A short history of Strata Florida
The Strata Florida Project is working within four major historical narratives or themes:
1. The Cistercian Abbey of Strata Florida
The Cistercian Abbey of Strata Florida was first founded in 1164 when a Norman knight, Robert Fitzstephan, granted lands in central Ceredigion to the monks of Whitland Abbey in Carmarthenshire. In the following year the Normans were driven out of Ceredigion by Rhys ap Gruffydd, Lord of Dinefwr and Prince of Deheubarth and he became the Abbey's main patron. It is thought that the Abbey was first established at Henfynachlog (Old Monastery), today a farm some 2 kilometres to the south-west of the present site.
In 1184 Rhys increased the extent of his grants and encouraged the monks to build a larger Abbey where its ruins are today. In 1201 it was consecrated and very quickly established its reputation as a centre of Welsh cultural and political life, perhaps something Rhys himself had intended. It is probable that its reputation was built on the existence an earlier, pre-Norman monastery on the site.
The 13th century was the hey-day of the Abbey and in 1238 Llywelyn ap Iorwerth ('the Great'), the prince of Gwynedd and the first Prince of Wales, used the Abbey as the venue for an important meeting held to consolidate his and his son's authority over the other native princes and lords of Wales.
By the end of the 13th century, however, Wales was under the control of Edward I of England and the influence of Strata Florida waned. However, during the rising of Owain Glyndwr at the very end of the 14th and beginning of the 15th centuries, the monks of the Abbey seem to have supported the rebellion. As a result elements of an English army were billeted in the Abbey and it was extensively damaged. It never fully recovered from this shock and by the time of the Dissolution in 1539, there was not much left and even that was in a parlous state.
2. The Successors to the Abbey
After the Abbey was closed, the site and the former lands eventually ended up in the hands of gentry families, notably the Stedmans who seem to have created a mansion out of the remains of the Abbey's Refectory. Around the mansion were gardens, enclosures and a wider designed landscape. Elements of this can still be seen and the Trust now owns a field of earthworks to the east of the Mynachlog Fawr complex which were once part of the formal gardens including water features.
By the mid-18th century the estate was in the hands of the Powells of Nanteos who changed the former mansion into a tenant farm-house. In the 1870s the freehold passed to the ownership of the Lords Lisburne of Trawscoed whose tenant was Joseph Arch. The farm has been passed down the Arch generations until today and it is now in their direct ownership. The project, in telling the story of the last 150 years, will focus on the Arch family.
In the 1880s the site of the former Abbey was excavated by Stephen Williams and it is substantially what he revealed that is now in the care of Cadw and can be visited as a monument.
3. The Antecedents of the Abbey
When the Cistercian Abbey was created the place was already a significant location and the selection of where to put the re-founded Abbey in 1184 seems to have consciously used the previous meanings and history of this small valley.
In particular we are now beginning to get evidence that the new church was laid out over and around a pre-existing holy well which was itself surrounded by early buildings. This may have been a Dark Age, Pre-Cistercian Celtic monastery perhaps dedicated to St Cynfelin a Ceredigion saint. Also in the vicinity may have been a royal residence of the early kings and princes of Ceredigion, named in 1164 as Lispennard or Llys Penardd, the 'Royal Court of Penardd', the name of the ancient commote in which Strata Florida sits.
The holy well is one of four known in a line up the Glasffrwd valley to the south-east of the Abbey. At the head of the valley, at Blaenglasffrwd, is a large complex of monuments dating from the early Bronze Age or even the Late Neolithic (2500-2000 BC). Consisting of cairns, stone alignments and other structures, they all lie together in a group between which run traces of narrow sunken tracks leading down to the edge of what is now a peat bog, but back 4000 years ago was a small lake. The whole valley seems to have been dedicated to the veneration of water and its spirits - A Sacred Valley.
This might explain why at the west end of the valley at the end of ridges which come down from the Cambrian Mountains, and forming a kind of gateway, are two Iron Age hill-forts. The more northerly and larger of the two is Pen-y-bannau ('head of the peaks') and the other is called after the adjacent farm, Gilfach-y-dwn-fawr.
4. The Historic Landscape
There survives around the Abbey site an immense number of earthworks and old buildings which give evidence of a long history of human land-use and settlement. Together with evidence from old maps, place-names and documents we are able to reconstruct the worlds in which the people of the past lived. This is considerably assisted by the study of pollen sequences trapped in the accumulations of sphagnum moss in Cors Caron which give the botanic history of the last 12000 years since the ice sheets retreated at the beginning of our present warm interstadial.
We are undertaking our studies at five main scales of spatial resolution:
1. Individual structures and archaeological features
2. The area of the Abbey's former precincts, some 120 or more acres
3. The immediate hinterland of the Abbey from Pontrhydfendigaid to Hafod Newydd. We are calling this area y Milltir Sgwar (the 'Square Mile')
4. The upper Teifi valley from Tregaron to Ystbyty Ystwyth, which has Cors Caron at its centre.
5. The Strata Florida region which encompasses the approximately 400 square kilometres of central Wales in which Strata Florida held all its lands, from the Cardigan Bay coast to Rhayader, and from Machynlleth to the headwaters of the Tywi at Rhandirmwyn.
All of this is being studied in the wider contexts of Pura Wallia, the uplands of Wales which remained in the hands of Welsh princes up to 1284, and the European distribution of Cistercian monasteries.
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