Monday, February 1, 2010

Cwmbran-Llantarnam Abbey,-Abbey of DeumaA Welsh Nationalist Abbey!-

Because of the shortage of remains of this Abbey except some remains of the tithe barn next to the nuns' cemetary, I could find little about the Abbey until I found an article by Professor David H Williams about it. I have used some of his information here, but would urge anyone interested in Llantarnam Abbey to read his masterful and scholarly account.Dr Madeleine Grey leads a pilgrimage from here to Penrhys every year , visiting many of the Cistercian 'properties', the Chapel at St Dials, St Derfyl's Chapel on Twm Barlwm and over to Abercarn. It is a three day walk from the Abbey to Penrhys and generally takes place in the May bank holiday, May being the Month of Our Lady.

______________________________________________________________ Sister Henrietta's email for information about the Sisters of Joseph of Annecy, who nnow live at Llantarnam Abbey.
Satnav: NP44 3YJ. Telephone Number, 01633 867317 ...Ty Croeso retreat Centre at the Abbey.

Llantarnam Abbey lies 5 miles west of Newport.

Last week, we were looking at the Cistercian arrivals in South Wales and the mission of God undertaken by the Holy Bernard of Clairvaux.Llantarnam, dedicated to Our Lady and St Mary Magdalene took the form of a dedication by its patron Iolo ap Iowerth. Nearby a church dedicated to St Michael was built by the monks on an earlier site, which now belongs to the Anglican church.


The Mother House of Llantarnam Abbey , Strata Florida (Ystrad Fleur)) was like its mother house of Whitland, a Norman foundation), which prospered after the Welsh revival, because of the numbers of princes from the Royal House of Dyfed who were buried there. It was also important to the Royal House of Gwynedd and it was here that Llwellyn the Great ordered the lesser princes of Wales to pay homage to his son Llewellyn.It was attacked a great many times by the English and many lay brothers killed, for their loyalty to Wales and its struggle for independence.

Was the early form of Caerleon Abbey a Grange?Were goods from the Abbey shipped from there?

Some early documents describe it as ‘Caerleon Abbey’ but there is no evidence that it was ever in or near the town of Caerleon, though there was perhaps a Grange there to oversee the loading of the many products of the Abbey on the the boats going to Bristol. There was certainly a Grange recorded at Caerleon in the accounts when the abbey was seized. Its position at the southern and eastern extremity of Hywel’s territory at the high point of the twelfth-century Welsh revival suggests that politics may have been involved in its foundation. The gift of extensive tracts of debatable frontier land to an emphatically Welsh foundation meant they were kept in Welsh hands and created a ‘buffer zone’ against the inevitable Norman drive to the west. Llantarnam not only received gifts from its founder but also benefited from the patronage of the native Welsh in the upland areas of Eastern Glamorgan.

The Community

It was recorded that during the late twelfth century the house had a community of sixty monks, although the numbers had dropped to twenty by 1317.) This was probably a result of the damaging effects of the revolt of Llywelyn Bren which took place in 1316. A fire destroyed it in about 1398 but the monks bravely re-built it
Like many other Cistercian abbeys it earned its keep in the wool trade and exported other goods out of Caerleon and Newport.

The monks of Llantarnam Abbey did not pay any tolls in Bristol. They had, according to records , 588sheep and must have sent both wool and skins to Europe and Ireland. Skins and hides, both tanned and untanned belonged for centuries to the main items of export from the Caerleon area. Dairy produce, especially butter, was sent via Bristol as far as Ireland at the end of the 16th century and during the 17th. A. H. Dodd points out that till the middle of the 16th century the south-eastern counties of South Wales were the stronghold of the Welsh weavers. In 1370 a fulling mill was indeed working in Caerleon one other fulling mill at the Grange of Mynyddislwyn.. In the shipping and customs documents there is no evidence of cloth being sent from Caerleon. Only one name of a weaver in the 16th century has been found: in the recusant rolls of 1592 is a David Williams "alias Weaver," of Llanhennock.

The Thirteenth Century and Earl Gilbert de Clare robs the Abbey of Land.

The abbots were asked to sort out disputes with Margam Abbey and Tintern Abbey . Between Buildwas and Whitland, Cwmhir and Strata Marcella and in 1239 between Grace Dieu and Abbey Dore! Williams tells us that in 1272, Gilbert de Clare seized a great many of the Abbey’s lands and promised to pay them, but did not! The same was done in Margam Abbey.Williams writes ‘ In the very same year, the Taxatio records of one property of Llantarnam, that its value was reduced ‘quia bestie comit’ totu’consument’. At first reading this suggests that wild animals had devoured all the land , but it may be a veiled reference to the Earl’. !

Clearing Lands ‘Assarting’ in full swing in the Thirteenth Century

Llantarnam monks worked hard.Cistercian monks were known for their clearance of woodland or ‘assarting’. David Williams describes Brother Jewaf around 1200 ‘digging about’ some leased pasture, ’hedges,ditches and enclosures’.made by the monks in the Rhondda in their land near Penrhys, which was later given to Margam Abbey. They also granted timber rights to their tenants for enclosing.There was a Papal Bull of 1208 which excused the monks from paying tithes on land they had cleared and cultivated. It needed to be enclosed with hedges and drained

Farming of Crops, Corn etc.

Again from David Williams, we see the picture is patchy. There were 7 grinding mills recorded in existence in 1535 one of them was by the Abbey, two were in Llanhilleth, (Hafrod Ynys), there were four in Mynyddyswyn-one of which was Mae stir which was built in 1204.(Williams)and there were three others. One was also in existence at Coedeva, Cwmbran, though this may have been a later addition.
The abbey’s Cistercian foundation speaks reams about its special charisms.. Like most Cistercian Abbeys it was sited in a remote area in this case- the deep forest, near water, It was only three miles from Caerleon, well away from the nearest road. Tanner in the Monasticon says there were six monks living here when Henry VIII took it from the brothers. The monks lived lives of prayer and hard work surviving on a fairly limited vegetarian diet. When builders unearthed the remains of monks in the 1960s the archaeologists found that the bones were in good condition and that the skulls possessed complete sets of teeth!

Our Lady of Penrhys, the hostel and taverna

There was a direct link with the pilgrimage site of the ‘Blessed Mary of Penrhys.’ Penrhys, where there was a grange and moneys sent to support the abbey from a ‘Taberna’ which could be an inn or hostel housing pilgrims to the special mediaeval statue to our lady, which was owned and administered by Llantarnam Abbey.The shrine at Penhrys was famous and frequently mentioned in the Middle Ages and is now once again a popular shrine.Williams quotes Llewellyn ap Hywel ab Ieuan ap Gronwy when he described the site ‘ a goodly place is the summit and its wooded slope , and a virgin sanctuary beside a high wood’. Many well known and high born people came to offer alms at Penrhys in honour of our Blessed Lady Mary but also many sick people with no hope, praying for miracles.Lewis Morgannwg (in the eary 16th century) speaks of the ‘prayer of the labourers, where at Pen-Rhys there is ever a host of them’ and ‘I will go to Pen-Rhys in my one shirt, for fear of the ague, upon my knee a taper a fathom long’.

Other gifts included rents from the Manor of Abercarn came to £35.16s and 11d and the parish church of St Michael and All Angels built by the monks for the parish (the Cistercians being very enclosed at the time). There are still some remains of the original abbey . There are the stone cells, converted first into stables and now into garages, the conventual wall and a gatehouse in a pointed style that formed the entrance. A recent excavation by CADW has mapped the original outline as most of the buildings and their foundations have been found.

gifts for the upkeep of the chapel and abbey. This was also a Celtic Church .

Russock and Chapel Farm, at Mynydysylwyn Arable Farming (Crops)

Llystalybont way to the.South West on the River Taff, John ap Jenkyn leased thison Nov 2 1509 for a period of 99 years.. He paid £2 a year to farm the Grange. He also had the right to take the monks’ timber from their wood, for burning, enclosing and building on the grange, but was not able to transfer this right to anyone else. All at the time of the seizzure of the Abbey.

Trevethin Sheep. Celtic Church on this site, [possibly the last resting place of St Cadoc, which links him with Mamhilad in the records of the Cambro British saints).

Cil-lonydd Late abbot received £20 in rent for this.

Wentesland and Bryngwyn (Abercarn area) rents were £18 11s 10½d when revised by ministers quite an increase from the first valuation at ££7 0s 9½d

Mynachty Waun to the North East leased to farmers . William Jenkin paid rent there to the abbey at the time it was seized. Arable (Crops) farming

Llanhilleth mill for grinding (corn, maize, rye) Arail Farm,

Llanhilleth was also a grange of Llantarnam Abbey. There is more and more evidence that the Cistercians were building chapels on or nearby their granges and it is likely that they were responsible for building the present St Illtyd’s Church sometime during the 13th or 14th centuries. Most of the fabric of the church probably belongs to that period, though the font may have belonged to the original pre-Norman building.

Mynyddyslwyn: Maes –tir Grange Mill, built 1204. (Williams) and three other grinding mills.

Hafod-yr Ynys mill for grinding corn, maize possibly rye’

Machen (rents from arable farming)

Blaunau Gwent (North Gwent)

Ceyne Fishery (at Tredunnock)(for much of the Fourteenth century)

Usk Fishery William Watkin ran the fishery and paid the monks £2 per year to lease it.

Aberavon Fishery (Caerleon) Jenkyn Taylor ran this fishery and paid the monks 13s 4p to lease it.


Penrhys in the Rhondda Proceeds from the Inn (tavern ) Cistercian houses had great devotion, like st Bernard , to Our Lady . The monks ran an inn here for the use of pilgrims.

Pwl-pan Caerleon was let to Lewis Blethyn gentleman . Paid £20 per year rent to farm the land

English troops kill the Abbot of Llantarnam, fighting for the Welsh cause.

The Abbot of Llantarnam ,John ap Hywel we are told ‘gave his full support to ‘Owain Glyndwr David H Williams quotes John de Fordun when he writes :’the abbot in person heard confessions before the attack and gave absolution, continually shouting and not ceasing earnestly to speak , while the forces were being ready for the battle . In this cause the abbot was perturbed by nothing , but was only zealous for the liberty of his country and people’.Adam of Usk tells how the English’ slew many , and especially the Abbot of Llantarnam,’whom he describes as ‘a man of highest prudence’. All through the Glyndwr rising and English garrison was quartered there. In 1512 King John was attempting to destroy the abbey, which was badly damaged during the Welsh Wars of Independence. The abbey kept the chronicles of the Welsh Nation and gave hospitality to the poets.

Student monks, and Quarrels and an unusual dispensation…

David H. Williams also mentions the Papal records of 1397-98.. In 1398, there was a Papal mandate that John vap Jerp , a monk of Llantarnam, studying theology and canon law at an unspecified Italian university should enjoy the fruits of the monastery as if resident , and that the monks of the house as a whole should be allowed to eat meat on lawful days, when they were away from the monastery ‘in cities and other places,where it was difficult to avoid eating meat. Cistercians were normally never allowed to eat meat.

The famous case of the Hay and House Boot of Wentwood

In December of the same year , the Abbot of Llantarnam was engaged by the Pope to sort out a quarrel between the Vicar and Prior of Striguil /Chepstow and ‘to reserve a fit portion for the vicar of the fruits of the church of Chepstow’ David H. Williams goes on that it was alleged that the prior and Benedictine community had not been resident in Chepstow Priory for four years. Abbot Grufydd was a forceful and effective man. 1398 also saw the renewal of privileges . Llantarnam’s contacts in Rome were hard working. In 1438 ,the Pope gave a dispensation for Leyson ap Morris to be ordained ‘and hold any dignity of his order’despite the fact he was the son of a priest and an unmarried mother. This was compassionate .

The Seals

Squirrel Seal

This seal was in Newport Museum and Art Gallery. It depicts a squirrel and written in old English are the words “I crack nuts”. This seal was found in the grounds of Llantarnam Abbey in 1987 but the museum cannot offer any further information. There may be a link between the squirrel seal and the squirrel which is situated above one of the windows on the second floor of the house overlooking the garden.

Seal of St Mary Magdalene

The Abbey was founded at her Feast (July 22). This is housed in the British Library. It shows a monk, presumably Bernard, the Cistercian founder, blessing 3 people. This dates back to 14th Century. The Llantarnam Abbey Archives hold a photograph of this seal.

The Disastrous Great Fire of Llantarnam

An accidental and very serious fire happened around 1398 and Adam of Usk was credited with restoring and improving the house afterwards. Rome put into place a strategy for encouraging pilgrims to donate money to this cause(for the repair of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady , Caerleon alias Llantarnam …the books , buildings and other ornaments of whose church have been enormously devastated by fire’. . The Abbey was the social services of the area and it was always a fairly poor house. The King helped them by paying them for the upkeep of the seized alien priory of St Claire in Camarthen (Alien priories were always seized during wars with France)

The Homilies of St Gregory

The other authenticated item is a manuscript copy of the Homilies of St Gregory, dating back to the late 12th or early 13th century. This manuscript has had a very chequered history which is outlined in the notes accompanying the manuscript in the British Library.

The Llantarnam manuscript is not a beautifully illuminated text such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, for example, but nevertheless, it is a tangible link with the past. The original wooden covers are still in place. In some parts of the text it has been necessary to carry out some restoration work.

The manuscript is now housed in the British Library. Llantarnam Abbey Archives holds two photographs of the manuscript.
From the point of view of the history of Llantarnam Abbey, the document is interesting for a number of reasons:
1 It is an item which was more or less certainly copied by hand in Llantarnam Abbey scriptorium and is about 800 years old.
2. It has one or two interesting jottings which reveal glimpses of Abbey life prior to 1248. (See notes in the British Library)
3. The front page shows that the manuscript was given as a gift to a new Monastery, Hailes Abbey, Gloucestershire in 1248.
4. In those days, before printing presses and computers, such a gift was precious and indicates that Llantarnam Abbey was flourishing at that date.

The Cistercian-Benedictine) Rule and the Scriptorium

Benedict of Nursia, allowed his monks to read the great works of the pagans in the monastery he founded at Monte Cassino in 529. The creation of a library here began the tradition of Benedictine scriptoria, where the copying of texts not only provided materials actually needed in the life of the community and served as work for hands and minds otherwise idle, but produced a valuable product. Saint Jerome stated that the products of the scriptorium could be a source of revenue for the monastic community, but Benedict cautioned, "If there be skilled workmen in the monastery, let them work at their art in all humility".

In the earliest Benedictine monasteries, the writing room was actually a corridor open to the central quadrangle of the cloister. The space could fit approximately twelve monks, who were protected from the elements by only the wall behind them and the vaulting above. Monasteries built later in the Middle Ages placed the scriptorium inside, near the heat of the kitchen or next to the calefactory. The warmth of the later scriptoria served as an incentive for unwilling monks to work on the transcription of texts (since the chapter houses were rarely heated).

The scriptoria of the Llanthony seem to have been similar. In 1134, the Cistercian order declared that the monks were to keep silent in the scriptorium as they should in the cloister. However, there is evidence that in the late 13th century, the Cistercians would allow certain monks to perform their writing in a small cell "which could not... contain more than one person" These cells were called scriptoria because of the copying done there, even though their primary function was not as a writing room.

What do we know about the Old Abbey?

Being a Cistercian foundation, the Abbey very much identified with the struggle of the Welsh people to keep independence.It was founded from Strata Florida, by a Welshman and the first Abbey may have been sited at Kilsant, a little nearer to Caerleon or Pentre Bach 2 miles WSW of Llantarnam. This was called Caerleon Abbey for a while. The old building in Caerleon, on the main road, may have been a Grange as ‘Red Grange ‘ at Caerleon is referred to in Valor.

The Abbey had a Lady Chapel, a bell tower and a cemetery and we further know that there were plans to build an arch ‘Out of the entry of the Church from the Cloister’ and the building of an arch in the body of the Church’ and that was just before the abbey was seized by the crown .

The barn near the visitors’ car park is medieval.. Archaeological excavation has located the outline of the medieval abbey church and cloister and the foundations of the great gate which separated the inner precinct from the world. Pilgrims visiting the abbey would not have had access to the monks’ church, but would have been accommodated in a guest house (possibly on the banks of the Afon Llwyd) and might have had a separate chapel or worshipped as the Parish Church of St Michael.

There is much more that has been written by David H Williams in his article-too much to be included here. So I would direct anyone interested in reading the full article to consult the Monmouthshire Antiquities and read his excellent article in full. You can find these in any library in any Monmouthshire town, and research the posts online.

Ordinations at the Abbey ordered by the Bishop of Hereford.

Here are some of the names of the monks who actually lived and served God in the Abbey.

John ap Hywel (later Abbot)Priest 21.3.1366;
Father Hugh’, Priest 19.3.1383;,

Hywel ap Gruffydd Subdeacon 22.2.1399;

David ap Griff , subdeacon, 22.2.1399,

Father Stephen Went (first Deacon and then Priest, and Abbot,

David Celerton (Acolyte-16.12.1426;

David Newport (Deacon 16.12.1426)

John Brawnebone (Subdeacon 13.3.1473);

fraternus Fisher (Deaon 24 Sept 1513)

William Kyrkby (Deacon 24.9.1513)

David H Williams who researched this list, says that most of the monks of this abbey would have been ordained by the Bishop of Llandaff, whose mediaeval registers were destroyed at some point, either in the raids of the Bristol Pirates or when the Abbey was seized by Henry VIII's men.

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