Home > Christian History > Cistercian Monasteries – Tintern Abbey, Wales

Cistercian Monasteries – Tintern Abbey, Wales

For me, monasteries are strangely compelling buildings – usually in ruins but always deeply alluring and interesting. They speak of another era, when Christianity was a uncomfortable mixture of immense temporal power and sacred piety, able to be all that it should in terms of preaching and living the Gospel but at the same time so often given to political scandal and spiritual waywardness.

As a boy, I grew up relatively close to the ruins at Tintern and was taken there by my family. Now I work at Waverley but it was only in recent years that I learnt of the historic link between the two Abbey buildings. Both are of a French Cistercian foundation and both were built just a few years apart; Waverley in 1128 and Tintern in 1131. Other major Cistercian abbeys in Britain include Rievaulx (1132) and Fountains (1132), situated in the north of England.

The Cistercians were a breakaway order from the Benedictines and were formed to more closely observe the Rule of St Benedict. They were known as the ‘White Monks’ and one of their hallmarks was a return to manual labour and to farming. Their monasteries were always situated in isolated, rural areas and rarely in towns or cities.

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

Coupled with this interest is the fact that one of my favourite hymn writers, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, was himself a Cistercian monk. His hymns have always stood out to me even as a boy, included as they were in the pietistic hymnbooks of the Darby and Open Brethren.

Bernard wrote three of my favourite devotional poems; ‘Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee’, ‘Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts’ and ‘O Sacred Head, Now Wounded’, each of which has magnificent words and which, in my view, express in a really profound way, the depth and beauty of the inner spiritual life.

Martin Luther called him ‘the best monk that ever lived’ (praise indeed!) and also said ‘Bernard is superior to all the doctors in his sermons, even to Augustine himself, because he preaches Christ most excellently’. His writings show humility, devotion to Christ, and a reliance on grace that was rare before the Reformation, which is perhaps why his hymns were accepted into Brethren hymnody?

Bernard was born in Burgundy in 1091. He entered the Cistercian monastery of Citeaux in 1113 and became one of the most influential Abbots of his day, founding hundreds of monasteries throughout Europe before his death in 1153.

Tintern Abbey, Wales

Gerald of Wales (d. 1223) said;

‘Give the Cistercians a wilderness or a forest and in a few years you will find a dignified Abbey in the midst of smiling plenty’.

This was certainly the case at Tintern in Wales, set in the picturesque and tranquil Wye valley, seemingly miles from anywhere.

Tintern is the second Cistercian House in Britain – the first being Waverley Abbey – founded in May 1131 by the Anglo-Norman Lord, Walter Fitz Richard de Clare (d. 1138) whose own residence, Chepstow Castle was just a few miles downriver. Walter de Clare was related in marriage to the Bishop of Winchester, hence the Waverley connection. The white monks invited from France to Tintern were from the same Cistercian monastery – l’Aumone, Loir-et-Cher – as those who had founded Waverley.

Tintern’s superb Gothic church, which even today dominates the valley, was begun in 1269 and consecrated in 1301. This site was a centre of monastic life and prayer for some 400 years, eventually closing in 1536 during Henry VIII’s national act of vandalism, the suppression of the monasteries. Tintern then lay forgotten but was revived again in the 1790’s, this time as a romantic ruin, becoming even more popular after 1876, when the railways brought ever more visitors to these majestic monastic ruins.

Archdeacon William Coxe (1747–1828) wrote about his own visit to Tintern;

‘After passing a miserable row of cottages, and forcing our way through a crowd of importunate beggars, we stopped to examine the rich architecture of the west front; but the door being suddenly opened, the inside perspective of the church called forth an instantaneous burst of admiration, and filled me with delight, such as I scarcely ever before experienced on a similar occasion’.

Part 2 – Waverley Abbey, England will follow here shortly.

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  1. Sheila Crowley
    October 29, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    I love your photos. I will spend more time reading your blog when I have more time. Today we’re off on a field day.
    I would like to know who your father is, you look like a family member and funnily enough, you have my maternal grandfather’s surname. My uncle, also just met a friend of yours in Langley, BC. Blessings in Christ,

    Sheila Crowley

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