A Tale of Two Tinterns

Living in Co. Wexford I am a regular visitor to the beautiful Tintern Abbey in the south-east of the county, so I was particularly excited to get a chance to visit the mother-house of the abbey, also called Tintern, which is situated in the Wye Valley in Gwent, Wales. 

Tintern Abbey, Wales
The Welsh Tintern was founded in 1131 by Walter fitz Richard (also known as Walter of Clare), Anglo-Norman lord of Chepstow and a member of the powerful Clare family. It was the first Cistercian abbey founded in Wales, and the second in the British Isles after Waverley. The abbey was colonised by monks from L’Aumone in the diocese of Blois in France, which was itself a daughter-house of Citeaux in Burgundy. In 1189 William Marshall became lord of Chepstow and patron of Tintern and it is William Marshall we have to thank for the foundation of Tintern in Wexford.

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By the late thirteenth century the abbey had over 3,000 acres of arable land on the Welsh side of the Wye. In 1245 the lordship of Chepstow passed to the Bigod family. Roger Bigod III (Earl of Norfolk) is remembered as the great benefactor of the abbey, and it was under his patronage that the great church was completed in c.1301.

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The abbey came under the first Act of Supression in 1536, in the reign of Henry VIII. It was was surrendered in September 1536 and the site was granted to Henry Somerset, Earl of Worcester (d. 1549), who stripped the buildings of their roofs for lead.

During the later eighteenth century the Wye valley became a popular site for tourists, with the ruins at Tintern acknowledged as the highlight of the tour. The publication of the Rev. William Gilpin’s guidebook ‘Observations on the River Wye’ in 1782 lead to an increase in the popularity of Tintern and in 1792 JMW Turner made pencil sketches of Tintern which later became some of his most beautiful watercolours. The abbey was also the inspiration behind one of the greatest romantic poems of the English language: William Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey, 13 July 1798’. In 1901 the site was recognised as a monument of national importance and the property was sold to the British Crown.

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The present remains of the abbey consist of the great gothic church completed in 1301, which stands almost complete except for the roof and the north aisle in the nave. In addition there are the excavated foundations of the communal guest hall and other inner court structures to the west of the abbey church. The north side of the complex shows the layout of the infirmary hall and the abbot’s lodgings.

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When you first see Tintern you experience a wave of awe; the place is just so big compared to any of our abbeys here in Ireland. This feeling of awe is reinforced when you walk into the great gothic church and marvel at the sheer size of the place and the vast windows and columns, which seem to be everywhere you look. On a sunny day the light falling through the windows and around the columns is amazing, and with the backdrop of the wooded valley the place is simply magnificent. If you are lucky enough to visit Wales and the beautiful Wye Valley a visit to Tintern is thoroughly recommended.

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Tintern Abbey, Wexford
And now to our own Tintern Abbey. It was founded sometime around the year 1200, following a vow made by William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, on his safe arrival in Ireland following a stormy sea crossing from Wales to Wexford. Marshall vowed to establish a new abbey if saved from shipwreck and on reaching Bannow Bay made good his vow and granted 9,000 acres of land for the foundation of a Cistercian abbey dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The land on which the abbey is situated reverted to William Marshall following the death of Hervey de Montmorency in 1205 and the foundation charter of the abbey is dated to 1207-13. Interestingly a second Cistercian house, Dunbrody Abbey, is situated 8 km to the north-west. Dunbrody was granted to the Cistercians by Hervey de Montmorency and consecrated in 1201.

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Tintern was colonised by monks from the Tintern mother-house in Wales, which was then known as Tintern Major, and the Wexford Tintern became variously known as Tintern Minor, Tintern Parva (Little Tintern) or Tintern de Voto (of the vow).

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Tintern was also supressed in 1536, along with Dunbrody and Bective Abbey in Co. Meath. Some monks remained until 1539 when they were removed and the abbey was seized. In 1562 a lease on the abbey and its lands was granted to Anthony Colclough from Bluerton in Staffordshire. Parts of the abbey were converted to residential use and the Colcloughs continued to reside at Tintern until 1959 when Lucy Marie Biddulph Colclough moved to the nearby village of Saltmills. In 1963 the abbey and its immediate surrounds were vested in the Commissioners of Public Works (OPW). The abbey is still maintained by the OPW and is open to visitors during the summer months. The surrounding forestry is owned by Coillte and there are many woodland trails to visit all year round.

A visit to Tintern in Wexford finds it, like its Welsh parent, in a picturesque and tranquil landscape, overlooking a small river where it enters Bannow Bay in a tidal estuary. The surviving buildings comprise the nave, crossing tower, chancel and south transept chapels.

The abbey was the subject of archaeological excavations from 1982-2007, led by Ann Lynch, Senior Archaeologist with the National Monuments Service. A monograph of this work was published in 2010 and it is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in Tintern (book details are at the end of this post).

In addition to the abbey there are two early stone bridges, a medieval church, a holy well, limekiln and mill to explore.

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One particularly nice project in the surrounds of the abbey has been the clearance and planting of the derelict walled garden. Colclough Walled Garden, as it is known, was established in the early 1800’s, 500m south-west of the abbey. Restoration by volunteers organised by Hook Tourism began in July 2010. The original layout of the garden has been reinstated as it was in the 1830’s. The picture below is courtesy of Alan Ryan from Colclough Walled Garden, as I forgot to bring my camera last time I was there! 

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Sources

Information on Tintern Abbey in Wales is from the following source;
http://cistercians.shef.ac.uk/abbeys/tintern.php – The Cistercians in Yorkshire Project

Information on Tintern Abbey in Wexford is from the following source;
Lynch, A. 2010 Tintern Abbey, Co. Wexford: Cistercians and Colcloughs. Excavations 1982-2007. Dublin. Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Archaeological Monograph Series: 5.

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Location of Tintern Abbey, Gwent, Wales

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Location of Tintern Abbey, Wexford, Ireland

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