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Abbey Cwmhir

5 1/2m N of Llandrindod Wells, Powys, mid Wales
SO 055 711

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Photographs copyright © 2002 by Jeffrey L. Thomas except as noted.

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Williams 1985; Hermitage Day 1911; Radford 1982

The ruins of Abbey Cwmhir lie in the secluded valley of the Clywedog brook in a remote and delightfully scenic location typical of those chosen by the Cistercian order. The abbey's early history is somewhat obscure; an apparently unsuccessful attempt to found a 'daughter' house of Whitland was made in 1143, possibly on a site at Ty faenor, about a mile to the east. The permanent foundation, however, dates to 1176, probably under the patronage of Cadwallon ap Madog of Maelienydd, as this area of Powys was then called. The abbey's benefactors inevitably changed in its early years as Welsh and English fortunes in this border area fluctuated, although a period of stability under Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, together with his political ambitions in the area, may have provided the impetus for an ambitious 13th-century building program which was evidently left incomplete. Cwmhir eventually passed to the powerful Mortimers, who neglected it in favor of Wigmore Abbey; it never fully recovered from the damage inflicted in 1402 during the Glyndwr uprising.

There is a longstanding tradition that the body of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd (the Last) was buried at the abbey after his death near Builth in 1282; a modern slab has been placed at the east end to commemorate this. The only surviving memorial from the site is a tombstone or coffin lid, now in the churchyard, inscribed: Here lies Mabli to whose soul may God be merciful.

The ruined walls of the church, all that now remains visible of the abbey, are tucked into the base of a slope below the road. The church, and other parts of the site, were extensively excavated at intervals during the 19th century, confirming Leland's 16th-century assertion that 'the third part of the work was never finished'. Though the remains are slight, what immediately strikes the eye is the exceptional length of the 14-bay nave, designed, again, according to Leland, for 60 monks. The abbey was probably well below this ambitious quota for most of its life, and by the dissolution in 1536, only three monks remained. The nave and the side aisles, part of the 13th-century scheme, superseded an earlier church which probably occupied only the eastern part of the south aisle, with transepts a little to the west of the later line. The eastern end of the new church was never completed beyond the western wall of the crossing and transepts, the central arch of which was blocked; the high alter, choir and space for lay brethren were all fitted into the nave. After the 1402 attack, it is probable that only the easternmost five bays, containing the choir and high alter, were regularly used.

Even after the dissolution, the site enjoyed a chequered history. In 1565 it passed to the Fowler family, and in 1644, during the Civil War, the occupied monastic buildings were besieged and captured by Parliamentarian forces under Sir Thomas Myddelton. After this, they were apparently dismantled or abandoned; the Fowlers moved to Ty faenor. The mound south-west of the church may be a spoil heap from the excavations adapted as a landscape feature.

Below: memorial slab of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd at Abbey Cwmhir







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Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas