The approach road through the hills of Monmouthshire in Wales towards Tintern Abbey is immensely dramatic and helps set the scene for a visit to the skeletal remains of the 12th century Church and Abbey. Once you arrive at the palatial structure its easy to see how it inspired poems by William Wordsworth, Lord Tennyson and Allen Ginsberg, who took an acid trip at the Abbey and wrote about it in his poem ‘Wales Visitation’!
Tintern was founded by Walter de Clare, Lord of Chepstow on 9th May 1131. It stands beside the River Wye which forms the border between England and Wales. De Clare was related by marriage to William Giffard, Bishop of Winchester, William had introduced the first colony of French Cistercian monks to Waverley, Surrey in 1128 and was instrumental in bringing the second colony of monks from a daughter house of Cíteaux L’Aumône Abbey in France to Tintern.
The Cistercians, also known as the White Monks due to their choice of robe, followed the Rule of St. Benedict. The monks followed the basic principles of obedience, poverty, chastity, silence, prayer and work. The abbey lands were divided into small agricultural holdings that were tended to by the brothers and other locals .
The Abbey as it stands today mostly dates from the 13th century and the great church, an imposing structure, was built between 1269 and 1301 thanks to the generous benefactor Roger Bigod, 5th Earl of Norfolk. The Abbey Church measures 72 metres in length and is built of Old Red Sandstone.
In 1349 the Black Death decimated the English and Welsh countryside and it became hard to attract new recruits to the brotherhood. In the early 15th century Tintern suffered massive structural damage due to an Welsh uprising under Owain Glyndwr when most of the Abbey properties were destroyed by the Welsh rebels.
Though the monks persevered throughout the next century King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries ended monastic life in England and Wales. On the 3rd of September Abbot Wyche surrendered Tintern and its estates to the King, its valuables were sent to the royal treasury. The building was granted to Henry Somerset, 2nd Earl of Worcester who removed and sold the lead from the roof of the Church which accelerated the decay of Tintern. Very little interest was paid to the site in the centuries that followed, at one time the property was inhabited by local wire workers.
In the mid 18th century throughout Ireland and England it became fashionable to visit ‘wilder’ and more romantic parts of the countryside and interest in Tintern increased. Major works occured in the early 20th cnetury when ivy that had covered much of the structure was carefully removed as to avoid causing damage to the stonework. In 1984 CADW (Welsh Heritage) took over control of the site and continue to preserve this beautiful structure.
“the lambs on the tree-nooked hillside this day bleating
heard in Blake’s old ear, & the silent thought of Wordsworth in eld Stillness
clouds passing through skeleton arches of Tintern Abbey –
Bard Nameless as the Vast, babble to Vastness!“
– Allen Ginsberg
GPS: 51.69686, -2.67702