-The Mysteries of Cwmhir Abbey, a Brief History
1. Cadwallon ap Madog, Founder
The founding of the Abbey of Cwmhir was part of the extraordinary expansion of the Cistercian Order inspired by St Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12thC. It was founded by the Welsh Lords of Maelienydd (Radnorshire) descended from the house of Elystan Glodrydd which ruled the area between the Severn and the Wye – Rhwng Gwye a Hafren. One of the many mysteries of Abbey Cwmhir is that one of the earliest Cistercian historians1 of the 16thC gives two dates for its founding, 1143 & 1176. Both are championed today although most specialists prefer 1176 when the powerful “King” or Rex d’Elfael, Cadwallon ap Madoc2 was ruler.
But the present ruins are from a building from after his murder in 1179 so another mystery is whether there was an earlier building as some archaeological evidence may suggest3. Yet another is, who commissioned it? Roger Mortimer gave a huge grant of land to the Abbey in 1200 but the Charter (found on lampshade parchment in 19564) does not mention a building. After his death in 1215 Llywelyn Fawr of Gwynedd controlled the area and it has been suggested that he built Cwnhir as a suitable Cathedral in the centre of Wales to have his son Daffyd crowned as Prince of Wales in 12385.
It was certainly suitable for a Royal ceremony as the nave was judged to be “sumptuous”6 and was longer than Westminster Abbey or any other medieval Cistercian Abbey from Scandinavia to Syria. If it wasn’t Llywelyn Fawr who built it, then who, and why so ambitious? This is the central mystery of Abbey Cwmhir.
But not the end of its association with the Royal House of Gwynedd as Llywelyn’s grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffud, the only Welsh Prince of Wales to be acknowledged by the King of England, and the last, may have been buried here. Certainly the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time thought so - Myth or reality? Another mystery to be resolved? Today his death is remembered by a Religious Service in the Remains on the Sunday closest to the day of his death December 11th 1282.
Henry III came to the door of the Abbey to burn it down but was distracted by a payment of 300 marks, the money set aside to build the East End. After the Black Death, Owen Glyndwr, self proclaimed Prince of Wales, apparently “spoiled and defaced” the Abbey and in the Civil War, when the property was owned by a Cavalier, there was a skirmish which resulted in the Parliamentarians winning – the owner changed sides and continued in public office.
After Henry VIII demanded that all Abbey Churches in England and Wales be destroyed at the Dissolution in 1536, Cwmhir’s other buildings land came into the hands of private owners who improved the estate, built themselves large houses (often using stone from the Abbey’s buildings and the Church) and used the ruins as part of their gardens.
Since then many people have lived in the shelter of the Abbey remains, we know about the estate owners but the majority of people’s history is largely unrecorded. This is about to change.
Today it is a much loved peaceful location in the deep wooded sides of the long valley with a Cadw exhibition room supported by the Abbey Cwmhir Heritage Trust, one of the most interesting history societies in the area playing an active part in research work to do with the history of the Abbey, its archaeology and its place in the national heritage of Wales. We are planning a major 3 year community led heritage project to investigate the Abbey.
2. Paul Remfry, “Cadwallon ap Madoc Rex Delvain, (1140-7) and the re-establishment of local autonomy in Cynllibwg” TRS 1995 P 11.
3 Stephen Williams FSA “The Cistercian Abbey of Cwmhir, Radnorshire” Cymmrodorion Society Trabsactions 1894-5 pp 58-110
4 BG Charles “An Early Charter of the Abbey of Cwmhir” Transactions of the Radnorshire Society (TRS 1970)
5. Raleigh-Radford “The Cistercian Abbey of Cwmhir in Radnorshire” Archaeologica Cambrensis Vol CXXXI (1982)
6. John Leland “The Itinerary in Wales in or about 1536-92” Ed.Lucy T. Smith. (1906)
1. Cadwallon ap Madog Rex
The area between the rivers Wye and Severn was the ancient kingdom called Cynllibiwg that is the land of St Cynllo, the Patron Saint of Llanbister and Nantmel. This is roughly the area that Cadwallon eventually controlled.
In Henry I's reign this area had been under the aegis of the English king; under his nephew King Stephen there was a civil war with Henry's daughter, Matilda, from 1135 to 1154 and this meant that the royal power in Cynllibiwg weakened.
Madog, Cadwallon's father, took advantage of this lack of control and extended his holdings south from Ceri. He died in 1140 and his sons took over; Einion Clud took Elfael in the south of what is now Radnorshire and Cadwallon the larger area of Maelienydd. There may have been some tentative plans to establish a monastic house during Madog's reign because there are mentions of the Abbey foundation in 1143*. But possibly Cadwallon did not feel stable enough to encourage this.
Henry II came to the English throne in 1154. Like his grandfather he was a strong ruler. After pacifying England he led an expedition into North Wales in 1157: he was assisted by several rulers from Powys. In 1163 he led an attack along the South Wales coastlands. On the way back he made his way through Cwmdeuddwr and then through southern Gwrtheyrnion and apparently had a safe conduct through Maelienydd and Elfael.
Cadwallon since his accession had been enlarging his influence over Elfael (by arresting his brother and handing him over to Owain Gwynedd) and also over Gwrtheyrnion and was approaching the Wye along the bank opposite Builth. Henry II obviously was not worried by these incursions; perhaps he felt that Mid Wales could be left to a friendly Welsh ruler (as he had organised with Rhys ap Gruffydd in the South West and Owain Gwynedd). Indeed Cadwallon, Rhys and Owain were the only rulers to be known as regulus, rex, king. Cadwallon was invited to Conferences in Gloucester (1175) and Oxford (1179). He was obviously a well regarded client ruler. His neighbours to the east in the Marches must have been warned off attacking and trying to infiltrate; not so his northern and western compatriots.
To safeguard his borders Cadwallon was building castles and in 1176 the Abbey of Cwmhir was granted lands, partly to provide it with income and more importantly to protect the boundary of his kingdom. To attack Church land was to come under ecclesiastical law which was different from the law of the land and much to be feared. We don't have copies of the original charters but these grants were confirmed by King John for Cadwallon’s grandsons and later in 1132 by Henry III.
In 1177 Einion Clud, who had been released and given a pension by the King (possibly to keep Cadwallon occupied) was murdered on his way back from Rhys ap Gruffydd's Christmas Eisteddfod in Cardigan Cadwallon was the main benefactor of his brother’s demise he seized his lands and was referred to as King of Elfael.
In 1179 Cadwallon was called to the King's Court to answer for some charge; could this have been made by Einion's sons? There was no fine or other punishment perhaps because of Cadwallon's friendly relations with the King but on the way home he was attacked and killed, by Einion's sons with Roger Mortimer's forces? The King reacted promptly Roger Mortimer was imprisoned and others were heavily fined.
In the elegy written by the well known bard, Cynddelw, while praising Cadwallon's bravery and success in battles he does nor mention the foundation of the Abbey or the fact that he
supported Gerald Cambrensis in keeping Mid Wales in the See of St David's which may have been politically motivated but greatly increased the power of the Church and would have also increased his own importance.
Cadwallon was an important ruler for 39 years and brought peace and stability to the Welsh kingdom of Cynllibiwg but this did not continue for long under his and Einion's
sons who soon succumbed to the overlordship of Norman Marcher Lord, Roger Mortimer.
The fact that Cadwallon’s name is not mentioned in any charter or subsequent deeds of the Abbey remains something of a mystery. One reason may be that when, a few years later (1200) Roger Mortimer made his bequest to the Abbey (the charter was discovered in 1956 by someone looking for vellum to make a lamp shade!) he excluded all reference to previous Welsh grants for political reasons. Another reason may be that his descendant, Maredudd ap Maelgwyn ap Cadwallon ap Madog who had regained control of the area did exactly the same thing. Only his name occurs as the giver in the Confirmation of King John of 1215.
Without any doubt the most likely reason we can't find a charter is that it had been lost or accidentally destroyed - consider the circumstances in which the other charter was discovered in 1956.
Earliest Record of Cadwallon being the founder of the abbey. (146 years after)
Calendar of Ancient Petitions (40) N0.1972 c. 1322-1323 (Ed. William Rees UW 1975)
“THE ABBOT AND CONVENT OF COMHIRE (CWMHIR) TO THE KING & COUNCIL:
They have had by the gift and foundation of Cadwallan ap Madauk (Madoc) and other lords formerly of Mallenyth (Maelienydd), their lands, woods, wastes and pastures in Mellenyth, with all commodities and franchises, in pure and perpetual alms and freely, without disturbance; which gifts and foundations were confirmed by former Kings of England and by the King himself, but Roger de Mortimer.....”
Geraldus Cambrensis, who was helped by Cadwallon ap Madog several times and you might think would be in his debt, claims in his Speculum Ecclesiae, that his own half brother Robert fitz Stephan founded Cwmhir. He was active and had possessions in Ireland but there is no information to indicate that he had possessions in Maelienydd at any time. He died in about 1182.
*Jongelinus,(Dutch Cistercian Abbot) 'Notitia Abbatiarum Ordinis Cisterciensis
(published 1540 -397 years later but closest known.
- Remry, Paul Cadwallon ap Madog Rex Delvain, 1140-1179 and the Re-Establishment of local automony in Cynllibiwg. (Rhwng Gwy a Hafren) (Radnorshire Transactions 1995 p 11).
- Remfry, Paul Political History of Abbeycwmhir (Castle Books 2004) .