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Strata Florida or Ystrad Fflur, meaning Vale of
Flowers is the site of a Cistercian Abbey and monastery. Established in the
1164, in its early years it enjoyed the patronage of the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth.
The first Cistercian abbey was founded in 1098 by Robert of Molesme at Citeaux
near Dijon and the order spread rapidly under the patronage of various royal
families throughout Western Europe. Often known as the White Monks because
of their dress, they followed an austere life with an emphasis on manual labour,
most commonly in agriculture and brewing. Their abbeys and monasteries are
normally found in good agricultural rural areas. It is believed that the
original site of the Abbey was about a mile and a quarter from the current site
which was granted to the Order by the Lord Rhys in 1184.
The early abbots were Welsh and supported the Welsh cause to the
annoyance of King John who in 1212 threatened to "destroy the Abbey of
Strata Florida which harbours our enemies" but fined the Abbey £800
instead. In 1238 Llewelyn summoned all
the Welsh princes to an assembly at the Abbey and the Abbey suffered over the
years from the struggles between the English King and the Welsh princes. Fire
devastated the Abbey in 1284 while in 1294 the Abbey was torched by King Edward
I's men. The monks were evicted by Henry IV during Owain Glyndwr's rebellion
(1399 - 1413) and English troops stationed in the Abbey in 1407 and 1415. In
1428 the abbot of Aberconwy staked a claim to Strata Florida and took over the
Abbey with an armed force.
With the dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, the
monks were dispersed in 1539, but not before, as legend has it, monks from
Glastonbury, which had been taken over in 1536, brought the Holy Grail to Strata
Florida. The blackened olive wood cup eventually passed into the hands of the
Powell family of Nanteos, and while the healing qualities of water drank from the
cup were attested, people were said to be not satisfied with drinking from it
but would nibble at the wood.
At the time of the Dissolution, there were only 7 monks
and many of the structures were in a poor state of repair.
The Dissolution saw the dismantling of the abbey. Some 10 tons
of lead were still in storage in Aberystwyth in 1555, while stone would have
been used in the building of local buildings. The Romantic movement turned the
site into a tourist destination as Borrow narrates below, but it was the 1880s
before much archaeological work was carried out.
George Borrow described his visit in 1854:
"A farm-house stood near it,
in the garden of which stood the framework of a large gateway. I crossed over
into the churchyard, ascended a green mound, and looked about me. I was now in
the very midst of the Monachlog Ystrad Flur, the celebrated monastery of Strata
Florida, to which in old times Popish pilgrims from all parts of the world
repaired. The scene was solemn and impressive: on the north side of the river a
large bulky hill looked down upon the ruins and the church, and on the south
side, some way behind the farm-house, was another which did the same. Rugged
mountains formed the background of the valley to the east, down from which came
murmuring the fleet but shallow Teivi. Such is the scenery which surrounds what
remains of Strata Florida: those scanty broken ruins compose all which remains
of that celebrated monastery, in which saints and mitred abbots were buried, and
in which, or in whose precincts, was buried Dafydd Ab Gwilym, the greatest
genius of the Cimbric race and one of the first poets of the world.
After standing for some time
on the mound I descended, and went up to the church. I found the door fastened,
but obtained through a window a tolerable view of the interior, which presented
an appearance of the greatest simplicity. I then strolled about the churchyard
looking at the tombstones, which were humble enough and for the most part
modern. I would give something, said I, to know whereabouts in this
neighbourhood Ab Gwilym lies. That, however, is a secret that no one can reveal
to me. At length I came to a yew-tree which stood just by the northern wall,
which is at a slight distance from the Teivi. It was one of two trees, both of
the same species, which stood in the churchyard, and appeared to be the oldest
of the two. Who knows, said I, but this is the tree that was planted over Ab
Gwilym’s grave, and to which Gruffydd Gryg wrote an ode? I looked at it
attentively, and thought that there was just a possibility of its being the
identical tree. If it was, however, the benison of Gruffydd Gryg had not had
exactly the effect which he intended, for either lightning or the force of wind
had splitten off a considerable part of the head and trunk, so that though one
part of it looked strong and blooming, the other was white and spectral.
Nevertheless, relying on the possibility of its being the sacred tree, I behaved
just as I should have done had I been quite certain of the fact. Taking off my
hat I knelt down and kissed its root, repeating lines from Gruffydd Gryg, with
which I blended some of my own in order to accommodate what I said to present
“O tree of yew, which here
By Ystrad Flur’s blest monast’ry,
Beneath thee lies, by cold Death
The tongue for sweetness once renown’d.
Better for thee thy boughs to
Though scath’d, above Ab Gwilym’s grave,
Than stand in pristine glory
Where some ignobler bard doth rest;
I’d rather hear a taunting rhyme
From one who’ll live through endless time,
Than hear my praises chanted loud
By poets of the vulgar crowd.”"
A modern memorial to Dafydd ap
Dafydd ap Gwilym was one of the most
important and influential Welsh poets of all time. Of noble birth he was not a
member of the bardic tradition, and changed the direction of Welsh verse. His
poems were often witty and unusually for the time revealed his own feelings. His
poems in Welsh with translation are available here.
( See Text 137 Merched Llanbadarn as an example of his sense of humour). Dafydd
died in 1350 and was buried in the Abbey precincts.
In the centre of the Monks'
Choir is a curious basin with steps at either end. It appears that it
would normally have been covered.
The 14th century tiles of Strata
Florida were relaid in the 1930s are among the greatest treasures of the Abbey
Graves behind the east wall of the
Abbey with variations of a Celtic cross
and Photographs © Geoffrey Davies 2008-10 Contact firstname.lastname@example.org