Histourism: Tintern Abbey

Yesterday I visited the famous Tintern Abbey in the southeast of Wales, close to the border with England. The first time I ever heard of it was during my Bachelor’s when we studied William Wordsworth’s poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798“. Quite a mouthful!

This poem is a textbook example of Romanticism, one of the largest literary movements of the 18th century, with its reverence for nature, emphasis on the individual, and themes of mysticism and spirituality. It isn’t actually about Tintern Abbey itself, but the speaker meditates upon the beauty of the Wye Valley, in which the abbey is situated.

The abbey was founded in 1131 by a Norman lord and occupied by Cistercian monks, who were part of an order which had split off from the Order of St Benedict. It was the second abbey of that order built in the UK and the first in Wales. It enjoyed generous endowment from the lords of Chepstow; though it never played a very important role, it was still very big and active. It was almost completely rebuilt in the 13th century, and over the centuries buildings were updated and added on the grounds. With the black death of the 14th century, changes in the economy, the decline of the feudal system and Henry VIII’s political actions in the 1500s life slowly ebbed out of the abbey. It was abandoned in 1536 and everything of value raided from the abbey, including the windows and the roof, and left to decay. Then, as with many castles, churches and other ruins in Wales, they became attractive to rich Victorian tourists, and Tintern Abbey became a popular holiday destination. Romanticism was big in painting too, and the abbey was famously depicted by a number of artists, including J.M.W. Turner.

Sadly the ruins are no longer as romantically overgrown as in these paintings. I couldn’t believe my eyes when it suddenly came into view: it was massive, towering over the little houses grouped around it! With a road and a car park right next to the abbey it takes a little stretch of the imagination to envision it as it has been for years: ruins rising out of the green landscape that could be seen from miles away, and before that, a complex bustling with activity, with monks praying, reading, cooking, singing.

As I had a few hours before my bus went back to Swansea, after viewing the ruins I took a walk into the Wye Valley and up to the spot they call “Devil’s Pulpit”, a small platform jutting out from the rock between the trees overlooking the church from above. It was said that the devil himself preached to the monks from up here (clearly he didn’t do a very good job). It is still beautifully tucked away on the green banks of the Wye.

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