Ceredigion Historical Society

Second County Gathering at Strata Florida

THE second of a series of gatherings at Strata Florida Abbey under the auspices of the committee before referred to took place on Thursday afternoon, July 22nd., 1909. The weather was again rather unfavourable, but the attendance was almost as large as on the occasion of the first visit. Colonel Davies-Evans, Highmead (Lord Lieutenant of the county) presided, and there were also present Mr. R. J. R. Loxdale, Castle Hill, Professor Tyrrell Green, Lampeter, Rev. W. M. Morgan-Jones, M.A., and Mrs. Morgan-Jones, Washington, the Chief Constable of Cardiganshire, Mr. Edward Evans, J.P., R.ev. Evan Jones, and Mrs. Jones, Rev. J. F. Lloyd and Miss Lloyd, Mr. Geo. Eyre Evans, Rev. T. Williams, Abergwynfi, Rev. E. J. Davies, Capel Bangor, Rev. D. Caron Rees, Clydach, Swansea, Rev. T. Parry, Blyntawe, Rev. E. R. Davies, Dowlais, Rev. T. 0. Evans, Devil’s Bridge, Rev. John Evans, Cadoxton, Neath, Mr. Godfrey Evans, Mr. J. W. Williams, Mr. Jones (Clareston), Mr. Griffith Parry, and Mr. Croft, Lampeter, and others.

THE CHAIRMAN, in his opening remarks, disclaimed any pretension to archaeological knowledge, and said he was very sorry to say that he was a great deal too ignorant to have anything but a smattering of any of the ologies.”But being a thoroughbred Welshman­(hear, hear)-he had a very vivid imagination, and when in a place like that or when prowling about in their old earthworks one could not help picturing the scenes which had taken place in them in bygone ages. No doubt through their ignorance they coloured the pictures very badly, and he took it that the object of meetings such as that was to hear addresses from gentlemen who had a knowledge of history, and who could give them the means of drawing true pictures of this and other historical places, and of taking a proper interest in them and in their past history. (Hear, hear).

PROFESSOR TYRRELL GREEN, of St. David’s College, Lampeter, again described by means of diagrams and actual examples, the chief characteristics of the architecture of the Abbey.

THE REV. E. J. DAVIES, Capel Bangor, in an interesting Welsh address, said the Abbey was built through the generosity of the Welsh princes, some of whom were at rest in the churchyard. The monks had a strong regard for Welsh sentiment, for they espoused the cause of the ‘Welshman against that of the Saxon and the Norman. The first abbot was a Welshman. At the abbey also lived in the 15th. century the famous bard and genealogist, Gutyn Owen, and it was averred by some that Hen Phillip Brydydd spent much of his life there, while tradition had it that Dafydd ap Gwilym was sleeping his last sleep there. The gathering that day had for its first object the creating in their breasts of a desire to know more of the history of the Abbey, and for its second, the creating of a fund to enable fresh discoveries to be made, and to preserve the present building. This movement was but a branch of a great national movement, for the Welshman was becoming more and more convinced that he had a history, with characteristics of its own, and a history he could look back upon with pride, and that was why such attention was paid nowadays to the history of ancient castles, abbeys, forts, etc, in Wales. Proceeding, the speaker said that monasticism came into being, in the East, at a time when Christians were persecuted. It began to flourish in Europe in the fourth century, and in Wales in the fifth. The golden era of monasticism was during the twelfth century, and many monasteries were established in England and Wales in that century. It seemed that the Cistercian Order-to which this Abbey belonged-was the most popular one in Wales. It would be difficult to gauge the civilising influences of the work done by the monks in the Middle Ages, for monasticism should not be judged by its condition in the sixteenth century. The custom of the Cistercians was to establish themselves in inaccessible and sterile parts, and by their industry to “transform them into smiling fruitful meadows. They farmed to a considerable extent, and at Strata Florida the monks owned a large number of cattle and sheep, evidence of which was that in 1212 King John gave them a license to sell and export wool. Not only did the monks minister to the spiritual wants of the neighbourhood, but the monasteries were also “cities of refuge” for the poor, the orphan and the oppressed. The word “Yspytty” derived from the Latin “Hospitium,” was very often to be found in the Welsh language, and could be found in such words as Llanspydie and Tavern Spite. In this neighbourhood they had Ysbytty Ystwyth, Ysbytty Cynfyn, and Ysbytty Ystrad Meurig. The establishments were founded by the monks for the sustenance, of, and a means of rest for, the weary traveller. The monasteries were the hotels of those days, and no recompense was asked for the food and lodging given. Tillers of the soil, the monks were builders of bridges and makers of roads as well, and many a bridge and a road in our country could be claimed as being the work of their skilful hands. They were the philosophers, the authors, the artists, and the doctors in the Middle Ages; in fact, they were the pioneers of knowledge, enlightenment and of civilisation. Before the printing press was invented, the work of the monks in copying manuscripts and preserving them was of immeasurable value. In their libraries could be found standard books, and when Gerald the Welshman had occasion to go to Rome, it was to the keeping of the Strata Florida monks he gave his library. The copying of manuscripts was a daily task of the monks, and undoubtedly, it was at Strata Florida that some of the books containing the most interesting information about Wales were written. In the “Brut y Tywysogion” could be found the history of many an important happening connected with the Abbey. When Wales lost its independence, Strata Florida Abbey, lost much of its prestige. Its altars were no longer visited by the descendants of those who had established it, much of its territories it lost, and at the time of the Reformation, there were only seven or eight monks in the monastery. In 1539 the monasteries throughout the land were closed, and with them that of Strata Florida. In conclusion, the speaker recited John Blackwell’s lines peculiarly appropriate to Strata Florida Abbey:-

Pa sawl bron a orwedd yma?
Pa sawl tafod gadd ei gloi?
Pa sawl un sydd yn y gladdfa
Ar cof am danynt wedi ffoi?
Pa sawl gwaith ar wawr y gosper
Y swniai’r gloch ar hyd y glyn?
Pa sawl gweddi, credi, a phader?
Ddywedwyd rhwng y muriau hyn

THE REV. W. M. MORGAN-JONES, rector of St. Saviour’s, Washington, gave an instructive historical survey of the events which led up to the establishment of the Cistercian monasteries in this country. He paid a high tribute to the late Mr. Stephen Williams, for the great work he had done in connection with Strata Florida Abbey. The establishment of the Abbey marked a stage in the political, ecclesiastical, and social history of their country, for it coincided with the advent of William the Conqueror in 1066, who brought with him a very large number of freebooters. As to the Cistercian abbeys or monasteries in Wales, if they were not actually founded by the Welsh princes they grew up under Welsh auspices and received not only their moral support but were endowed by them with land and privileges. Mr. Willis Bund, in his book on the Celtic Church inWales, asserted that to think of any Welsh prince for one moment establishing a monastery, which would be a garrison of the enemy in his own country, was too absurd. Upon the face of it there might be something to say in favour of Mr. Bund’s contention, but he (the speaker) thought it was a rather superficial remark. Two great factors entered into the life of the Welsh people of that period, namely, the church and the castle. The church was represented by the bishop, while the castle, which was a new thing in Wales, was the creation of the Normans. The castle was built by the Norman to protect himself and to be the centre of military operations. William the Conqueror turned his freebooters loose upon Wales, and told them to forage for themselves. They did so, and, their Norman nobility in Wales were descended from these gentlemen. William the Conqueror also made use of the Church, and, whenever opportunity afforded he appointed a Norman as bishop of every see, in order to keep the Welsh national clergy under his power. Just at this period the Cistercian Order grew in Wales. There were certain elements in the Cistercian houses which would account for their growth. All the abbeys of the Benedictines were under the control of one general, but the Cistercian abbeys were all more or less independent. The Cistercian abbeys soon became full of Welsh monks. As the bishoprics and castles were in the hands of the Normans, the Welsh princes began to build castles themselves, and they also thought that if monasteries were good for the Normans they would also be good for them, and it was under these circumstances that Strata Florida was founded by Rhys ap Griffith, otherwise known as Lord Rhys. The monks were great landed proprietors, and owned all the land from Rhayader across the country to Aberayron. Mr. Morgan-Jones also referred to the fact that the freestone of which portions of the Abbey were built came from Somersetshire. The stone was brought by sea from Bristol, round by St. David’s Head to Aberayron and Llanddewi Aberarth, and then carted right across to the Tregaron bog. Tradition had it that it could not be carted further, and that the stone had to be conveyed from there to Strata Florida in handbarrows. The Abbey was one of the most sacred spots in the land, as it contained the last resting place of many of the old Welsh princes, and it could rightly be called “the Westminster of Wales.” The period in which the Abbey was at the height of its fame and influence was a period of unprecedented unity amongst Welshpeople. It was also an age of great men and an age of great ideals, and the influence of the monks was still felt, for it was they who taught the Welsh people the principles of agriculture. The Tregaron Male Voice Party, under the conductorship of Mr. P. W. Rees, rendered selections of music during the afternoon.

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