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Destroying an abbey, creating an icon

Phil Carradice

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The date 3 September might not be one that is immediately recognisable, at least not to most people, but it is a significant one, both in the history of Wales and in the subsequent development of 19th century tourism.

On 3 September 1536 the great abbey at Tintern on the Welsh bank of the River Wye was dissolved by the commissioners of Henry VIII.

The destruction of the abbey was part of Henry's dissolution of the monasteries following his break from Rome. It was also part of an enormous money-making scheme that brought wealth and land to the monarchy.

Tintern Abbey © Pam Brophy, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons licence

Tintern Abbey had been founded by Walter de Clare in May 1131, the first Cistercian establishment in Wales and only the second in the whole of Britain. In the years after its foundation the abbey prospered, benefiting enormously from endowments of land in Gloucestershire and Gwent. The lords of nearby Chepstow were particularly generous benefactors, especially Roger Bigod III.

Bigod was the man who undertook much of the rebuilding of the abbey church in the late 13th century and, while he undoubtedly believed that he would reap his rewards when he entered through the gates of heaven, he was also graced with the earthly benefit of having his coat of arms enshrined in the glass of the eastern window of the church.

Tintern was not a large establishment, at least not when compared to other monastic foundations of the middle ages and there were probably fewer than 400 monks in the monastery at any particular time, all worshipping and carrying out good deeds in the immediate vicinity.

The monks of Tintern, like those throughout Britain, suffered grievously when the Black Death hit the country in 1349. These were the men who tended to the plague victims, with little thought to their own safety, and of course they died in their hundreds.

Tintern's crowning glory is undoubtedly the great church which Bigod built between 1269 and 1301. But there were also cloisters and other buildings grouped around the site. In the f14th and 15th centuries these buildings would have teemed with life, with the call of monks and ancillary staff and the resonant peeling of the church bells.

There had been much debate and opposition to the plans of Henry VIII – in some cases even open rebellion. But on 3 September 1536 Abbot Wyche meekly surrendered the abbey and monastic life at Tintern came to an end. The abbot was lucky, he was pensioned off, but most of the other monks were tossed carelessly onto the scrapheap. They were shown the door and left to make a living as best they could.

Henry quickly pocketed the money that dissolving the monasteries brought, appropriating the abbey lands and selling them on to private ownership. Often these lands were sold for a pittance that must – if it were possible - have left the early benefactors like Roger Bigod turning in their graves.

And the abbey buildings themselves? Following the dissolution, Tintern – along with many similar religious houses across Britain – was allowed to fall into a state of decay. The lead was stripped from the roof of the buildings and soon even the stone was being carried away for building purposes.

Over the next two or three hundred years Tintern Abbey came to resemble the ruins that we see today. It was only in the late 18th century that the place began to find popularity with tourists and visitors.

The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of the 1790s and early 1800s effectively closed off the continent for British aristocracy intent on enjoying their “grand tour.” They now had to look closer to home for their enjoyment and the Welsh hills were a sudden and obvious draw.

The ruins of Tintern Abbey, imposing and spectacular against the fertile green valley that surrounds it, provided a superb sight for cultured ladies and gentlemen who would pause in their carriage ride to sit and stare and maybe even stroll around the remains for an hour or so.

By the middle years of the 19th century the old abbey was one of the most popular tourist spots on the Welsh border. People journeyed to Tintern to draw and sketch, even to write poems about the place.

The poet William Wordsworth came and wrote his famous "Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey" about what he saw and felt. But other poets came, too. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote Tears, Idle Tears during a visit and even the more modern, beat poet Alan Ginsberg put pen to paper and wrote Wales Visitation after seeing the abbey ruins.

JMW Turner painted Tintern on more than one occasion and the heavy metal rock band Iron Maiden once made a video featuring the ruins.

Tintern Abby is now in the care of Cadw. It remains a magnificent sight, one of the great ruins of Wales, visited by thousands every year. Henry VIII did not know what he was creating when he dissolved the foundation on 3 September 1536.

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