Abergavenny Local History Society
Charity Number 1098582
Professor David Austin’s talk on April 28th is available to members via Zoom
Before the Reformation, Ystrad Fflur, as it was known in Welsh, was a great Cistercian monastery. Moreover, this isolated valley near Tregaron in Ceredigion had been spiritually important to the Celts for thousands of years. Helen Morgan reports:
A longer history of the area shows narratives stretching into prehistory that then continue as a story of Welsh estates and farming communities until the present. The Cistercians, whose movement spread like a tidal wave across western Europe in the early Middle Ages, chose the location in the Cambrian Mountains to worship and contemplate God because of its solitude. But it is probable that a monastery was here even before the Normans. It was also a particularly sacred piece of landscape in the Bronze Age as a place of special veneration. With a running stream, fed by nearby springs, the abbey grounds are still a place with spiritual presence, says the archaeologist Professor David Austin.
Here the white-robed Cistercians farmed the land for agriculture as well as exploiting the mineral wealth of the mountains. Traces of this lie all around the site, including woodland planted by the monks. Their most enduring legacy was, however, the part they played in immortalising the ancient culture of Wales, its myths, traditions, history and literature — on vellum and in the Welsh language. Following its consecration in 1201, Strata Florida became the most famous church in Wales after St David’s.
Archaeological work, still continuing, has not only revealed the medieval layout, but revolutionised ideas of what might have happened here.
Evidence is emerging that the abbey was built on the footprint of an ancient Celtic place of worship with holy springs. Thousands of years ago, this site was probably the biggest in the whole of Britain, says Prof Austin. “We knew that the site was big, but our excavations with the help of students from Lampeter soon revealed that the site was even larger than we had thought. This poses the question: why was it so vast, and why did Lord Rhys move the original wooden Norman site several miles to its later site in 1184? This seems to change our ideas about the history of Wales. We think that Lord Rhys intended Strata Florida to be a political centre for the Welsh state that could stand up to the English. And, for 20 years, that vision became real.”