The Abbey of Basingwerk, or to be specific, the Abbey of St Mary at Basingwerk is thought to have been founded in 1131, and certainly no later than 1132 as a Savigniac house, by Ranulf II, Earl of Chester. Ranulf had been a staunch patron of the Benedictine Order, his support of St Werburgh’s Abbey in Chester an example. But gradually, it seems he had been swayed by the new monastic orders sweeping through Europe in the 12th century. He was, in fact, one of a small group of influential nobles that worked to ensure the early success of the Savigniac Order in England and Wales, and so it was hardly surprising that Basingwerk was founded as such, and indeed finding itself colonised directly from the mother house of Savigny Abbey in south west Normandy.
However, rather confusingly the origins of the Abbey lay not where the present ruins are to be found today at Greenfield, but rather some few miles to the east at Hen Blas, a little south of the present day village of Bagillt, a site almost entirely forgotten until excavated in the 1950s. Early sources identify the original Abbey being at Basingwerk Castle, which continues to confuse, especially when one also considers the presence of what was once a fortification at Holywell, overlooking St Winefride’s Well at the top of the Greenfield Valley. During excavations in the 1950s of a site believed to be a Norman military complex, a chapel was found in the outer bailey. The implications were immediately understood, and work elsewhere was halted with focus switching to the chapel find. Details of Hen Blas can be found elsewhere, but while there remain other contenders for the original site of Basingwerk Abbey, Hen Blas does seem to be the strongest of them.
The siting of the Abbey within Tegeingl is also of immense import, since it seems clear that Ranulf was intent on stamping his authority on the disputed territory, long fought over between the native Welsh and the Norman invaders. Not until the final conquest of North Wales in 1282-83 by Edward I was the matter settled, though even then intermittent uprisings, such as that of Owain Glyndwr at the beginning of the 15th century continued to rage within Tegeingl. Ranulf’s decision to site the Abbey at Hen Blas was as much a matter of politics as faith, settling the brothers within the shadow of the Norman motte and bailey castle an obvious statement of intent.
It was while the monks of Basingwerk were still at Hen Blas that the Savigniacs were absorbed into the Cistercian Order. Officially termed a merger, it was in reality a recognition of the inherent weaknesses and failings of the Savigniac movement, and the overwhelming success of the Cistercians. Basingwerk officially became a Cistercian house in 1147, along with Neath Abbey, the only other Savigniac house in Wales. And in becoming a Cistercian abbey, Basingwerk became a daughter house to Buildwas Abbey in Shropshire, a decision that led to a decade long dispute that nevertheless was settled in favour of the Shropshire house. Little is known of the history of Basingwerk whilst at Hen Blas, but it cannot have been seen as an ideal setting by the Cistercian brothers there, devoted as they were to ideals of austerity and isolation, to be sited within what would have been undoubtedly a busy military complex at a likely state of near constant alert for much of its existence. In all, the monks resided at Hen Blas for some 25 years, until 1157 in fact, a year synonymous with the Battle of Coleshill.
It is a curious thing, but we are wont to look at events in isolation, without studying the wider context. An example would be the events surrounding the monks of Basingwerk moving from Hen Blas to Greenfield in 1157. If you purely focus on clerical history, or perhaps even the history of the Abbey, the Battle of Coleshill in that same year generally gets but a passing glance. But I fancy it’s more than that, as were the years leading up to the famous battle. What is clear, is that during Basingwerk’s early history, Tegeingl - parts of it, sometimes all of it, changed hands several times, between the Welsh and the Normans. At the time of its foundation in the early 1130s within the Hen Blas complex, the area was under some sort of stable Norman control, but by 1150 it was in the hands of Owain Gwynedd, the dynamic and successful King of Gwynedd. In 1150, at the first Battle of Coleshill, Owain had destroyed the allied forces of Ranulf II and Madog ap Mareduud of Powys, thus enforcing his control of the much disputed area. Quite what the monks of Basingwerk made of this violently fluid situation is entirely unknown, as is the practical effect this ebb and flow of warfare and conflict had upon the practice of their profession.
The Battle of Coleshill of 1157 is justly remembered as a great victory for the forces of Gwynedd against what was a highly organised and proficient Anglo-Norman force under the extremely capable Henry II, but the truth is that it actually changed very little. It might well have bloodied Henry’s nose, but Owain was still obliged to retreat in the face of the larger Norman host. Hence, bruised and battered, the Norman forces retook the area around Hen Blas, and once again, the Basingwerk brothers based in the Hen Blas complex were under Norman control. Was this greeted with joy or despondency by the monks? The sources, such as they are, remain entirely silent. Truthfully, one gets the impression of a tremendous clerical shrug. It would be naive and wholly wrong to suggest that monasteries were not affected by politics, or indeed played an active role in secular affairs, but in its first 25 years of life, Basingwerk was privy to more than its fair share of worldly affairs. Thus a move away from the cramped confines of Hen Blas was overdue, and had probably been planned for some considerable time.
While Henry’s arrival in 1157 seems to have been the catalyst for the move to its lands at Greenfield, it’s probable that work had already started on building the complex. Given that the land had been in Cistercian hands since its initial foundation, and that almost certainly it was the site of an industrial complex of mills (powered by the tremendous flow of the spring at top of the valley, otherwise known more famously as St Winefride’s Well) and possibly a mine, it seems probable that a move from what could only have been a temporary base at Hen Blas was always the intention -there can be little doubt that Greenfield is a far better base. A monastery is not built overnight, and it is ridiculous to think that Basingwerk was thrown up in 1157 because the monks suddenly wanted to move. In 1157, the brothers moved into some kind of monasterial complex, though it is not clear at all what that looked like. However, Henry’s arrival into Tegeingl did bring with it what was essentially a refoundation of the Abbey. Henry’s charter given to Basingwerk in 1157 brought with it a renewed vigour. It is probable that it was in this year that the monks at Hen Blas moved over to the Greenfield site, into whatever complex had been raised to that point.
There seems, then little need to vex ourselves overmuch as to the reasons for the move. Hen Blas was never ideal, and was probably never intended to be a long term location. As already mentioned, the Greenfield site was probably already well developed, the site of various mills, both corn and fulling, but we must not forget how very close the Greenfield site is to St Winefride’s Well and Shrine, a place of pilgrimage, a place of healing and veneration from the 7th century. While owned by St Werburgh’s Abbey in Chester, older than Basingwerk and a once favourite of the Earls of Chester, in placing itself down flow of the holy spring, it would certainly have brought Basingwerk Abbey some considerable associated benefits, including financial, much to the chagrin of St Werburgh’s, one imagines. It is unlikely that Pilgrims, some of whom had travelled very far indeed, would not have availed themselves of Baisngwerk’s facilities, being so very close to the shrine.
Henry’s charter of 1157 also expanded Basingwerk’s landed interests. It brought with it the manor of Glossop, a source of considerable revenue throughout Basingwerk’s subsequent 380 year lifetime - indeed, at Basingwerk’s dissolution in 1537, Glossop accounted for some 30% of the Abbey’s overall revenue. Together with Ranulf’s original grant of Fulbrook, Greenfield, the windmills at West Kirby on the Wirral and the salt pits at Northwich, the addition of Glossop was a tremendous boon. These riches, along with the donations of the wealthy must have gone some considerable way to paying for the building of the original Abbey into which the monks translated in 1157.
But what did that Abbey look like in 1157? It seems entirely implausible that the brothers would have moved into the medieval equivalent of a series of portacabins. The earliest stone buildings in the precinct were and are to be found in what is now the east range and the south and south west corner of the later cloister. It is believed that beneath the remains of the later 14th century cloister lies the remains of the original 12th century church. And it makes sense that one of the first buildings to be raised would be the church, obviously at the very heart of any monastery. The remains of the much larger church as seen today are early 13th century, and so at least 50 years older than the time of the 1157 move, and thus a replacement of the original church, raised quickly and likely to have been always considered a temporary building. It is clear that it was in the early 13th century that the Abbey began to take on the appearance we imagine from the remains visible today. It is interesting that in 1188 Gerald of Wales on his journey through Wales, ‘spent a night in the small priory of Basingwerk’. Now Basingwerk was never one of the larger abbeys of Wales, but in describing it thus, can we assume that the 12th century complex that Gerald visited looked considerably different from the 13th century precinct which formed the buildings the remains of which we see today, perhaps a smaller more compact complex? It seems likely.
By the middle of the 13th century, Tegeingl was back in Welsh hands, largely through the shrewd political nous and military competence of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth and the fundamental weakness of John, King of England. Basingwerk’s position in Tegeingl was always a mixed blessing, but it certainly benefited from its location in the grants of land that it received, both from the Normans and the Welsh princes. Those grants were fulsome indeed. Llywelyn ab Iorwerth granted the Abbey Llyn Tegid (Lake Bala) and Penllyn, a rich source of fish and grazing land, along with Gelli Fawr at nearby Whitford. His son, Dafydd ap Llywelyn, however gave to Basingwerk in 1240 perhaps its jewel - St Winefride’s Well and Shrine, along with Holywell Church. While the Abbey had undoubtedly benefited indirectly from its location close to the Well, in taking ownership of one of the most eminent if not the most eminent shrines in the British Isles, the financial benefits were profound, and no doubt helped to pay for the magnificent refectory, the remains of which today are the most obvious remnants of the Abbey, and which were probably near contemporary with the grant.
If Basingwerk did well from its position in the grants of lands it received from both the Welsh and Normans, it suffered grievous injury in the conflicts between the two in the second half of the 13th century. Open warfare returned in 1277-78 between Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and Edward I. In the second war of 1282-83, Edward effectively ended any notion of Welsh independence centred on the Kings of Gwynedd. Llywelyn was killed in December 1282 in a short sharp engagement outside of Builth Wells, while his brother, Dafydd was hung, drawn and quartered at Shrewsbury in October 1283. Despite having letters of protection from the English throne (and perhaps because of them), Basingwerk found itself badly mauled in both wars, its lands, livestock and crops expropriated by both sides when the circumstances of war demanded it. Corn and livestock were plundered from Basingwerk’s Deeside granges by Basque troops in the employ of Edward, while Gascon sailors ravaged Englefield and Gwernhefin at Bala. Holywell was burnt and some of its people forcibly taken into the service of the English, used as pioneers within the dense woods of the area, an indication that Edward had learnt the lesson of Henry’s defeat at Coleshill over a century earlier. Edward even ordered Basingwerk to clear some of the woods on their land that could hide rebels. But, it would also seem that the locals took advantage of the chaos, looting cash and lead from the Abbey itself. In all, the Abbey suffered some £200 worth of damage, a considerable sum, and in 1284 was awarded £100 of compensation from the English crown, a sum second only to the amount awarded to Valle Crucis at Llantysilio.
The Cistercians were nothing if not realists, and had tried to navigate the choppy political waters of Tegeingl as best they could - favouring whoever was in power in the area, benefitting or suffering for their decisions. After 1277 the tide had definitely turned and it was thus to the English crown that Basingwerk looked. And Edward seems to have favoured Basingwerk. After the Wars of Conquest, as Edward began to fashion North Wales in his own image, he confirmed Basingwerk’s earlier charters and granted it permission to hold weekly markets at Holywell and Glossop, along with an annual three day fair in both. In another sign of his favour, it was to Basingwerk that Edward turned when looking for a chaplain for his newly built castle at Flint, and in March 1284 gave to Basingwerk the princely sum of £42 towards the Abbey’s grange at Gelli. In perhaps the clearest evidence of Basingwerk’s growing influence, the abbots of Baisngwerk were called to attend Edward’s Parliament six times between 1295 and his death in 1307.
This influence, however, seems not to have lasted long after Edward’s death, since by 1317, Basingwerk was being squeezed by the Earldom of Chester for cash. In 1355 there was an extraordinary declaration by the brothers that Basingwerk had been, ‘ruined and destroyed forever by divers frauds...and other grievances’. Quite what tragedies had befallen them is not clear, but is thought to relate to a breakdown in relations with the crown and the local population. And it should not be forgotten that from the middle of the 14th century, the Black Death took a terrible grip on the British Isles, its effect entirely shattering, both physically and psychologically and sundering the traditional social norms. It seems unlikely that Basingwerk avoided the pestilence, though many monasteries were afforded some protection by their isolation. Basingwerk was just too cosmopolitan, and one can imagine the hordes of pilgrims making their way to St Winefride’s Well in search of healing, finding shelter at the Abbey. Giving hospitality to the many travellers on the way to Ireland was one of the complaints of the abbots of Basingwerk, in the drain on resources it required. While pilgrims brought in money, travellers, especially Cistercian brothers moving to and from their abbeys in Ireland brought little and took much, it seems.
It does seem as if the mid 14th century was the beginning of what were to become increasingly serious political problems at Basingwerk. By the mid 15th century those political problems had a name - Henry Wirral (1430-54). Apparently, Henry had been labelled an apostic in his youth, which was not the start you would imagine for a man who would later become an abbot of a monastery. By 1430 he had become the de facto abbot of Basingwerk. Described rather carefully by David H Williams as a, ‘doubtful character’, he had by 1432 failed to answer various trespasses levelled against him, and had been bound over, with various others, to keep the peace for the extraordinary sum of £200 - an amount far in excess of Basingwerk’s annual turnover. In that year, there had been an inquiry chaired by Abbot Gnossal of Buildwas Abbey (Henry’s father immediate), which had supported Richard Lee as the rightful abbot. Wirral had been keeping Lee imprisoned until ordered to release him by Duke Humphrey of Gloucester. Despite the instruction to vacate the role of abbot by the great and the good, Wirral simply ignored them all and continued as abbot until finally arrested for, ‘various felonies’ in 1454. By the time of his arrest, there were accusations of all manner of un-monkly activities and serious financial irregularities which severely damaged Basingwerk’s coffers. Richard Lee had even gone so far as to petition the Chancellor of England, explaining that divine service at Basingwerk had been largely suspended for the lack of brothers, most having fled to Buildwas Abbey in fear of Wirral.
Things did not get any better. Within a decade of Wirral’s arrest, a similar dispute arose. Richard Kirkby, once a monk of Aberconwy and Abbot of Cymer Abbey claimed the abbacy of Basingwerk. While enjoying the support of the abbot of Buildwas, Henry of Derby, a prestigious commission of five abbots, headed by none other than the Abbot of Citeaux, found in favour of one Edward Thornebar. However, it was Kirkby that became abbot of Basingwerk, and stayed in the position until at least 1476.
What Basingwerk needed was a period of stability, and that arrived with the ascension of Thomas Pennant, the first Welsh abbot of the Abbey, in 1481. Not only did he end the political instability, but he certainly revived the Abbey’s economic fortunes. It seems likely that he made shrewd political decisions, especially in light of the ascendency of the Tudor dynasty following the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Henry VII, and especially his mother Margaret Beaufort became generous patrons. The glorious well chapel at St Winefride’s Shrine was likely the result of a close collaboration between Pennant and Margaret. The fabric of the chapel shows considerable evidence of the influence of both.
Pennant was also a generous patron of the arts, supporting, as did many Welsh abbeys, the Welsh bardic tradition, largely by putting a roof over the heads and food in the bellies of poets such as Tudur Aled, who praised Pennant as a, ‘godly man with a fine taste for minstrelsy and a generous patron of the bards’, and Gutun Owain, who wrote several works giving details of Basingwerk’s environs. It seems that during Pennant’s tenure as abbot, Basingwerk was responsible for some works which are still with us today. The Black Book of Basingwerk, now in the National Library of Wales, was largely the work of Gutun Owain, probably while at Valle Crucis, but has evidence of marginal notes by Thomas Pennant, suggesting that the work was at Basingwerk at some point. The Book of Aneirin was also said to have been held at Basingwerk. It is from Tudur Aled that we also gain an insight into the large numbers of visitors that came to Basingwerk, ‘so numerous that they have to be accommodated for meals in two sittings’. It is likely this level of traffic that required the building of what is thought to be the guest accommodation built early in the 16th century. This late building is often thought to have been built after 1537, but is likely to have been before the suppression, and altered afterwards.
If Thomas Pennant returned Basingwerk to something of its earlier splendour, he did so while fathering three children with his wife, Angharad. This, of course, was something quite against the rules of his or any other order. And it was his second son, Nicholas, who succeeded Thomas as abbot in 1522, remaining in the position until its suppression in 1537.
Nicholas was altogether a more unsavoury individual, and seems to have done much in using his position as abbot of Basingwerk to reward himself, his family and his cronies. It seems likely that abbots and the brothers of all monasteries were aware of the moves to close them, long before they were pensioned off and expelled. Nicholas Pennant was not one to wait to find himself out on his ear with little to show for his tenure as abbot and ensured that much Basingwerk land was granted to his friends and family. As shocking as this may be, it was hardly worse than the sordid free for all, post suppression land grab by the great and the good that came after the monasteries and abbeys were closed. Really, there was nothing comely about the entire business.
However, perhaps the most telling evidence of Nicholas’ venal nature, was the ever so sleazy business of the calling of Holywell. It seems Nicholas had ear marked the position of Vicar of Holywell for his, ‘bastard son’ and had openly admitted this, including to the rival for the position, one Roger Pigot. This unfortunate fellow found himself on the receiving end of an assault which he alleged to have been at the instigation of the abbot. It seems that an inquiry ordered by the Court of the Star Chamber got nowhere, the commissioners fearful for their safety. Nicholas comes out of this affair looking like some kind of Flintshire Medici. It’s an image rather reinforced by his actions post suppression when he, along with some of his followers, turned up at Winefride’s Well in 1538 to claim the offerings that were supposed to go to the Crown, making off with over £5 and an ox. It’s a curious thing that we almost automatically see the dissolution of the monasteries as the act of a venal, politically motivated money grabbing Henry VIII, and of course there is much truth in this. But, it is also clear that the monasteries themselves often failed to make it difficult for Thomas Cromwell’s inspectors to find fault with them, in their ever increasing drift from the principles that guided their founding. It does rather feel as if the monastic movement had run out of steam. By its end in 1537, Basingwerk had no more than 3 monks and an abbot who seemed intent only on feathering his own nest. Very little is known about the Basingwerk’s end, other than the date - 1537. Pennant had taken action to ensure that he, and those closest to him were looked after. It is thought that he lived the rest of his days at Gelli Fawr, to the west of nearby Whitford, on a goodly pension of £17 per annum, dying in 1548 and was buried at his request at Holywell Church.
An interesting aside are the comments (or perhaps the lack of comments) of the famous naturalist and antiquarian, Thomas Pennant (1726-1798), whose works are no stranger to the readers of this website. David Pennant ap Tudur ap Ithel (c.1440) married twice. From his first wife, Jonet were descended the Pennant’s of Bychton and Downing, one which was the Thomas Pennant, our friend and author of, A Tour in Wales of the later 18th century. David’s second wife, Agnes, gave birth to Thomas Pennant, Abbot of Basingwerk (1481-1522). The lands of both branches of the Pennant family merged in 1724. In A Tour of Wales Thomas Pennant seems touchingly reluctant to speak ill of his distant kin, perhaps for lack of information, highlighting Thomas’ strengths as abbot, while claiming that he vacated his position to marry Angharad - an assertion I can find no other evidence to corroborate. Of Nicholas he says nothing, other than the fact he took the position vacated by his father. Curiously, he does not mention his ancestral connection to the Pennants of Basingwerk, although he must have known. Make of that what you wish.
The Abbey itself was quickly stripped of its valuables. In 1538, lead from the Abbey roof was shipped off to Dublin for use by the castle and a number of other Crown possessions in the city, while lead was also packed off to Holt Castle in what is now Wrexham County. The Church of St Mary on the Hill at Chester took possession of the choir stalls, and there they remain. And as ever the case, any piece of parish church architecture or furniture or fitting within 40 miles of Basingwerk, which seems in any way incongruous in its setting has been attributed to have been originally of Basingwerk, whether it be the glorious Jesse Window at Llanrhaeadr-yng-Nghinmeirch, or the rather wonderful roof at St Mary’s in Cilcain. The veracity of these claims are still a matter of debate. What is more certain is that an awful lot of the dressed stone of Basingwerk Abbey found its way into the later industrial buildings of the Greenfield Valley.
The subsequent history of Basingwerk saw it come into the hands of the Mostyn family. The site was bought for the sum of just over £28 by Henry ap Harri and Peter Mutton. Henry was a member of the Llanasa gentry, his daughter marrying into the Mostyn family. It was still in the Mostyn family in 1923 when finally a Miss Clementina Mostyn passed the Abbey into the care of the Welsh Office, through which it finally found itself in the care of Cadw in 1984.
Today, it is still possible to gain a sense of the might and majesty of this once proud Cistercian abbey, designed to narrow the distance between Heaven and Earth. In wandering around the grounds, it’s still not impossible to feel the presence of a higher power, whatever you suppose that power to be.