.  This time, there was no compensation, and it is not known how Valle Crucis, under Abbot Robert, was able to fund its own recovery.

The English Richard or John Mason held the position of abbot, for a period period lasting between February 1438 and July 1448, which may have been a period of neglect, although the evidence for this has not been clearly stated.  Abbot Mason was English, which may have caused difficulties within a Welsh context.  Although 18 years after the end of Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion, nearly a generation on, there must have been residual resentment and a sense of loss amongst the Welsh gentry of Powys Fadog, if not amongst those monks of the Valle Crucis community who retained a sense of Welsh identity.

Sculpted head at the far end of the slype. Photograph by Llywelyn2000 Source: Wikimedia

There is a gap of some seven years in the records, but the three abbots that followed, Sîon ap Rhisiart (John ap Richard, 1455-1461), Dafydd ab Leuan ab Iorwerth (1480-1503) and Sîon Llwyd (John Lloyd) seem to have engineered a turnaround in the fortunes of the abbey, which now came under the patronage of the Stanley family who have been discussed above.  Under these abbots, Valle Crucis became a centre for literature and poetry.  At the same time, it seems to have become a rather more gregarious establishment than in previous centuries, entertaining high profile guests in fairly lavish style, praised in verse by Welsh poets Guto’r Glyn, Gutun  Owain and Tudur Aled.

Abbot Sîon ap Rhisiart (John ap Richard) was abbot between c.1455 and 1461.  David Williams refers to him as an “abbot-restorer,” who was from an important local family, the Trefors.  He is best known for the enthusiasm with which his hospitality was received by the poet Gutun Owain who described Valle Crucis as “a palace of diadem.”

Abbot Dafydd ab Leuan ab Iorwerth seems to have become abbot in February 1484.  He may have come from the Aberconwy monastery, and was again a member of the important local Trefor family.  He too was being praised by the Welsh poet Gutun Owain for his hospitality, commenting, with hindsight somewhat ambivalently “how good is the lord who loves to store his wealth and spend it on Egwestl’s noble church.”  Owain also praised Dafydd’s architectural achievements, including a fretted ceiling in the abbot’s house.  The village of Egwestl was the one that Valle Crucis had supplanted, and the abbey was still known locally by the village name.  Abbot Dafydd became deputy reformator of the Cistercian Order in England and Wales in 1485, a position of considerable importance.  Between 1500 and 1503 he was raised to the position of Bishop of St Asaph in Wales which, like Abbot Robert Lancaster earlier in the same century, he held concurrently (in commendam) with the the abbacy of Valle Crucis.  He died in about 1503.

Abbot Sîon Llwyd (John Lloyd) became abbot in about 1503 and stayed in the position until about 1527.  He became one the overseers of the compilation of the Welsh pedigree of Henry VII, a royal appointment, and in 1518 he was described as “king’s chaplain and doctor of both laws.”  Like his two predecessors, he was praised in verse for his hospitality by a well known poet, this time Tudur Aled.  Although he was buried at Valle Crucis, his tombstone was moved after the suppression and placed outside the church of Llanarmon yn Iâl.

Henry Fitzroy, duke of Richmond and Somerset, and patron of Valle Crucis during the abbacy of Robert Salusbury and during the dissolution of the abbey. Source: Wikipedia

Unfortunately but interestingly, this relatively brief period of glory was followed by disgrace.  The richness of the abbey in its late years, and its comfortable lifestyle, seems to have attracted quite the wrong sort of abbot, of which more in the next post.  The member of a local family was appointed to the post of abbot, although it is far from clear how he was able to obtain the position.  The family was prominent and well respected, but Abbot Robert Salusbury, who held the position from 1528-35 has been implicated in a number of crimes and felonies and appears to have had no training as a monk.  As Evans puts it (Valle Crucis Abbey, Cadw 2008):  “He was a totally unsuitable candidate, who appears to have been imposed upon the abbey;  he was probably under age, never served a proper novitiate as a monk, and does not seem to have been properly professed or elected.” Five monks left, leaving just two behind, forcing Robert Salusbury to acquire seven more from other monasteries, who he paid to serve.  In February 1534, with matters clearly out of control at the abbey, Henry Fitzroy, duke of Richmond and Somerset, Lord of Bromfield and Iâl, and patron of Valle Crucis, sent a visitation (inspection) to Valle Crucis, headed by Abbot Lliesion of Neath (reformator of the Cisternian order in Wales), and accompanied by the abbots of Aberconwy, Cwmhir and Cymer.  Things were soon set in motion for change.  In June 1534, the abbey was put under the care of the Abbot of Neath. in 1534, assisted by the prior Robert Bromley.  Salusbury was sent to Oxford for re-education, with a generous allowance, but the order’s good intentions were wasted.  Salusbury was eventually imprisoned in the Tower of London for leading a band of highwaymen in Oxford.

Abbot John Herne/Heron/Durham had the unenviable task of succeeding Robert Salusbury.  He had been a monk of the Abbey of St Mary Graces, Smithfield, London. It must have been something of a culture shock transferring from one of the Cistercian order’s few urban locations to the rural splendours of Valle Crucis, especially as he found the finances in such a poor state that he was forced to borrow £200 to meet the expenses of his own installation.  He was abbot of Valle Crucis from June 1535 until August 1536.  He was abbot when the Valor Ecclesiasticus, Henry VIII’s valuation of all the abbeys in the  realm, was carried out.  All monastic establishments valued at less than £200.00 were listed for immediate suppression and and the abbey was closed accordingly in 1536.  Henry Fitzroy, patron of Valle Crucis, died in the same year, at the age of 17.  After the suppression of the abbey, it is recorded in March 1537 that Abbot John was granted a pension.
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Priors and sub-priors

The opening page of the Valor Ecclesiasticus, showing Henry VIII. Source: Wikipedia

The prior was secondary only to the abbot, was usually promoted from within the abbey’s own ranks and could rise to abbot of the same or another establishment, particularly a new, daughter establishment.  

The only prior to receive  attention in records associated with Valle Crucis is Prior Robert Bromley, who had been at Valle Crucis since about 1504 was passed over in favour of Robert Salusbury in 1528, a clearly very bad decision.  Williams says that he was given several privileges, perhaps as compensation for being passed up for the abbacy in 1528:  “He was now absolved from ecclesiastic censure due (if any) for not wearing the habit; he was permitted (because of infirmity) to wear linen next to his skin, long leggings of a decent colour (the monks were normally hare legged beneath their habit, and a ‘head warmer’ under his hood; he was allowed to talk quietly in the dorter [dormitory] . . . . and to eat and drink in his own (prior’s) chamber” (The Welsh Cistercians, p.68).  Such concessions were usually allowed only to the abbot.  When Salusbury was ousted by the Abbot of Neath in 1534, it was put in Bromley’s care temporarily, but he had no desire to become abbot of such a neglected establishment.  He too was a victim of the Valor Ecclesiasticus, and was respectably pensioned off.
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Final comments on part 4

Valle Crucis from the south

As I was trying to untangle the stories of Powys Fadog and Bromfield and Iâl with a view to determining how they impacted patronage of the monastery, and to see what sort of political world surrounded and incorporated the abbey, it became increasingly clear why there were peaks and troughs in its career.  Whilst there were  periods of investment in architecture and scholarly output, it was also clear, and perfectly understandable, that the abbey had been through periods of downturn and neglect.  

The Black Death of 1349 raised questions in secular minds about the value of the clergy and of monastic prayer, whilst the Hundred Years War between 1337 and 1453 and the Great Schism of 1378-1409 inevitably challenged more than the idea of a unified Cistercian identity, placing Britain and France (the homeland of the Cistercians), in opposing camps.  For the entire period of the Great Schism, the annual General Chapter at Cîteaux was cancelled, with a papal bull from Urban VI releasing the Cistercians outside France from their obedience to the abbot of Cîteaux.  The General Chapter resumed in 1411, but the tone of Europe, the perception of the Church and the character of the Cistercian order had changed. It was during the late 14th and 15th centuries that the abbots of Valle Crucis became more worldly, less committed to the original ideals of either St Benedict or the earliest Cistercians.

The penultimate abbot, Robert Salusbury, was clearly a very poor decision, but demonstrates how both the abbey’s current patron, Henry Fitzroy, and the Cistercian order mobilized together to resolve the undoubtedly embarrassing problem.  They might not have bothered had they known how soon their world was to come tumbling down.

Next

Part 5 is coming shortly, and will talk about the monastic community below the level of abbot and prior, and how the monks and their colleagues lived their lives.  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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Sources for part 4:

Tying in various bits of data would have been a lot more difficult without the excellent Monastic Wales website, a brilliant resource for all monastic establishments in Wales, which lists a number of abbot names mentioned in documents, highlighting gaps in the sequence and allowing a clear impression of what is and is not known about both the abbey and its abbots.  I used this as my starting point for reading about the personnel at Valle Crucis.  As usual, The Welsh Cistercians by David Williams (2001) and the booklet Valle Crucis Abbey by D.H. Evans (2008) have been invaluable.  

All sources for the series are listed in part 1.

 

A stroll through Marford Quarry (source of the Mersey Tunnel cement) on a cold but sunny day

Last week we went to Marford Quarry, just off the Chester-Wrexham road just south of Rossett.  I had never visited before, but it has been open to the public for walking and cycling for decades and has had a lot of work invested in it to make it a great place to walk dogs and stretch legs.  Bigger and smaller footpaths and trails make for a lot of variation, as do the multiple facets of the quarry and its surroundings, with different types of plantation and wildlife providing a lot to see.  Some of it looked almost like a desert landscape, whilst other parts were thick with shrubs and trees.  Although trees dominate even the sparsely covered areas, particularly silver birch and conifers, and the bird song is fabulous, there is a lot more going on at ground level, with wild flowers clustering in favoured spots and the rustle of birds turning over the leaves.  We saw a wren, long-tailed tits, blue tits, great tits, blackbirds and plenty of robins bouncing fearlessly near the paths.  The heart of the quarry a deep bowl with a slight rise in the centre with a single tree on top, is a dramatic sight, like an enormous amphitheatre.

Marford smithy on the left, with the glacial moraine like a giant wall in the background, now quarried away. Source: Essentials Magazine https://www.essentialsmag.co.uk/features/the-last-icesheet

Marford Hill, climbing from Rossett towards Wrexham, is what remains of a glacial moraine.  An article, The Last Ice Sheet by Pam Gibbons in Essentials magazine, has a photograph of the quarry before it began to be quarried for sand and gravel to make cement.  It is shown right, around 130ft high and up to 25,000 years old, dumped by the glacier as it melted, and the ice retreated north.  The former smithy, used by ATS for so long, and recently replaced by two modern houses, is clearly visible on the left at the foot of the hill.  A marvellous photograph, with thanks to Pam Gibbons for recognizing its significance when she saw it.

There was originally a motte and bailey castle at the top of Marford, called Rofft.  I’ll see what I can find out about it, but the quarrying destroyed it, which surprises me given how aware people were of the value of historical sites by the 1930s.  It is such a shame.

Here’s the original caption from the Wonders of World Engineering website: “BUILDING THE ROADWAY through the Mersey Tunnel. Made of reinforced concrete, the roadway is supported by two intermediate walls, 12 inches thick and 21 feet apart, and is anchored to the cast-iron lining. The finished road in the main tunnel has a width of 36 feet between the kerbs. The tunnel has a capacity of 4,150 vehicles an hour, with cars 100 feet apart and moving at twenty miles an hour. The space beneath the roadway acts as the duct for fresh air and is sufficiently large to provide a second road or railway should they be necessary.” Source: Wonders of World Engineering

The quarry opened in 1927 and closed in 1971.  Its biggest claim to fame is the it supplied material for the Mersey Tunnel.  The Mersey Ferry and the railway tunnel, between them doing a good job of carrying passengers to and fro, could not cope with the growing demands of road traffic.  Initially a bridge was proposed, but the engineering wisdom came down in favour of a tunnel, which required a lot of aggregate.  Work on the tunnel started on December 19th 1925.  Today, the former Birkenhead to Wrexham railway, following the river valley, still runs between Chester and Wrexham and runs immediately to the west of Marford Quarry, with the A483 bypass now running between them.  The railway enabled the quarried materials to be loaded directly on to the train and carried to Birkenhead, a super-efficient and cost effective way of acquiring the building materials for the tunnel project.  For a good article on the building of the Mersey Tunnel, with some great pictures, see the Wonders of World Engineering website, which gives the following details “On July 18, 1934, the Mersey Tunnel was opened to traffic by His Majesty King George V. The main tunnel has a length of 3,751 yards, from the Old Haymarket, Liverpool, to King’s Square, Birkenhead. The branch tunnels which lead to the docks on either side of the river bring the total length of roadway to 5,064 yards, or nearly three miles.”  Funny to think of Marford’s glacial moraine holding it all together.  For more about the history of the quarry and its ownership, see the Maes y Pant website.

The main bowl of the quarry, a single tree standing on a slight rise, the rest of the quarry edges rising like an amphitheatre all around it. When I first rounded a corner and saw it, completely empty of people, I found it distinctly eerie.

The 39 acre site was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1989 and the following year 26 acres of it were bought by the North Wales Wildlife Trust.  As the North Wales Wildlife Trust puts it “The reserve is especially important for a specialised group of invertebrates, aculeate Hymenoptera (bees, ants and wasps), with an astounding 171 different species recorded (2018). Ants, in particular, are an important source of food for green woodpeckers.” In 2011 the site was split into two, and one section of the site is now owned by the Maes-y–Pant Action Group Ltd.

Sadly, the photos taken with the emergency back-up camera that I carry in my handbag did not come out as well as I hoped, but hopefully give some sense of what is there to be seen.  There was a bit that we missed, where there is apparently a viewing point and an outdoor gym, but we figured out where they were so will visit them next time.

 

Visiting:
There were all age groups present, and several of the unwilling-leg variety who were doing very nicely on the nicely maintained paths, making good use of plenty of benches dotted around (and lots of fallen logs to sit on).  There are some gradients, but not many severe ones, and it is very easy to avoid them.

There are two places to park, one on Springfield Lane just below the Trevor Arms in Marford, with spaces on the side of the road, and a small but proper car park on Pant Lane just beyond (heading north) the Co-op at the top of the hill.  We parked in Springfield Lane and walked along the quarry footpaths to Grove Street, and I walked back to retrieve the car to collect Dad.  It’s about a 15 minute fast walk from one to the other.

Sources

Gibbon, P. The Last Ice Age.  Essentials Magazine
https://www.essentialsmag.co.uk/features/the-last-icesheet

Maes y Pant
Site History by Trevor Britton
http://maes-y-pant.com/site-history.html

Marford Conservation Area Assessment and Management Plan
https://coflein.gov.uk/media/305/417/640273.pdf

Twentieth Century Society
Of the Month: Building of the month – October 2006 – The Mersey Tunnel
https://c20society.org.uk/building-of-the-month/the-mersey-tunnel

Wonders of World Engineering
The Mersey Tunnel
https://wondersofworldengineering.com/merseytunnel.html

 

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 Crowther 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 id vanishing fast, 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 not a wall of sound.  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 disapproval, 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 café

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 were desks called carrels where the monks wrote and copied from other texts. A modern version has been placed there as an example.  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 look and listen at this YouTube video of an hour-long concert held in Chester Cathedral, beginning with the Overture to Mozart’s Magic Flute, in which the cathedral’s is being played by the remarkable Jonathan Scott, who talks about how the organ delivers its sound via keys, pedals and stops.  There is some great footage of Jonathan Scott’s finger work on all four tiered keyboards, and for me it was a particular revelation to see the amazing foot work required. I had no idea. There are also some great internal views of the cathedral on the video.  It lasts for an hour, and is a truly illuminating insight into organ music.


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 Crowther, Chester Green Badge tourist guide for introducing me to Chester Cathedral, who says that Nick Fry’s generous contribution of his expertise on the cathedral’s history was a great source of information for all those on the Green Badge course.  His guide book is listed below. 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

A visit to Chirk Castle yesterday for the snowdrops and daffodils

It was such a gloriously sunny day yesterday that even though I had marked today for giving the house a much-need top-to-toe clean, I abandoned the whole project, jumped in the car, and  stopped off to pick up my Dad before driving down to Chirk Castle to enjoy the pristine garden and the walks in the small woodland.  It is a great time of year for it.  The castle, the only one of Edward I’s Marcher fortresses still inhabited today, always a little intimidating in its block-like immobility, is far less bellicose in the bright sun.

The topiary is great at any time of year, and the colours of new foliage and bright heather give a real lift to everything, whilst the daffodils and snowdrops, popping up everywhere but particularly good in the woodland, are a joy.  The snowdrops are all in full swing, but although a lot of daffodils are out and looking terrific, there are still more to break out of their buds.  We stopped off on a perfectly placed bench for a blissful half hour in the sun to look out beyond the ha-ha over the rolling hillside towards the view below.  It’s only a short outing, but a very agreeable one.   I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

 

 

Plan of Chirk Castle grounds. Most of the snowdrops are in the Pleasure Ground Wood, but the daffodils are everywhere.  Source:  Chirk Castle, National Trust (website and free leaflet available in the ticket office)

Details of visiting are on the Chirk Castle website (National Trust).  Regarding my usual comment on access, a wheelchair user might be able to see some of the gardens, but the woodland is probably not advisable.  As for unwilling legs, yes if you keep in mind that the ground is uneven.  There is a shuttle from the car park to the castle entrance, as the walk up can be challenging for unwilling legs.

 

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.