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Strata Florida

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.

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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 circumstances:-

“O tree of yew, which here I spy, 

By Ystrad Flur’s blest monast’ry, 

Beneath thee lies, by cold Death bound, 

The tongue for sweetness once renown’d. 

Better for thee thy boughs to wave, 

Though scath’d, above Ab Gwilym’s grave, 

Than stand in pristine glory drest 

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 Gwilym

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

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Site and Photographs © Geoffrey Davies 2008-10  Contact info@enchantedtowy.co.uk