The Historical Context of Wales and the Wider World

Our research seeks to place the Abbey, monasticism and the Cistercian order in the wider social, political, cultural and economic context of Wales and Europe. Historians have noted for some time the strong preference for the Cistercian order among the native princes of Wales and the uchelwyr (nobility) in their acts of monastic patronage. This has often been attributed to the sentiment for the recently-suppressed, so-called 'Celtic' church with its monastic traditions and asceticism to which the Cistercians may have been felt to be the heirs. In our work at Strata Florida, however, we have proposed that it may be more than this and that such a large complex, with such extensive lands, may have had a central role in an aspiration to create a Welsh state in the shadow of the English, Angevin empire.

As with many Welsh monasteries, there are very few surviving contemporary documents in which we can find any written evidence of such an intention. However, one of the versions of the Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of the Princes) seems to have been written at Strata Florida as a continuation of a project begun at the nearby Celtic episcopal monastery of Llanbadarn Fawr. In itself this is suggestive. We are also fortunate to have the foundation charters, recently edited by Huw Pryce in his volume The Acts of the Princes, and analysis of these suggests that the Cistercians did not perhaps impose their classic Burgundian system of demesne granges on their holdings, but rather adapted Welsh customary tenure, commuting traditional renders into rents from the outset within a looser administrative grange structure.

This too is suggestive. as are two incidents in the early 13th century. First, King John very soon after the Abbey was consecrated on its new site in 1201 rather exceptionally ordered the place to be closed down as if it were some kind of threat to the polity of the English feudal hegemony over Wales. Then, in 1238, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, Prince of Gwynedd and Wales, chose the Abbey as the venue for a meeting of all those under his authority in Pura Wallia with the intention of securing the succession of his son, Dafydd, to all his powers within the nascent state of Wales. That he chose Strata Florida and not one of his own ecclesiastical institutions in Gwynedd, seems, again, significant.

Later in the same century, Strata Florida was the object of special attention during the Edwardian wars and it was burned in 1281 in the same year as the Treaty of Rhuddlan annexed the lands and authority of the last native princes to the English crown. Then, in the early years of the 15th century, the monks of Strata Florida strongly supported the attempt of Owain Glyndwr to resurrect the aspiration to a Welsh state and Principality. The price they paid, as work by Jonathan Riley has shown, is that significant detachments of the English army pursuing Glyndwr were billeted in the Abbey on three separate occasions, desecrating and destroying much of it.

The Abbey never fully recovered from this experience, but there is an extensive body of documents from the great secular estates which took over the lands of the Abbey at the Dissolution and these show how the monastic lands were being managed in its final years.

Despite this lingering decline and eventual closure, there is no doubt that Strata Florida has retained its place in the national identity of Wales up until the present day. It is not for nothing that it is still known as the 'Westminster Abbey of Wales' and the roots for this sentiment seem to lie back in the intentions behind its creation.

We shall be working closely with our colleagues in the Monastic Wales Project to pursue these and other related themes in the role of Strata Florida in Wales and Europe.

David Austin, October 2013

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