West Door-Strata Florida Abbey

First County Gathering at Strata Florida, 1909

With a view to taking further steps to preserve the remains of Strata Florida Abbey in Cardiganshire and of eventually carrying out further excavations, a small committee of gentlemen was formed under the chairmanship of Sir Edward Pryse., Bart., at Gogerddan. Under the auspices of this committee a large and representative gathering attended at the Abbey on Wednesday, June 23rd, 1909, to hear addresses by Professor Tyrrell Green, of St. David’s College, Lampeter; the Rev. J. F. Lloyd, of Llanilar; Mr. Geo. Eyre Evans, Aberystwyth, and others, dealing with this unique fabric from historical and architectural standpoints. The arrangements for the gathering were carried out by a committee, of which the Rev. Evan Jones (Strata Florida), was Chairman, the Rev. J. F. Lloyd (Llanilar), Secretary, and Mr Edward Evans, J.P. (Aberystwyth), Treasurer.

County Gathering at Strata Florida, 23 June 1909
County Gathering at Strata Florida, 23 June 1909

Extensive excavations were undertaken some years ago by the late Mr. Stephen Williams, with the support of the Cambrian Archaeological Association. Amongst those who also assisted him were the Countess Amherst, the Countess of Lisburne, Mr. Morris Davies, Ffosrhydy-galed, Mr. D. C. Roberts and Mr. C. M. Williams, Aberystwyth. The result of Mr. Williams’ excavations was the preparation of a complete ground plan of the Abbey, the six transept chapels with their tiled floors were exposed to view, the bases of the pillars were made visible, and, perhaps above all else of value, the tiny monks’ cemetery, with its cross headstones absolutely undisturbed, was once more brought to light. Before Mr. Williams undertook his work the site of the Abbey presented the appearance of a great green mound, with only the beautiful western door and a few other portions visible above the ground. The side chapels are now carefully railed off, and visitors can see through the grilles the bases of the altars and the wonderful variety of tiles used for flooring them.

Not the least interesting feature of the gathering was the exhibition of the celebrated ” Cwpan Nanteos,” or sacred healing cup, which is traditionally said to be made of a piece of the wood of the Cross. This relic has for more than 150 years been in the custody of the house of Nanteos, and is said to have been used many centuries ago in the sacramental services of the monks of Strata Florida Abbey. Along with the cup are stored a number of quaint receipts tor the loan of it, which date back to the year 1836. It is reputed to cure any disease if only the sufferer will take a draught from the relic. The receipts show how the old custom was observed or depositing either a sovereign or a watch and chain returnable on the safe return of the cup to Nanteos. Many of the receipts have the word “cured” written across them, and all contain the full name and addresses of the persons who secured the loan of the cup. It was used in this connection so recently as 1903, when it was sent for by an invalid in the county and duly lent on the old terms. The receipt in this case also is marked ” cured.” The cup is made of wood in the form of a bowl. At one time a golden fillet was placed round it with a view to its better preservation. When this was done the cup, it was said, ceased to cure, and not until the fillet was removed did it regain its healing power. On one occasion it was sent for into Radnorshire. It came into the custody of the house of Nanteos from the family of Steadman, their ancestors.

There were also exhibited a number of interesting relics found during the past ten years in and about the Abbey. These include a curious lid of a pewter wine vessel, several keys, a snaffle of a bridle, a large stone spinning whorl, and several pieces of the coloured glass originally used in the windows of the Abbey. These pieces of glass still retain their gold, their blue, and other colours. In addition to these, Mr. George Eyre Evans showed an impression of the silver seal of the Abbot of Strata Florida taken from the original silver matrix by the British Museum authorities, in whose custody it has long been.

In the farm adjoining the Abbey, Mr. Arch, the tenant, has the custody of two pieces of carved stone heads, one being the figure of a shaven-crowned monk and the other an exquisitely-modelled head of a greyhound. These were found by the late Mr. Stephen Williams. The REV. J. F. LLOYD spoke on the History of Strata Florida, and PROFESSOR TYRRELL GREEN described the architecture of the Abbey in the following address:-
“The abbey of Strata Florida belonged to the Cistercian Order. Monasticism was introduced into Europe in the fourth century, but in process of time the monks lost their ascetic ardour, rules were not faithfully observed, and the “religious” life deteriorated. St. Benedict (a.d. 480-540) reformed the monastic rule, and the system inaugurated by him, and known as the Benedictine rule, became the standard of the ” religious” life, in the technical sense, for all time. For six centuries (a.d. 500-1100) the Benedictine was the sole monastic rule in Europe, and later Orders, such as the Cluniac and Cistercian, were really reformed Benedictines. Towards the close of the eleventh century the observance of the Benedictine rule had in some parts been relaxed, and seeing that the life of the monks tended to lose its ascetic fervour and devotion a reformation was instituted by a few monks who, under the guidance of Robert of Molesme, moved to a new abbey founded at Citeaux (Latin Cistercium), near Dijon in Burgundy, in 1098. The Order of reformed Benedictines thus instituted became, known as the Cistercian from the name of its first monastery. The power of the Order was due partly to the revival of a very simple and austere life by the monks, but it also lay in their splendid organisation, which was the work of Stephen Harding, an Englishman, second abbot of Citeaux. St. Bernard belonged to the new Order, joining it in 1113, and was made Abbot of Clairvaux in 1119: to him the position of great influence which the Order rapidly attained is chiefly due. He was the embodiment of all that was best in the thought of the age; he was brave and pure and consumed by a passion for the moral welfare of the people. He practically ruled Western Europe: he was arbiter in Papal elections, judge in temporal quarrels, healer of schisms, and preacher of the Crusades. It was said of him that when St. Bernard was by, mothers hid their sons and wives their husbands lest they should be persuaded by his eloquence to enter the cloister. The Cistercian Order thus gathered by Robert of Molesme, organised by Stephen Harding, and inspired by Bernard of Ciairvaux, spread rapidly: it is computed that within fifty years 500 houses were founded, and in another fifty the number had increased to 1,500. The first Cistercian house in England was established at Waverley (Surrey) in 1128. Then followed the foundation of the great monasteries at Rievaulx (1131), Fountains (1135), Furness (1148), Kirkstall (1152), Roche (1165), Byland (1170), and Jervaulx (1180), all in the north of England. Beaulieu (1221) and Netley (1239), in Hampshire, were established a little later. The lovely abbey at Tintern was built later still (1269). The chief houses belonging to the Order in Wales besides Strata Florida were Valle Crucis (Denbighshire, 1200′), Cwmhir (Radnorshire, 1143), and Margam (Glamorganshire, 1147). The chief Cistercian monasteries in this country are remarkable for the beauty of their position and surroundings, being situated in remote spots and in narrow, secluded valleys, in conformity with the rule of the Order, which laid down ” in civitatibus, in castellis aut villis nulla nostra construenda sunt coenobia, sed in locis a conversatione hominum semotis.” The Cistercian rule was marked by a stern simplicity and austerity of life: only one meal a day was allowed during a great part of the year; meat was never eaten, fish only occasionally: hours of silence “were enjoined, the wearing of shirts, gloves, and boots was forbidden, and the monks engaged in manual labour, becoming skilled agriculturists and horticulturists. The spirit of the Order found its outward expression in the severe simplicity of the architecture of its churches; it held up before men the sternest mode of life as the ideal and refused the appeal of elaborate ritual and splendid art. Thus for many years the Cistercian abbeys were characterised by a rejection of the richness and beauty which men commonly lavished on the sanctuary. By the rules of the Order stone bell-towers were forbidden, nor might the wooden belfry be a structure of any considerable size; human heads or any representation of the human figure were not allowed in the carving of the church, other than statues of Our Lord Himself or figures of the Crucifix. The windows were not to be filled with stained glass. The vestments used at the altar were to be of coarse linen, and precious metals or jewels were not allowed for the sacred vessels; even the chalice and paten at the altar might be of no more costly material than silver-gilt. It is true that this twelfth-century Puritanism in time outgrew its fear of beauty, and its laws in this respect were not so strictly kept, yet simplicity and restraint remained characteristic of the Order and are very marked features of the architecture of its earlier abbey churches, such as Furness, Fountains, Kirkstall, and of this at Strata Florida.

The abbey of Strata Florida was founded on its present site (there had apparently been an earlier monastery at a spot about two miles off, still known as Hen Fynachlog) by Rhys ap Gruffydd, Prince of South Wales, 1164-6. The precise date is not clear, but in 1184 a charter was given to the abbey by the same Prince, confirming previous gifts. The great church was in building when Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury stayed at the abbey on his tour through Wales in 1188 preaching the Crusade, and it seems to have been completed in 1201.

The plan of Strata Florida shows a typical Cistercian abbey church, having all the striking peculiarities which marked the architecture of the Order.
(A) – Rectangular and Aisleless Choir. – While, like most of the greater churches of the time, the Cistercian abbey churches were cruciform, the choir was as a rule rather short in proportion to the rest of the building, rectangular in its termination at the east end, and a simple parallelogram on the plan, without aisles, projecting chapels, or procession path behind the high altar. Strata Florida furnishes an excellent example of this simple plan for the choir. The Romanesque builders of Western Europe generally used the apsidal chancel, as seen, e.g., in some of the great Norman churches in England, such as Norwich and Peterborough cathedrals. This plan was often complicated in the greater churches by carrying the choir aisle, all round the apse and by the addition of a number of radiating chapels at the east end. But Citeaux, the mother church of the Cistercian Order, was a church of a simple Burgundian Romanesque type, with rectangular choir, and this became the pattern plan for the abbey churches of the Order, to which there are few exceptions. The persistence of the rectangular east end in English architecture has often been remarked, and forms one of the obvious points of contrast between English and Continental church architecture, the apse (polygonal or semicircular on the plan) being on the Continent the usual termination for the choir. Amongst the causes which determined the English preference for the square-ended chancel it is likely enough that we ought to reckon the influence exercised upon our national style by the great Cistercian abbeys of the twelfth century.

Plan of Strata Florida Abbey
Plan of Strata Florida Abbey

(B) – Range of Chapels to the Transept. – Another peculiarity of the Cistercian churches, well illustrated at Strata Florida, is the row of chapels, two, or more often three, in number, ranged along the east side of each transept, and separated from each other by solid walls of masonry. The transepts are without aisles (like the choir), and at Strata Florida, each transept has three chapels on its eastern side. The remains discovered show that these chapels had stone vaults, and the altars and altar paces with their well-preserved tiles ‘in situ’ form a most interesting feature in the ruins of the abbey. The tiles are thought to be of Shropshire manufacture, their patterns having been matched by examples found at Shrewsbury Abbey and at Tong and Cound (both in Shropshire). A date about the middle of the fourteenth century is indicated by the costume shown in the figure of a man borne by some of these tiles.

(C) – Absence of Tower. – Allusion has been made to the rule of the Cistercian Order by which stone bell-towers were excluded. One of the first reasons which led to the building of towers to churches was, of course, to provide a suitable structure for the bells, but it is equally clear that many early bell-towers are both taller and more ornate than was necessary for this purpose. It was often in the height and adornment of the tower that the power and influence of the founder of a church or the prosperity of a monastic corporation was indicated to the world. Thus bell-towers came to be looked upon as emblematic of pride and wealth, and they were therefore regarded by those who were responsible, for the Cistercian rule as out of keeping with the simple austerity which should mark the Order. The builders of Strata Florida seem to have been true to their regulations. There are no traces of western towers observable, and if there was any structure rising above the level of the roof at the junction of nave, choir, and transepts it could only have been a low lantern, because the piers at the crossing, when compared with the piers of the nave arcade, give no evidence of that extra thickening which would have been necessary had they been intended to carry the weight of a central tower. It was only at a much later period than that to which the structure at Strata Florida belongs that, in violation of the doctrine and discipline of the Order, towers were added to some Cistercian Abbey churches, as at Fountains and Kirkstall.

It was in the latter half of the twelfth century that many of the great Cistercian abbeys were built, and this was a period of transition in architecture. It was at that time that the pointed arch began to be used by the builders of Western Europe, though the general character of their structures, together with most of the detail and ornament remained unchanged, so that between the Romanesque (or Norman, as we generally call it in this country) and the pointed styles there intervened a transition period when architectural style was still in its general character Romanesque, but the arch took the pointed shape, especially when used in construction, smaller arched openings such as doorways or windows often remaining round-headed. Thus, both at Kirkstall and Fountains, the massive piers which divide the nave from the aisles bear pointed arches, while windows and doorways have semicircular arches, the doorways having deeply recessed and moulded arches quite in the Norman manner. The somewhat scanty remains at Strata Florida, oddly enough, contain in the west wall one arch of each kind,the semicircular arch of the great door and the pointed arch of the window to the south of it, thus showing that the church here was of the same transition style as the great churches of the Order named above, though built a little later.

West Door-Strata Florida Abbey
West Door-Strata Florida Abbey

A peculiarity of Cistercian churches (or at any rate of the earlier ones) was the absence of human heads or figures in the carved work. This was by rule of the Order. In the tympana of Norman doorways and in the richly moulded semicircular arches of the later Norman style figures of men, animals, and fearsome beasts often occur. In the numerous abbey churches of the Cistercians built during the first two centuries of the existence of the Order there are few, if any, exceptions to the rule which forbade decorative representations of the kind, while, on the contrary, human figures carved in stone abound in contemporaneous buildings belonging to other Orders. The capitals of pillars, for example, were often elaborately carved with illustrations of incidents from Scripture story, like the wonderful series in the richly adorned Romanesque church of St. Denis at Amboise. But the Cistercian churches had an air of solemn and severe grandeur, superfluous or ornate carving being as a rule excluded, and the capitals being ornamented only with a plain scallop (as at Fountains) or with simple mouldings (as at Tintern). The carved work at Strata Florida is exceptional. The capitals and other carved portions show a decided tendency to interlacing ornament, such as we see in Celtic manuscripts and in early Celtic crosses, like the fine examples at Nevern and Carew in Pembrokeshire and at Llanbadarn Fawr in Cardiganshire. The same kind of interlacing ornament may be seen, too, on the crosses which mark the graves in the monks’ cemetery at Strata Florida. Yet another feature at the abbey which suggests the influence of early Celtic art is the very peculiar adornment of the splendid west door to the nave, where the mouldings run all round without any capitals, as in some Irish examples, and the unique transverse bands terminate in scrolls or curls somewhat resembling a pastoral staff.

The fact that the rubble of the walls at Strata Florida has been very roughly put together renders it probable that the church was plastered on the outside, as it certainly was internally. The ” putlog holes ” are still plainly to be seen in the fragment of the west wall of the church that is standing. These’ holes go right through the wall, and into them logs of timber were inserted upon which planks were placed as a scaffold, the use of scaffold poles being thus avoided. The ” putlog holes ” were not closed up when the building was completed, but were left open so that the monks could at any time repair any portion of the wall without the trouble and expense of erecting an elaborate scaffold.

As was almost invariably the case in Cistercian houses, the domestic buildings at Strata Florida lay to the south of the church. Immediately to the south of the nave was the cloister, and from this a door in its north-east angle led into the church. The chapter house was entered from the east walk of the cloister. This was a rectangular building lighted from the east, with seats round the walls for the monks in chapter assembled. The space between the south transept of the church and the chapter house was divided into two parts by a partition wall; the eastern portion of this space was the sacristy and communicated with the church by a doorway in the south wall of the transept. The western part of the space seems to have been an unlighted cell. A similar cell occupies an analogous position in the plan of almost all Cistercian monasteries, and its use cannot be determined with anything like certainty; it is thought, however, that it may have been a punishment cell for monks who had been guilty of some breach of the rules of the Order. In the angle between, the choir and the south transept was situated the monks’ cemetery, and during the excavations conducted under Mr. Stephen Williams, in 1887-8 a most interesting series of graves of the monks was brought to light. These are covered with rather rough slabs of local stone, one of which has an incised cross. Some of the tombs have their carved head-stones still in situ: thes take the form of small crosses and are adorned with interlacing patterns of a Celtic type.

On the west side of the cloister, and in line with the west front of the church, was the usual place for the Domus Conversorum, or house of the lay brethren, in a Cistercian monastery. The staircase near the west end of the south aisle, which led from the church to this building, may still be traced at Strata Florida.

While the position of the chapter house, sacristy, and cloister have, through the researches of Mr. Stephen Williams, been clearly defined, the domestic buildings at Strata Florida have not been thoroughly excavated, and are somewhat difficult to trace. This is probably due in some measure to the fact that that the abbey suffered greatly, in the first place, through more than one fire – an accidental one through lightning in 1284, and again when burnt by the English soldiery in the Welsh wars of Edward I. (1294). The abbey suffered perhaps even more through being used as a military post, when, during and for some time after the troubles caused by the rising of Owen Glyndwr, it was occupied by a garrison of archers and men-at-arms in the reigns of Henry IV. and Henry V.
Long before the dissolution of the monasteries many of the buildings seem to have been in ruins. But, notwithstanding the devastation of fire and sword, in spite of the centuries of neglect and decay since the dissolution of the monastery, and although its stones must often have served as a quarry for farm and other buildings in the neighbourhood, enough still remains of the once stately church of Strata. Florida to show that, like the other great churches of the same Order, its construction and decoration alike evidenced that ascetic ardour, that temperate good taste, that straightforward procedure and practical utility which characterised the Cistercian rule.

Read the full volume online:
Transactions of the Cardiganshire Antiquarian Society, Vol 1, p.1

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