The History of Strata FloridaThe landscape around Strata Florida retains many traces of its long history and prehistory. The story begins soon after the end of the last Ice Age about 14000 years ago and during what archaeologists call the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age. At this time melting ice in the Cambrian Mountain region of Central Wales left behind a lake, which eventually became Tregaron Bog, and revealed the U-shaped profile of the upper Teifi valley. The first humans were small bands of Mesolithic hunters searching for game in the rapidly regenerating woodland, working from their main camps along the southern coast of Cardigan Bay.
People began to settle down to clear the trees and start farming in the later Neolithic (New Stone Age) or Bronze Age some 4-5000 years ago. Close to the source of the Afon Glasffrwd, which today runs on the southern edge of the Abbey site, is a large complex of monuments from this period including burial mounds or cairns. By the Iron Age, beginning some 2500 years ago, the landscape was beginning to look much more like today with most of the woodland cleared away and converted into farmland on the valley floors and sides, interspersed with scattered farms. On the uplands were peat bogs and the extensive rough pastures for cattle which were controlled by large defended enclosures or hill-forts such as Pen-y-Bannau which overlooks Pontrhydfendigaid and the Abbey from the north.
During the Roman period (AD70-410) little changed in the local Celtic society although the Romans themselves drove military roads, like Sarn Helen, across the Welsh uplands often between places where valuable mineral deposits were to be found, notably gold, silver and lead. In the following centuries (5th to 11th) Welsh kings and local rulers re-established the pattern of native life with Christianity arriving in the 6th century in the form of small monastic sites leaving behind decorated stones still to be found in local parish churches and churchyards, like Llangwnnws, to the north-west of Strata Florida.
By the later 11th century the Normans had begun to push into this part of the world and for a while the de Clare family controlled the ancient Welsh princedom of Ceredigion. Indeed Strata Florida was first founded in 1164 by an Anglo-Norman knight of the Clare retinue, Robert Fitzstephen, but within the space of a year, the Normans were expelled from Ceredigion by the Lord Rhys, Prince of Deheubarth. In 1165 Rhys confirmed the grant of Strata Florida and its surrounding lands to the Cistercian monks of Whitland who founded a new Abbey and set about turning the old Celtic world into a much more productive landscape, introducing new, European ways of doing things, including water-powered technologies.
Strata Florida lies in a small valley on the western slopes of the Cambrian Mountains, north of Tregaron, and is a transcendently numinous place, perhaps from a time before the Cistercians arrived, but certainly even after they left, and today is still the source of a powerful hiraeth in the emotion and spirit of Wales. Perhaps because of this and because of its Welsh royal patron, Strata Florida rapidly became a centre of a growing ideology of Welshness and, inheriting some of the traditions of a pre-Norman church, it created manuscripts in Welsh, including the great history of early Wales, Brut y Tywysogion (The Chronicle of the Princes, started in Llanbadarn Fawr) and supported the literary and sculptural arts.
The Cistercian abbey of Strata Florida was one of a number of monasteries of the Cistercian order of monks which were established in Pura Wallia, the lands under the control of powerful Welsh princes and lords in the twelfth century. The order's inspiration lay in the great movement begun at Cîteaux in Burgundy at the end of the 11th century. The Cistercian's return to the asceticism of the Rule of St Benedict, its seeking of the waste places of the world, and its call to a Christian self-sufficiency through ora et labor (prayer and work), captured the imagination of Western Christendom. This was particularly so in Wales where the suppression and reform of the similar traditions of the pre-Norman Celtic monastery were still fresh in the memory.
It is likely that the first buildings created by the Whitland monks were built at a site still today called Henfynachlog (the Old Monastery), a couple of kilometres to the south-west of the present location. The precise location of these buildings is unknown, but 1n 1184, the Lord Rhys, at the height of his power, gave new grants to the Abbey and the monastery was laid out and begun on the site where it is today. In 1201 the monks formally consecrated the new monastery and moved into the finished complex of buildings.
The layout of the new Abbey can be seen in the plan above and in the reconstruction painting by Chris Jones-Jenkins on the home page. It was divided into two main, enclosed areas: the Inner Precinct which contained all the main monastic buildings (foreground); and the Outer Precinct which was largely used for cultivation and other purposes, including possibly a leper hospital.
There were four gates: the Main Gate between the Inner and Outer precincts which has been excavated in the present Project; an outer western gate on the road back to Pontrhydfendigaid; a North Gate which gave access onto the Monk's Trod over the Cambrian Mountains to the sister Abbey of Cwmhir; and a South Gate through which another mountain road ran towards Llanddovery and the Eppynt.
The main buildings in the Inner Precinct consisted of the Abbey Church itself and a cloister (or secluded garden) to its south, around which were ranged: the Chapter House (for administration and discussion); the Warming House (where the older and more infirm monks could take refuge during the colder months); the Refectory (where the monks eat, parts of which survive in the farmhouse on the site today), the Kitchens; and the West Range (which contained stores and the sleeping quarters of the Lay Monks who did the bulk of the labouring work on the Abbey lands as miners, builders, foresters, herdsmen, farmers and engineers). The remains of many of these core buildings form the Cadw visitor site.
Between the south transept of the church and the Chapter House is a narrow room where we think the monks kept their precious books and manuscripts written on vellum. Many of these were made by hand by the monks themselves perhaps on desks set out in the covered walkway around the edge of the cloisters. Today several important medieval manuscripts still survive in the National Library of Wales which may have been created at Strata Florida, including the important Brut y Tywosogion or Chronicle of the Princes, the first history of Wales in the Welsh language.
Even before 1184 the Abbey church had become the burial place for members of the royal family of Deheubarth. This continued after 1184 and probably the older burials were brought to the new site where they are marked by stones carved in Celtic artwork. These can still be seen in the corner between the Church's Choir and the South Transept.
Other buildings we know were in the Inner Precinct were: an Infirmary (where the sick and older monks as well as certain privileged members of the lay community were looked after in a small monastery complex within the monastery itself); the Abbot's House; and two mills at least one of which was an iron forge. The water system, supplying the power for these mills as well as for use in most of the main abbey buildings, drew on the Afon Glasffrwd to the south and consisted of ponds and leats. Much of this system still survives as earthworks.
Strata Florida's hey-day was the late 12th and 13th centuries, prior to the overwhelming of Wales by Edward I of England. During this time it established its reputation in scholasticism and political affiliation and as a centre of healing and spiritual well-being. The Abbey was caught up in the conflicts between English kings and Welsh princes, and was burned and occupied several times. One of the main incidents was when, at the beginning of the 15th century, and English army, in pursuit of Owain Glyndwr, took over the Abbey and destroyed many of its buildings in the process. Effectively, however, from the later 13th century onwards, it was always in some state of decline, although it survived intact as one of the greater monastic houses until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. By the time this happened, there were only a handful of monks still maintaining the traditions of the Cistercian order. After that its lands were taken over first by Sir Richard Devereux, and then gradually by local gentry families.
The Stedmans, who first leased and then purchased the Abbey itself and some of its demesne lands, may originally have been officials of the Devereux Earls of Essex, but were soon integrated within the local gentry networks. It was the Stedmans who built the plas or mansion of Mynachlog Fawr out of the remains of the Abbey Refectory and this passed in the mid 18th century to the Powells of Nanteos and later to the Vaughans of Trawscoed, and finally to the Arch family, the present owners. The church and cloister fell into ruin, and by the 1800s only the west doorway was still recognisable. Around this time, the site of the Abbey Church and Cloisters was excavated by Stephen Williams, a railway engineer, and it was found that many of the walls and tiled floors survived. In 1931 it was taken into the Guardianship of the Crown to ensure its preservation and it is now in the care of Cadw on behalf of the Welsh Government. Short accounts of the site were published in 1936 and 1951.
In the mid twentieth century the Arch family acquired the freehold of their tenant farm and Dai and Eleri Arch, together with their son Iwan and his wife, Natalie still farm the land. It was they who gave permission for the programme of survey and excavations conducted by the University of Wale Trinity St David archaeologists under the direction of Professor David Austin between 1999 and 2015. In 2006 the independent Strata Florida Trust was formed under the chairmanship of Professor Austin with the intention of taking over the Mynachlog Fawr complex of historic farm buildings including the farmhouse itself once the mansion of the Stedmans and the Abbey's refectory before that. In 2016 the Trust purchased the buildings and under the aegis of the Strata Florida Project will create a Centre for visitors and carry forward the archaeological and historical research programme.
This page copyright (c) of Professor David Austin, Chairman Strata Florida Trust