Tintern Abbey is a 12th-century Cistercian abbey standing in picturesque ruins on the southeastern border of Wales. Tintern was the first Cistercian monastery founded in Wales and only the second to be founded in all of Britain.
Now among the most spectacular ruins in the country, Tintern Abbey inspired a William Wordsworth poem and more than one painting by J.M.W. Turner.
History of Tintern Abbey
Just three decades after the birth of the Cistercian order, land was granted and an abbey was founded at Tintern in 1131 by the Anglo-Norman lord of Chepstow, Walter fitz Richard of Clare. The initial community of Cisterican monks arrived at Tintern from an influential mother house of l'Aumône, in north-central France.
Worked by a growing army of lay brothers, the Tintern estates were organized around characteristic Cistercian farms known as granges. At first, the monks probably lived and worshipped in a temporary arrangement of wooden buildings, though within a few decades of their arrival they had erected a modest stone church and associated cloister ranges.
Further growth of the community led to an expansion of the monastic buildings during the first half of the 13th century. Tintern's greatest glory, the superb Gothic church which still dominates the landscape, was begun in 1269. It was consecrated in 1301 in the presence of the patron, Roger Bigod, fifth earl of Norfolk.
The later Middle Ages witnessed Tintern Abbey's departure from early Cistercian ideals, exacerbated by the impact of the Black Plague (1348-49) and by the effects of a Welsh uprising in 1400-15. Nevertheless, monastic life at Tintern continued to flourish, with further limited building programs carried out until the Reformation. In 1326 King Edward II visited Tintern and spent two nights there.
Tintern Abbey was surrendered to King Henry VIII's visitors on September 3, 1536, during the first round in Henry's suppression of monasteries. Thus ended the simple way of life that had been pursued at Tintern for 400 years.
A few months later, the buildings and local possessions were granted to Henry Somerset, earl of Worcester. He sold lead from the roof and began to lease out parts of the site. Soon the abbey area was crowded with cottages and early industrial buildings.
Tintern lay forgotten until the late 18th century, when the ruins were discovered by Romantic artists and poets in search of the "Sublime" and "Picturesque." The railway brought still more tourists after 1876, and in 1901 the site was rescued when it was purchased by the Crown. Major conservation works were carried out between 1901 and 1928, which included removing the ivy considered so romantic by the early tourists.
What to See at Tintern Abbey
The ruins of Tintern Abbey are beautiful. The grand Gothic abbey church, carpeted in green grass and open to the sky, is especially enchanting. Enough of the foundations of the rest of the abbey buildings remain that, with the help of good signs provided by Welsh Heritage, enable you to imagine medieval monastic life at Tintern. There is a large car park and tickets are bought from a shop that offers books, music, and local Celtic crafts.
The west front of the abbey church is the most famous and elaborate part of Tintern Abbey that still stands, and it is the best place to begin a self-guided tour. This Gothic church was built in the late 13th to early 14th century to replace a simpler Romanesque structure of the monastery's early years.
The nave, the central hall of the church, was designed as the lay brothers' choir. Screen walls divided off aisles to the north and south. A great decorative screen, the pulpitum, ran across the width of the nave at this point. Carved pieces of this now lie on the nave floor for visitors' close inspection.
Under the crossing, where the nave and transepts meet, the monks attended their services in the choir. The north and south transepts provided additional chapel space. In the north transept is the night stair to the monks' dormitory, providing indoor passage to the church for 2am services. In the east end of the abbey church is the presbytery, where the altar was located and whose east window is still impressive.
Adjacent to the church is the cloister, whose passages which linked the monastic buildings on three sides. This is where the monks spent most of their time when not at prayer in the church. The covered passages themselves provided living space for reading, study and meditation, and perhaps even doing laundry.
Next to the cloister and adjacent to the north transept is the chapter house, where the monks met each day to hear Benedict's Rule read and to conduct regular abbey business. A roofline on the outside of the north transept shows where the monks' dormitory once stood, on the upper floor.
Across a walkway from the chapter house is the monk's day room, a vaulted hall probably used as a work room and/or as a novice's lodging. West of the day room was the small warming house, one of very few rooms with a fireplace.
Further on to the west is the refectory, a handsome hall where the monks took their one vegetarian meal each day. Next door to this was the kitchen where the meals were prepared for both the monks and the lay brothers, the latter of which lived in the west range, the last area before the entrance road.
West of the north transept, next to the monks' day room, is the infirmary cloister. Here sick monks could take in the fresh air and admire a central garden close to the infirmary hall. The hall was large, comfortable and heated, and in later centuries was divided into private apartments.
Next to this was the infirmary kitchen, which probably also served the nearby abbot's private chamber. The latter had its own private chapel attached. An abbot's hall was added in the 14th century, where the abbot could entertain important guests.
Quick Facts on Tintern Abbey
|Categories:||monasteries; abbeys; scenic settings; forest settings; riverside setting; ruins|
|Faiths:||Catholicism; Cistercian order|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||51.697163° N, 2.676705° W|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Tintern Abbey|
- Personal visit (February 2006).
- David Robinson, Tintern Abbey (CADW, 2004). Images with a copyright credit to CADW are from this excellent book.
Map of Tintern Abbey, Wales
Below is a location map and aerial view of Tintern Abbey. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.