Last Photographed: Friday 18th April 2014
Tintern Abbey was founded in 1131AD when Walter fitz Richard de Clare, Lord of Chepstow, made a grant of land to a group of Cistercian monks from the abbey of Cîteaux. It was the first Cistercian house to be founded in Wales, and only the second in Britain.
Tintern grew quickly. By 1139, it already had sufficient numbers to create a daughterhouse in Gloucestershire. In 1148, Henry became abbot of Tintern. By all accounts, he was an interesting character - a robber who had reformed and joined the Cistercian order. In his new life, he was transformed into a deeply religious man, who was highly regarded amongst the brethren. The abbey prospered under his rule, and work on the first stone church was completed some time in the mid-12th Century.
By the 13th Century, land endowments and the generous patronage of Roger Bigod III, Lord of Chepstow, continued to add to the abbeys wealth. During this period, the abbey was completely remodelled. The early part of the century saw many of the monastic buildings being replaced. Then from 1269, construction began on a new great church. This was completed by 1301 when the building was consecrated. It is the remains of these 13th Century buildings that are visible today.
Like most monastic houses, Tintern was badly affected when the Black Death swept the country in the middle of the 14th Century. It became difficult to attract lay brothers, and much of the abbey's land was rented out to tenant farmers rather than being directly farmed by the monks. However, the abbey continued to grow, and by the turn of the century, it was the largest and wealthiest monastic house in Wales, home to perhaps 20 monks and 50 lay brethren.
Tintern had escaped the worst ravages of Edward II's war in Wales due to its remote and seclude location close to the border. However, it wasn't so lucky when Owain Glyndwr rose up against the English, and the early part of the 15th Century saw it suffering financially after the rebels attacked and pillaged a number of the abbey's granges.
Tintern recovered from this setback and continued to prosper. Minor improvements continued to the fabric of the abbey, but nothing of note marked the remainder of the abbey's years until it fell under the first Act of Dissolution. The last abbot of Tintern, Abbot Wyche, surrendered to the king's visitors in the summer of 1536. At that time, there were 12 monks and 35 servants in residence. The monks were pensioned off, and the land around the abbey granted to the Earl of Worcester.
Tintern Abbey dropped out of the history books for 200 years, but was rediscovered when a rise in antiquarian romanticism popularised it as a destination for adventurous upper-class tourists. Turner and Wordsworth both visited Tintern, and it inspired both in their respective arts.
Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft --
In darkness and amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart --
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro' the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!..."
Today, the great church is the most notable of the ruins, with its shell surviving in almost complete form. Attached to this is the western abbey gatehouse, which is also in remarkably good condition. Other buildings survive to varying heights and condition. Also of note is the old water gate. This would have given access to the abbey wharves, and can be seen adjacent to the Anchor Hotel opposite the abbey.
Tintern is guaranteed to leave a powerful impression upon all who visit, with its ruins occupying a spectacular spot on the thickly-wooded banks of the river Wye. The first glimpse of the church as it comes into view is one that isn't soon forgotten. The abbey gives the impression of having been laid down next to the river by a gentle hand, augmenting its surroundings with a sympathetic grace. This unique panorama undoubtedly secures Tintern's reputation as one of Britain's finest monastic sites.