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"As I can bear witness, the Welsh pay greater respect than any other people to their churches, to men in orders, the relics of the saints, holy books and the Cross itself"

Gerald of Wales, Descriptio Kambriae, 1194.

Wales had its own Christian tradition rooted in the early Celtic church. Monks lived in independent religious communities, clasau, led by influential abbots. Each monastery was different, some locally famous for their spiritual devotion, others as seats of learning.

Some Welsh traditions, like allowing abbots to marry or having hereditary positions in the church, shocked the Normans. The Norman clerics clamped down on these practices, while continental orders like the Benedictines and the Augustinians took over the local monasteries in the Marches. These orders favoured their own and the Welsh were excluded. Soon the Norman church was seen as one more invader to suffer or expel.

In the late 12th century, the Welsh princes found a religious order that suited them. The Cistercians were monks whose order was based in Burgundy, beyond the control of the English king. Their religious ideals of simplicity and devotion were close to those of the traditional Welsh church. By 1202, the Cistercians had spread from Whitland and Strata Florida in Deheubarth to Valle Crucis in Powys Fadog.

With generous princely patrons and no sons to divide the inheritance, the Cistercian monasteries soon built up huge estates. Aberconwy Abbey held over 40,000 acres. The monks developed large-scale sheep farming and their need for skilled craftsmen stimulated the Welsh economy.

The princes benefited also. The Abbeys provided a pool of educated clerks. They helped to further the political interests of their patrons by using the international network of the Church. Finally they provided a retirement home for even the most wordly of princes. Owain Cyfeiliog, a 12th century poet and warrior prince of Powys, retired from his princely duties and became a monk at Strata Marcella.

Valle Crucis - Cistercian abbey outside Llangollen, established by Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor, prince of Powys Fadog, in 1202.

CADW Crown Copyright

Reconstruction drawing of choir & presbytery inside Valle Crucis abbey.

T Ball, CADW. Crown Copyright

Decorated tiles from Strata Florida Abbey

RCAHMW. Crown Copyright.

The great door in Strata Florida Abbey. King John ordered the destruction of the abbey in 1212 as it "harbours our enemies."

RCAHMW. Crown Copyright.