April 30th, 2018
The Cistercians were once the most influential religious Order in Wales, and their emblematic and statuesque abbeys and churches were built across the country.
Scattered across secluded corners of our countryside, hidden between mountain ranges and dense forests are the ruined fragments of a way of life that has long been forgotten and abandoned. A world apart from our lives of modern luxury and convenience, for 400 years Cistercian monks made their homes in the isolated landscapes of Wales.
From the imposing ruins that remain today, it is almost impossible to imagine that these shells of history once bustled with activity, but the Cistercian Abbeys that criss-cross Wales were crucially important cultural and religious centres. The impact and influences of the Cistercians on Wales and its people were hugely important.
The Cistercian Order originally came from a group of monks who broke free from the Cluny Abbey Church in Burgundy at the end of the eleventh century. They founded an abbey near the village of Citeaux and their principal aim was to strictly adhere to the austere Benedictine rules, something they felt was lacking at the Cluny community. These principles were of hard labour, self sufficiency, strict discipline, holy prayer, chastity and sparse comforts.
The new order soon began to spread; “daughter” abbeys were built in France before the monks travelled to England. The first Cistercian site was Waverly in Winchester in 1128, but it wasn’t long before the Order sought out the solitude of the Welsh hills. By 1224 thirteen Cistercian Abbeys had been built across Wales.
The Cistercians were terribly important in Wales, but we don’t really know why. They became the order of choice for the Marcher Lords and the Welsh Princes.
Despite rising to become the most powerful and influential religious order in Western Europe (at the height of the Order’s importance and religious prevalence, there were almost 750 houses across the world) the Cistercian’s prosperity came to an abrupt end in the sixteenth century when Henry VIII began his reformation. In 1536 the determined king declared that all property, assets and income of churches, abbeys, monasteries and most religious buildings in England and Wales be dismantled.
Walking through history
After a pilgrimage of all of the Cistercian sites in Wales in 1998, a team from the University of Wales, Newport decided to create an official Long Distance Footpath from of the route, called the Cistercian Way.
The path spans 650 miles across Wales, and Cistercian Abbeys in North Wales include Aberconwy Abbey, Basingwerk Abbey (Flintshire), Cymer Abbey and Valle Crucis Abbey (Llangollen). In fact, Cymer Abbey is situated close to Dolgellau, not far from us here at the Oakeley Arms, and is well worth a visit.
If you’d like to discover the Cistercian Map of Wales and delve into its fascinating history, you can find out more at http://www.cistercianway.wales/