“If Tintern abbey… what is it?” (say it aloud).
This is a quip of the late Terry Wogan, a much loved radio broadcaster who died last year. The correct answer is “Tis an abbey” or simply, “Tis.”
Tintern Abbey is more accurately a ruined abbey on the banks of the River Wye in Wales. It lies between Chepstow and Monmouth. Founded in 1131 by Walter de Clare, a member of the same powerful family who own the land of Clare Priory, it is the second Cistercian abbey in Britain to be founded and the first in Wales. I couldn’t do my tour of abbeys and cathedrals without dedicating my T post to it. I’ve visited it a few times and have fond memories of it across the years.
The location of the abbey was advantageous; it missed out on much of the Welsh uprisings that happened along the borders of England and Wales throughout the Middle Ages. The first church was superseded by a new one, which was funded by a major donation by the wealthy Lord Bigod of Chepstow. The ruins represent 400 years of constant building at Tintern when nearly everything, barring a few early structures, were rebuilt, including the cloisters and dormitories. The church itself took decades: 1268-1301.
Cistercians were one of the most successful orders of the Middle Ages and that success probably depended a great deal on patience. These days we expect buildings to go up overnight and organisations constantly change and re-invent themselves every few years. The monks of Cistercians abbey preferred the routine of each day to be the same. They rose at 1.30am and divided their day into eight periods of prayer and chanting, interspersed with work and study, plus two vegetarian meals. Only the sick or elderly were granted meat to eat.
Their church also reflected the partitioning of life with its divisions and cross walls. The aisles were walled off and the church divided into two sections – the nave for the lay brothers and the choir and presbytery (or chancel) for the monks. Within the presbytery were additional chapels lining the walls. The openness that the ruins present is misleading as the church was divided into chambers and bays.
By the late Middle Ages, the world around Tintern changed, and even this isolated place couldn’t escape the consequences. The Black Death plague wiped out a significant proportion of the population, possibly as much as a half. Out went the feudal system of service and in came employment with wages. The lay brothers, who were part of that feudal system within the monasteries, left to take up paid work. New recruits were thin on the ground. The granges (agricultural units) where the local people worked and provided services to the abbey were leased out to tenants.
Tintern abbey was one of 800 religious houses dismantled between 1536 and 1540, but perhaps the Dissolution came as a final straw for many monasteries who’d already lost much of their way of life due to social change. With a few exceptions, most monks took pensions and left.
Over the next 400 years, Tintern decayed. In the 18th Century, these shells of abbeys became fashionable to visit. The picturesque emptiness invoked the romantics to paint and write their poetry: William Wordsworth and Turner.
Now thankfully, Tintern is taken care of and hopefully will continue to stand for another 400 years – so it is an abbey still.