Tintern Abbey

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Tintern Abbey
Native name
Welsh: Abaty Tyndyrn
Tintern Abbey and Courtyard.jpg
LocationTintern, Monmouthshire
Coordinates51°41′49″N 2°40′37″W / 51.697°N 2.677°W / 51.697; -2.677Coordinates: 51°41′49″N 2°40′37″W / 51.697°N 2.677°W / 51.697; -2.677
Governing bodyCadw
Listed Building – Grade I
Official name: Abbey Church of St Mary (Tintern Abbey) including monastic buildings
Designated29 September 2000
Reference no.24037
Official name: Tintern Abbey inner precinct
Reference no.MM102
Official name: Tintern Abbey watergate
Designated15 July 1998
Reference no.MM265
Official name: Tintern Abbey precinct wall
Reference no.MM157
Tintern Abbey is located in Monmouthshire
Tintern Abbey
Location of Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire

Tintern Abbey (Welsh: Abaty Tyndyrn About this soundpronunciation ) was founded on 9 May 1131 by Walter de Clare, Lord of Chepstow. It is situated adjacent to the village of Tintern in Monmouthshire, on the Welsh bank of the River Wye, which at this location forms the border between Monmouthshire in Wales and Gloucestershire in England, it was the first Cistercian foundation in Wales, and only the second in Britain (after Waverley Abbey).

The abbey fell into ruin after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, its remains have been celebrated in poetry and painting from the 18th century onwards. In 1984, Cadw took over responsibility for managing the site. Tintern Abbey is visited by approximately 70,000 people every year.[1]


Earliest history[edit]

The Monmouthshire writer Fred Hando records the tradition of Tewdrig, King of Glywysing who retired to a hermitage above the river at Tintern, emerging to lead his son's army to victory against the Saxons at Pont-y-Saeson, a battle in which he was killed.[2]

Cistercian foundations[edit]

The Cistercian Order was founded in 1098 at the abbey of Cîteaux. A breakaway faction of the Benedictines, the Cistercians sought to re-establish observance of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Considered the strictest of the monastic orders, they laid down requirements for the construction of their abbeys, stipulating that "none of our houses is to be built in cities, in castles or villages; but in places remote from the conversation of men. Let there be no towers of stone for bells, nor of wood of an immoderate height, which are unsuited to the simplicity of the order";[3] the Cistercians also developed an approach to the Benedictine requirement for a dual commitment to pray and work that saw the evolving of a dual community, the monks and the lay brothers, illiterate workers who contributed to the life of the abbey and to the worship of God through manual labour.[4] The order proved exceptionally successful and by 1151, five hundred Cistercian houses had been founded in Europe;[5] the Carta Caritatis (Charter of Love) laid out their basic principles, of obedience, poverty, chastity, silence, prayer, and work. With this austere way of life, the Cistercians were one of the most successful orders in the 12th and 13th centuries; the lands of the Abbey were divided into agricultural units or granges, on which local people worked and provided services such as smithies to the Abbey.

William Giffard, Bishop of Winchester introduced the first colony of Cistercian monks to England at Waverley, Surrey, in 1128, his first cousin, Walter de Clare, of the powerful family of Clare, established the second Cistercian house in Britain, and the first in Wales, at Tintern in 1131.[6] The Tintern monks came from a daughter house of Cîteaux, L'Aumône Abbey, in the diocese of Chartres in France.[7] In time, Tintern established two daughter houses, Kingswood in Gloucestershire (1139) and Tintern Parva, west of Wexford in southeast Ireland (1203).

First and second abbeys: 1131–1536[edit]

The present-day remains of Tintern are a mixture of building works covering a 400-year period between 1131 and 1536. Very little of the first buildings still survive today; a few sections of walling are incorporated into later buildings and the two recessed cupboards for books on the east of the cloisters are from this period; the church of that time was smaller than the present building, and slightly to the north.

Tintern Abbey, interior

The Abbey was mostly rebuilt during the 13th century, starting with the cloisters and domestic ranges, and finally the great church between 1269 and 1301; the first mass in the rebuilt presbytery was recorded to have taken place in 1288, and the building was consecrated in 1301, although building work continued for several decades.[8] Roger Bigod, 5th Earl of Norfolk, the then lord of Chepstow, was a generous benefactor; his monumental undertaking was the rebuilding of the church;[9] the earl's coat of arms was included in the glasswork of the Abbey's east window in recognition of his contribution.

It is this great Decorated Gothic abbey church that can be seen today, representing the architectural developments of its period; it has a cruciform plan with an aisled nave, two chapels in each transept, and a square-ended aisled chancel; the abbey is built of Old Red Sandstone, with colours varying from purple to buff and grey. Its total length from east to west is 228 feet, while the transept is 150 feet in length.[10]

King Edward II stayed at Tintern for two nights in 1326; when the Black Death swept the country in 1349, it became impossible to attract new recruits for the lay brotherhood; during this period, the granges were more likely to be tenanted out than worked by lay brothers, evidence of Tintern's labour shortage. In the early 15th century, Tintern was short of money, due in part to the effects of the Welsh uprising under Owain Glyndŵr against the English kings, when abbey properties were destroyed by the Welsh rebels; the closest battle to Tintern Abbey was at Craig-y-dorth near Monmouth, between Trellech and Mitchel Troy.

Dissolution and ruin[edit]

The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window by J. M. W. Turner, 1794

In the reign of King Henry VIII, his Dissolution of the Monasteries ended monastic life in England, Wales and Ireland. On 3 September 1536, Abbot Wych surrendered Tintern Abbey and all its estates to the King's visitors and ended a way of life that had lasted 400 years. Valuables from the Abbey were sent to the royal Treasury and Abbot Wych was pensioned off; the building was granted to the then lord of Chepstow, Henry Somerset, 2nd Earl of Worcester. Lead from the roof was sold and the decay of the buildings began.

Architecture and description[edit]


The west front of the church, with its seven-light Decorated window, was completed around 1300.[11]


The nave is of six bays, and originally had arcades to both the northern and southern sides.[12]

Monks' choir and presbytery[edit]

The presbytery is of four bays, with a great east window, originally of eight lights. Almost all of the tracery, with the exception of the central column and the mullion above is gone.[13]


The cloister retains its original width, but its length was extended in the 13th century rebuilding, creating a near square.[14]

Book room and Sacristy[edit]

The Book room parallels the sacristy and both were created at the very end of the construction period of the second abbey, around 1300.[15]

Chapter house[edit]

The chapter house was the place for daily gatherings of the monks, to discuss non-religious abbey business, make confession and listen to a reading from the Book of Rules.[16]

Monks' dormitory and latrine[edit]

The monks' dormitory occupied almost the entirety of the upper storey of the east range;[17] the latrines were double-storeyed, with access both from the dormitory and from the day-room below.[17]


The refectory dates from the early 13th century, and is a replacement for an earlier hall.[18]


Little of the Kitchen, which served both the monks' refectory, and the lay brothers' dining hall, remains.[19]

Lay brothers' dormitory[edit]

The dormitory was sited above the lay brothers' refectory but has been completely destroyed.[19]


The infirmary, 107 ft long and 54 ft wide, housed both sick and elderly monks in cubicles in the aisles; the cubicles were originally open to the hall but were enclosed in the 15th century when each recess was provided with a fireplace.[20]

Abbot's residence[edit]

The abbot's lodgings date from two periods, its origins in the early 13th century, and with a major expansion in the late 14th century.[21]


The nearby Anchor Inn incorporates part of the watergate arch which gave access to the Wye.[22][23]


In the two centuries after the abbey's dissolution, little or no interest was shown in the history of the site; the area adjacent to the abbey became industrialised from the mid-16th century with the setting up of the first wireworks by the Company of Mineral and Battery Works and the later expansion of factories and furnaces up the Angidy valley. Charcoal was made in the woods to feed these operations and, in addition, the hillside above the Abbey was quarried for the making of lime at a kiln in constant operation for some two centuries;[24] the site was in consequence subject to a degree of pollution[25] and the ruins themselves were inhabited by the local workers. J.T.Barber, for example, remarked on “passing the works of an iron foundry and a train of miserable cottages engrafted on the offices of the Abbey” on his approach.[26]

Not all visitors to the abbey ruins were shocked by the intrusion of industry, however. Joseph Cottle and Robert Southey set out to view the ironworks at midnight on their 1795 tour,[27] while others painted or sketched them during the following years.[28] A 1799 print of the Abbey by Edward Dayes includes the boat-landing near the ruins and some of the encroaching housing. In the background above are the cliffs of a lime quarry and smoke rising from the kiln (see the Gallery). Though Philip James de Loutherbourg’s 1805 painting of the ruins does not include the intrusive buildings commented on by others, it makes their inhabitants and animals a prominent feature. Even William Havell’s panorama of the valley from the south pictures smoke rising in the distance, much as Wordsworth had noted five years before “wreathes of smoke sent up in silence from among the trees” in his description of the scene.[29]


In the mid-18th century it became fashionable to visit "wilder" parts of the country; the Wye Valley in particular was well known for its romantic and picturesque qualities and the ivy clad Abbey became frequented by tourists. One of the earliest prints of the Abbey was in the series of engravings of historical sites made in 1732 by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck.[30] After the publication of the book Observations on the River Wye by the Reverend William Gilpin following his 1770 tour,[31] visitors greatly increased, a fact evidenced both by the number of poetic descriptions and of atmospheric paintings and prints of the site.

The WVR branch line bridge to the wire works

Until the 19th century, the local roads were rough and dangerous and the easiest access to the site was by boat. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, while trying to reach Tintern from Chepstow on a tour with friends in 1795, almost rode his horse over the edge of a quarry when they became lost in the dark,[32] it was not until 1829 that the new Wye Valley turnpike was completed, cutting through the abbey precinct.[33] In 1876 the Wye Valley Railway opened a station for Tintern. Although the line itself crossed the river before reaching the village, a branch was built from it to the wire works, obstructing the view of the Abbey on the road approach from the north.

Interior of Tintern Abbey 1858/1862 by Roger Fenton

20th and 21st centuries[edit]

Ruined abbeys became a focus for scholars in the 20th century, and they commenced a program of architectural and archaeological investigations. In 1901, Tintern Abbey was bought by the Crown from the Duke of Beaufort for £15,000. Recognised as a monument of national importance, repair and maintenance works began to be carried out on the Abbey. In 1914, responsibility for the ruins was passed to the Office of Works, who undertook major structural repairs and partial reconstructions (including removal of the ivy considered so romantic by the early tourists).

In 1984, Cadw took over responsibility for the site, which was Grade I listed from 29 September 2000;[34] the arch of the Abbey's watergate, which led from the Abbey to the River Wye, was Grade II listed from the same date.[35]

The Abbey is the setting for both the 1969 Flirtations music video Nothing But A Heartache[36] and the 1988 Iron Maiden video Can I Play with Madness.



A dedicatory letter at the start of Gilpin's work is addressed to the poet William Mason and mentions a similar tour made in 1771 by the poet Thomas Gray. Neither of those dedicated a poem to the Abbey, but it appeared in the work of a number of others, including Rev. Dr. Syned Davies’ long “Describing a Voyage to Tintern Abbey, in Monmouthshire, from Whitminster in Gloucestershire”, which was made by boat with a party of others as early as 1745.[37] Another topographical work, the six-canto Chepstow; or, A new guide to gentlemen and ladies whose curiosity leads them to visit Chepstow: Piercefield-walks, Tintern-abbey, and the beautiful romantic banks of the Wye, from Tintern to Chepstow by water, was published from Bristol in 1786.[38] There was also the “Poetical description of Tintern Abbey” by the parson poet Rev. Duncomb Davis, who lived locally and furnished it with many historical and topical discursions, including the method of iron-making that took place adjacent to the site;[39] this appeared in two guide books, the most popular of which was Charles Heath's Historical and Descriptive Accounts of the Ancient and Present State of Tintern Abbey, that went through many editions from 1793 onwards.[40]

William Wordsworth's poem "Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey, on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13, 1798", is often linked with the Abbey, although it does not actually mention the ruins.[41] Instead, it recalls an earlier visit five years before and comments on the beneficial internalisation of that memory.[42] Following a similar walking tour with friends, Robert Bloomfield also dedicated a long poem to “The Banks of the Wye” (1811) in which the Abbey is only mentioned briefly as one of many items on the way.[43] However, that was followed in 1825 by yet another long poem dealing with the area, annotated and in four books, by Edward Collins: Tintern Abbey or the Beauties of Piercefield (1825).[44]

Edward Jerningham’s earlier short lyric, “Tintern Abbey”, written in 1796, followed Gilpin, whom he quoted, in commenting on the mournful lesson of the past.[45] Two poems of about that time also moralised on a visit to the ruins. Edmund Gardner, in his “Sonnet written in Tintern Abbey”, concludes with the line that 'Man's but a temple of a shorter date',[46] while Luke Booker, in his “Original sonnet composed on leaving Tintern Abbey and proceeding with a party of friends down the River Wye to Chepstow”, hopes at death to sail as peacefully to the 'eternal Ocean'.[47] Richard Monckton Milnes' sonnet on “Tintern Abbey” dates from 1840,[48] it is also known that Tennyson's “Tears, Idle Tears” (1847) was composed on a visit, but no mention of the Abbey appears there and the poem refers to personal feelings.[49]

An aquatint of the Abbey from Gilpin's Observations on the River Wye

In 1816, the abbey was made the backdrop to Sophia F. Ziegenhirt's three-volume novel of Gothic horror, The Orphan of Tintern Abbey,[50] which begins with a description of the abbey as seen on a sailing tour down the Wye from Ross to Chepstow, her work was dismissed by The Monthly Review as “of the most ordinary class, in which the construction of the sentences and that of the story are equally confused.”[51] In a much more successful novel published two years earlier, Jane Austen described the decorations of Fanny Price's sitting room at Mansfield Park that included three fashionable transparencies, one of which featured the Abbey.[52]

American poet Allen Ginsberg took an acid trip at Tintern Abbey on 28 July 1967, and wrote his poem "Wales Visitation" as a result. In the poem he wrote of:[53][54]

...the lambs on the tree-nooked hillside this day bleating
heard in Blake's old ear, & the silent thought of Wordsworth in eld Stillness
clouds passing through skeleton arches of Tintern Abbey—
Bard Nameless as the Vast, babble to Vastness!


Gilpin's work on the Wye dealt not simply with the picturesque as a pictorial quality but with the added appeal of Gothic associations, as in the case of Tintern Abbey;[55] the visiting artists Francis Towne (1777),[56] Thomas Gainsborough (1782),[57] Thomas Girtin (1793),[58] and J.M.W. Turner in the 1794–95 series now at the Tate[59] and the British Museum, depicted details of the Abbey's stonework.[60][61] So did Samuel Palmer (see Gallery) and Thomas Creswick in the 19th century.[62][63]

Charles Heath, in his 1793 guide, commented on the picturesque quality of light in the "inimitable" effect of the harvest moon shining through the main window.[64] Once the railway arrived in 1876, steam excursions to the site were organised in the 1880s to Tintern station at that season to view the moon through the rose window.[65] Decades earlier, Peter van Lerberghe's interior of 1812, with its tourist guides[66] carrying burning torches, showed the abbey lit by these and by moonlight (see Gallery). Paintings of the abbey at a distance include John Warwick Smith’s 1779 moonlit scene of the ruins,[67] sunsets by Samuel Palmer[68] and Benjamin Williams Leader,[69] and the later colour study by Turner in which the building appears as what Matthew Imms describes as a "dark shape at the centre" beneath slanting sunlight (see Gallery).[70][71]



  1. ^ "Wales Visitor Attractions Survey 2015" (PDF). Welsh Government.
  2. ^ Hando 1952, pp. 55-56.
  3. ^ Brakspear 1910, p. 1.
  4. ^ Robinson 2006, p. 8.
  5. ^ Brakspear 1910, p. 3.
  6. ^ Robinson 2011, p. 5.
  7. ^ Round, J. H. (2004). "Clare, Walter de (d. 1137/8?)". In Hollister, C. Warren (ed.). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.[ISBN missing]
  8. ^ Newman 2000, p. 537.
  9. ^ Clark 1979, p. 90.
  10. ^ "Kelly's Directory of Monmouthshire, 1901". RootsWeb. Retrieved 3 November 2015.
  11. ^ Robinson 2002, p. 40.
  12. ^ Bulmer 1986, p. 10.
  13. ^ Brakspear 1910, p. 10.
  14. ^ Newman 2000, p. 549.
  15. ^ Newman 2000, p. 550.
  16. ^ Brakspear 1910, p. 27.
  17. ^ a b Robinson 2002, p. 54.
  18. ^ Craster 1964, p. 19.
  19. ^ a b Newman 2000, p. 553.
  20. ^ Craster 1964, p. 22.
  21. ^ Newman 2000, pp. 554-555.
  22. ^ fotolibra.com (showing the Abbey watergate attached to the Anchor Inn). "The Anchor Inn Tintern Wye Valley Wales". Fotolibra. Retrieved 23 November 2017.
  23. ^ visitmonmouthshire.com (mentions the Abbey watergate). "The Anchor Inn". Visit Monmouthshire. Retrieved 23 November 2017.
  24. ^ Wye-Dean Tourism (exact ref not found) Accessed 7 October 2017
  25. ^ Charles J. Rzepka, Inventions and Interventions, ch.14, pp.189–222
  26. ^ .” J.T.Barber, A tour throughout South Wales and Monmouthshire, London 1803 p.266
  27. ^ Joseph Cottle, Early Recollections pp.50–1
  28. ^ See the 1798 print of “Iron Mills, A View near Tintern Abbey" belonging to the National Library of Wales and James Ward’s 1807 sketch of “Mr Thompson’s Wire Mill, Tintern” at the Yale Center for British Art
  29. ^ ”Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey”, lines 18–19
  30. ^ Tintern Conservation Area survey, p.13
  31. ^ Gilpin, William, 1724-1804: "Observations on the river Wye, and several parts of South Wales, etc. : relative chiefly to picturesque beauty: made in the summer of the year 1770." Archived online Accessed 28 September 2017
  32. ^ Joseph Cottle, Early recollections: chiefly relating to the late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, London 1837, pp.43–50
  33. ^ Cadw, Lower Wye Valley
  34. ^ "Abbey Church of St Mary (Tintern Abbey) including monastic buildings – Tintern – Monmouthshire – Wales". British Listed Buildings. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  35. ^ "The Anchor P H including the Watergate, Tintern". British Listed Buildings. Retrieved 2 March 2017.
  36. ^ "Nothing But A Heartache" by The Flirtations at Song Facts Accessed 7 October 2017
  37. ^ "EPISTLE IV. Describing a Voyage to Tintern Abbey, in Monmouthshire, from Whitminster in Gloucestershire. By Syned Davies, D. D. (1789)". University of Michigan Library. Retrieved 2 March 2019.
  38. ^ William Pine, 1786: "Chepstow; Or, A New Guide to Gentlemen and Ladies Whose Curiosity Leads Them to Visit Chepstow: Piercefield-walks, Tintern-abbey, etc." Google Books Accessed 28 September 2017
  39. ^ "Poetical Description of Tintern Abbey. By [Rev. Duncomb] Davis (1803)". University of Michigan Library. Retrieved 2 March 2019.
  40. ^ Charles Heath: "Historical and Descriptive Accounts of the Ancient and Present State of Tintern Abbey" in “THE LANGUAGE OF THE SENSE” Poetical Tintern at lib.umich.edu University of Michigan Accessed 28 September 2017
  41. ^ Deborah Kennedy, "Wordsworth, Turner, and the Power of Tintern Abbey", Wordsworth Circle, Spring 2002
  42. ^ Gilpin, William, Observations on the river Wye, and several parts of South Wales, Page 46: Online text at rc.umd.edu Accessed 1 October 2017
  43. ^ Robert Bloomfield: The Banks of Wye: Poem Text II.65–88 Accessed 1 October 2017
  44. ^ Edward Collins "Tintern Abbey: or, The beauties of Piercefield: a poem: in four books: interspersed with illustrative notes" at University of Toronto Accessed 7 October 2017
  45. ^ Edward Jerningham “Tintern Abbey” in Poems and Plays, Vol.2, p.135 at Google Books Accessed 7 October 2017
  46. ^ Edmund Gardner, “Sonnet written in Tintern Abbey”: The sonnet originally appeared pseudonymously, accompanying a similarly moralising sonnet on the Severn in The European Magazine vol.30, p.119 at Google Books Accessed 7 October 2017
  47. ^ Booker's sonnet appeared in Charles Heath’s guide to Tintern Abbey
  48. ^ Richard Monckton Milnes: "Poetry for the People", p.87 “Tintern Abbey” Accessed 7 October 2017
  49. ^ James Gribble, Literary Education: a revaluation, Cambridge University 1983, pp.58–61
  50. ^ in three volumes
  51. ^ Sophia F. Ziegenhirt "The Orphan of Tintern Abbey" The Monthly Review, Or, Literary Journal Vol.79, p.439 at Google Books Accessed 7 October 2017
  52. ^ Jane Austen: "Mansfield Park" Standard novels edition, London 1833, p.135, at Google Books Accessed 7 October 2017
  53. ^ Ginsberg: A biography by Barry Miles, Virgin Publishing 2000 p394
  54. ^ Allan Ginsburg's 'Wales Visitation' 2010-01-31, accessed 2012-01-01
  55. ^ William Gilpin, Observations on the Rivery Wye, London 1882, p.47
  56. ^ Francis Towne "The West Front of Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire", at Christies Accessed 9 October 2017
  57. ^ Thomas Gainsborough: "Tintern Abbey" 1782, at Tate Gallery Accessed 9 October 2017
  58. ^ Thomas Girtin: "Interior of Tintern Abbey looking toward the West Window", at Art Renewal Center Accessed 9 October 2017
  59. ^ J.M.W. Turner: "Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window" (detail) at Iconeye Accessed 9 October 2017
  60. ^ "J.M.W. Turner, Tintern Abbey, the transept, a watercolour". British Museum. Archived from the original on 4 April 2015.
  61. ^ J.M.W. Turner: Tintern Abbey, west front; the ruined abbey, overgrown with grass and bushes... British Museum, Collection online Accessed 14 October 2017
  62. ^ BBC Arts Archived 2015-07-16 at the Wayback Machine
  63. ^ Thomas Creswick (1811–1869) "Part of the Ruins of Tintern Abbey" Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council, at artuk.org Accessed 14 October 2017
  64. ^ Charles Heath, Historical and Descriptive Accounts of the Ancient and Present State of Tintern Abbey, Monmouth, p.91
  65. ^ Wye Valley, Old Station Tintern - history, at overlookingthewye.org.uk Accessed 7 October 2017
  66. ^ C.S.Matheson, "I wanted some intelligent guide", Romanticism, p.38
  67. ^ John Warwick Smith - moonlit scene of the ruins - at the Metropolitan Museum Accessed 7 October 2017
  68. ^ Samuel Palmer - "Tintern Abbey at Sunset" at Wikimedia Accessed 7 October 2017
  69. ^ Benjamin Williams Leader "Tintern Abbey" at Wikimedia Accessed 7 October 2017
  70. ^ Matthew Imms, "Tintern Abbey from the River Wye c.1828 by Joseph Mallord William Turner", catalogue entry, March 2013, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2013 Accessed 7 October 2017
  71. ^ Sandra Gibson, review of the 2012 Turner, Monet, Twombly exhibition at Tate Liverpool, Catalyst Media


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