An Earlier Monastery?


In a number of other former Cistercian Abbeys in Wales and Europe, it is clear that the founders chose locations where there had previously been sites of religious significance. This was a way of clearly idnetifying themselves with local traditions and practices in a bid to acquire or 'appropriate' significance and then to transform and build on it. This was a process of cultural accumulation which enabled to work with rather than against the indigenous populations they were coming to inhabit and dominate as new kinds of lords.

It has long been suspected that Strata Florida may have been one of these places and the Project's work has begun to reinforce that suspicion without, as yet, producing the final definitve evidence. This, it is hoped, will be achieved in Phase 2 of the Strata Florida Research Project.

What have we found? First, let us remember that the monks of Strata Florida began at a site a mile and a half to the south-west at Henfynachlog (Old Monastery). Geophysics there has failed to find any evidence of stone buildings on the spot identified by Stephen Williams and the Ordnance Survey as the original site. So, it is still possible that the monks never intended to have this as their permanent location and always had their eye on the place where it is now.

Next, at the heart of the new Abbey Church there are the remains of what is almost certainly a Holy Well in a highly significant place in front of the High Altar and where the celebrant of the Mass would stand. The evidence suggests that it would have had a wooden covering and was only opened on specific occasions. Such a feature is, as far as we know, unique in a Cistercian Church, although a good parallel has been found at Landevennec in Brittany in a Benedictine Abbey and dates back to the sixth century. Here also the tomb of the early saint (St Guenole or Winwaloe in Cornish) was found very close by.

The axial alignment of the well is different from that of the Cistercian Church which seems to be oreinted on sunrise and sunset on St David's Day in the twelfth century. Ver recently geophysics work which needs to be repeated to give certainty, appears to whow that the Holy Well alignment is echoed by a set of linear features underneath the Abbey floors. Even more remarkably an early wall in the Chapter House and the openings to the transeptal chapels of the later church are also on this alignment. All of this gives the strong suggestion of a set of earlier buildings which incorporated the Holy Well. For this and other reasons it is entirely possible that the Cistercian Chuch was deliberately aroudn the HOly Well to appropriate all its spiritual, religious and cultural meanings. A view of the Abbey Church site also appears to show that it was built over a part of an earlier cemetery which is, in fact, the one still in use today and which produced a tenth-century grave slab in the mid-nineteenth century.

To the west of the Cadw monument there are also a large number of features which are clearly earlier than the Cistercian Abbey. How these fit in with the possible existence of an earlier Abbey is very hard to say until we begin to excavate them.

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