Not far from the famous Horseshoe Pass, a few miles outside of Llangollen, lies the Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis, 'Valley of the Cross', a reference to the nearby Eliseg's Pillar, which predates the Abbey by several hundred years.
Founded in 1201 by Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor, the ruler of northern Powys, as a Cistercian abbey, some 13 monks, probably from Strada Marcella, were the original tenants. Cistercian foundations in Wales were certainly more Welsh in character then other monastic institutions, the monks most likely Welsh and intent on establishing centres of Welsh learning. As a result, they received more acceptance than other religious foundations by the communities in the area and especially since they retained close links with the native Welsh princes.
Cistercian authorities asserted that abbeys should be in isolated areas, and as a result the existing settlement in the valley, Llanegwestl was moved to Bromfield in the English Maelor. A chequered few decades followed, with several literguical transgressions recorded. Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor died in 1236, and his tomb can be seen amongst others in the dormitory of the Abbey. A fire soon afterwards caused real damage and extensive repairs were required and undertaken.
Valle Crucis' close links to the Welsh princes led to considerable suffering during the Welsh Wars of Edward I (1277-78 & 1282-83), which also affected nearby Castell Dinas Bran. Consequent damage to the property of the Abbey led to huge compensation paid to Valle Crucis from the Crown, and perhaps because of the damage, as well as the improving nature of the relationship between the Welsh Cistercian abbeys and Edward, the Hammer of the Scots visited Valle Crucis on several occasions after, lastly in 1295.
The eastern facade viewed from the monastic fishpond
The Abbey was instrumental in the enhancing of the Welsh arts in the region, including the compiling of the Brut y Tywysogon (Chronicle of the Princes) between 1282-1332. The Abbey enjoyed a program of rebuilding work in the early 14th Century, and this was a time of real prosperity for Valle Crucis. In 1349, however, the Black Death ravaged the lay brotherhood, leaving the Abbey something of a shell, and the Welsh Revolt of Owain Glyndwr (1400-1415), left Valle Crucis gutted by fire, though nearby Castell Dinas Bran was untouched.
From the middle of the 15th Century, however, the fortunes of the Abbey were once again revived. Three of the abbots of this time, Sion ap Rhisialt, Dafydd ab Ieuan ab Iorwerth and Sion Llwyd were renowned for their patronage of the Welsh arts. The reputation of the Abbey within the Welsh community was thusly significantly enhanced. However, the Cistercian rules had somewhat lapsed during this time and indeed a storm was rising.
Robert Salusbury's appointment (1528-35) led to a further decline. Salusbury was an interesting fellow, to say the least. A member of an important family in the area, you will find many entries on these pages regarding their impact on North East Wales, he seems to have been imposed on the Abbey. His actions, generally considered to have been beyond the pale, led if you will forgive the modern phrase, to the Abbey being placed in special measures. Salusbury finally found himself imprisoned in the Tower of London, after aligning himself with a band of robbers in Oxford. The last abbot, John Durham had to borrow heavily to maintain the Abbey.
The magnificent West Front viewed from the cloister
The Reformation finally ended Valle Crucis and it closed in January 1537, the abbot and the remaining monks pensioned off. Much of the Abbey's fineries were sold. The rather wonderful chandeliers were bought and now adorn the parish churches of Llandegla and Llanarmon yn Ial. Sir William Pickering, a Yorkshireman, was granted the lease in July 1537 and although attempting to maintain the property, did so from a distance which led to a concerted period of Valle Crucis being robbed out of much of its glass, lead and stone. Much of the lead roofing was melted down on the grounds by workers from Minera.
Pickering was, as said, an absentee landlord and proved unpopular as a result. Rents were withheld and neighbouring landowners removed a wealth of material from the Abbey, continuing Valle Crucis' decline. Further absentee landlords fared no better and by the middle of the 16th Century, William Camden described the Abbey as, 'wholly decayed.' The grounds became tenanted by a succession of local characters, until it became a part of the Coed Helen estate. Paintings of the 18th Century show the Abbey as entirely roofless and in ruin, but it became a farmhouse at some point in the late 18th Century, depicted in a number of paintings of this time.
With the arrival of steam trains to Llangollen, Valle Crucis took on a new life, part of the emerging tourist trade. Many Victorians, on their way to Snowdonia, would stop off in Llangollen and visit the ruins of Valle Crucis. Thomas Pennant wrote of the Abbey in his 'Tour of Wales' (1778), illustrated, amongst others by Paul Sandby. We learn much of the state of the Valle Crucis Abbey through the drawings of Richard Colt Hoare, who visited twice in 1796-97. JMW Turner also visited twice in 1794 and 1808, and while showing his development as an artist, also give us a wonderful picture of the picturesque setting of the Abbey. Valle Crucis featured prominently in a number of published tours of the area, and artists continued to paint the Abbey, notably John Sell Cotman, George Pickering and John Chessell Buckler. Indeed, the Abbey served as inspiration to a great many aspiring artists of the 19th Century.
Looking towards the eastern facade from the nave
However, the dramatic increase in tourism in the area, was not enjoyed by all. One correspondent is quoted as claiming that the railways,
'vomit forth their miscellaneous crowds upon the Abbey.'
It should be stated however, that visitors on the whole were welcome, more so today.
The Abbey continued the draw the crowds, and with them came an awareness that protecting the Abbey was vital. Sir Gilbert Scott repaired some of the Abbey in the late 19th Century, followed by Sir Theodore Martin some time later. In 1950, the Abbey was sold to the then Ministry of Works and much good work was done to maintain the building. CADW have now taken ownership of the Abbey and the excellent condition the Abbey finds itself in today, is to their credit.
I will not go into detail as to the architecture of the Abbey, and would recommend purchasing the excellent guide from the admissions booth, or from a number of Tourist Information spots throughout the area.
However,it is worth briefly mentioning a number of items of interest. It is hard to overstate the impression of the West Front as you approach. It dominates the approach to the Abbey, and sets the scene rather dramatically. Above the great west window is the beautiful rose window of eight lights of delicate tracery. Above the rose window is a Latin inscription:
ADAM ABBAS FECIT HOC OPUS
IN PACE QUIESCAT AMEN
Abbot Adam carried out this work;
may he rest in peace. Amen.
The entrance to the Abbey is by the doorway to the left of the West Front.
Valle Crucis follows the standard design of Ciscertian foundations, orientated east to west and planned in the shape of a cross. While the layout may be uniform, it is possible to trace the history of the site in its layers of rebuilding, due to fire and neglect. Though impressive as you walk around the Abbey, it is by no means extraordinary in size in comparison to other abbey sites. Its stature, however, is in my opinion unimportant. Valle Crucis is resplendent in its setting, although tempered by the incongruous caravan park which virtually surrounds the site.
The cloister looking towards the chapter house and the reading room with its carved stone screen
The cloister is certainly impressive, and of all the buildings in an abbey, it is here I personally feel I am able to get a sense of the everyday life of the monks and lay brothers. The cloister of Valle Crucis, clear and in good order, is wonderful. The adjoining sacristy and chapter house (the second most important room in the abbey) are in excellent condition, and of special mention should be the book cupboard on the left as you enter the chapter house. Two volumes of work which were kept here are still in existence. A copy of the Dialogues of St Gregory is kept at Eton College, and a 13th Century anthology containing commentaries by Stephen Langton (Archbishop of Canterbury 1207-1228) and a version of the Voyage of St Brendan are now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
The dormitory is accessed through a small doorway and a steep flight of steps. It contains a number of sculptured grave slabs that were found in or around the Abbey. The monumental sculpture here is particularly Welsh in character, having developed away from the English style. It reflects the Abbey in the sense that Valle Crucis was always rather more Welsh in character. There is here, the remains of a tomb that was probably of Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor, the founder of Valle Crucis, since it reflects a known style of his contemporary, Princess Joan (died 1237), the wife of Prince Llywelyn, which is in Beaumaris church on Anglesey. The oldest clearly dated slab is that of Gweirca, probably of the family of the founder, and cousin to Madog ap Gruffud (died 1306) whose magnificent slab is almost certainly present here. He was the great grandson of Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor, and great grandfather of the altogether more famous Owain Glyndwr. These are just a selection of the impressive sculptures on view.
While in the dormitory, do not miss the Abbot's Hall and chamber. The chamber has a fireplace with a 13th Century grave slab as part of its breast, the recycling of which is perhaps a sign of the decline that Valle Crucis suffered after the Reformation. During the summer months, it is barely possible to hear yourself think for the noise of swallows that nest in the rafters.
It is quite possible to take a quick tour of the exterior of the Abbey, and of particular note is the monastic fishpond beyond the east range. It is the only remaining monastic fishpond in Wales and would have provided the monks and lay brothers with fresh fish all year round.
An excellent audio visual exhibition is currently on offer in the visitor centre by the fishpond.
'Here lies Madog son of Gruffudd called Fychan'
The great grandfather of Owain Glyndwr
'Here lies Ieuaf ab Adda...may he rest in peace. Amen.
The life of Valle Crucis as a religious institution might well have ended in 1537, but this roughly fashioned fireplace in the abbot's chamber with its recycled 13th century grave slab was built after the suppression of the Abbey. During the summer it is almost impossible to hear yourself speak for the noise of swallows nesting in the rafters.
Valle Crucis Abbey by Paul Sandby
Valle Crucis Abbey is off the A542 Ruthin Road a few miles out of Llangollen.
There is small admissions booth there which sells guides and the usual gifts. There is a toilet available.
Up to date admissions costs and opening times are available on the CADW website.