The isolation of Mid-Wales today can sometimes be misleading, and shouldn’t be used to judge the past. The villages may seem to be empty and a long way from each other, but when they were established the countryside population would have been very different from today. Without the modern machinery we take for granted today, farming the land would have required a high workforce. Scattered throughout the high seemingly empty landscape of Wales are a number of Abbeys. Now just skeletons in the landscape, but once rich in both financial and spiritual terms, and in control of huge expanses of land. Strata Florida Abbey was no exception, and is perhaps considered as the archetypical Welsh Abbey. The opportunity to visit was too good to miss on our visit to the Tregaron Races.
It is thought, but not certain, that the Abbey was founded in 1164 by Robert fitz Stephen, constable of Cardigan Castle, as a daughter house of Whitland. It was the Cistercians of both Whitland and Strata Florida that tried to take control of Talley Abbey to the south. Even at this early time the family history of the Normans in Wales were complicated. Robert was part Norman, but his mother was Nest, daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr . However, Strata Florida was not to remain long in Robert’s patronage, in the following year Rhys ap Gruffudd, lord of Deheubarth, overran Ceredigion and took it from the Normans. Lord Rhys was an able politician and soldier, consolidating his influence and power over Dehuebarth in the following years. So much so that he became an ally of the English Kings, and was allowed to rule without too much interference or threat. In 1184, Rhys extended the abbey’s endowment so that the core estate came to comprise some 80,000 acres. A huge area which proved to be the foundation for riches based upon sheep farming. Many of Lord Rhys’ dynasty were buried here, though Rhys himself was interred at Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff.
Under the patronage of Deheubarth Strata Florida’s influence as a religious and political centre increased. It was in Strata Florida that one of the most important primary sources of Welsh history was written, the Brut y Tywysogyon. This close connection with Welsh politics led to suspicions on the part of the English that Strata Florida was not to be trusted. In 1212 King John ordered the destruction of the abbey, which he claimed ‘harbours our enemies’ – fortunately, his orders seem not to have been carried out but it seems that the bribe the Abbey had to pay to escape destruction was large . The political connections of the monks spread further than the rulers of south Wales. In 1238 the abbey was the venue for a particularly significant meeting called by the ruler of Gwynedd, Llywelyn ab Iorwerth. It was here that he made the other Welsh leaders acknowledge his son Dafydd as his rightful successor.
But the relative prosperity didn’t last. Despite it’s isolation, Strata Florida couldn’t escape the continuing wars between the Welsh and the English . In 1294 the Abbey was destroyed by English troops during a Welsh revolt, although Edward I denied that he had ordered this. But intrigue and politics can also be internal, and we forget the money that can be gained from being in charge of a rich Abbey. Around 1385, John ap Rhys, abbot of the daughter house of Aberconwy (Maenan) wanted control of Strata Florida and entered the abbey with armed men and seized the common seal of the abbey, and other property. During the war with Owain Glyndwr the English seized the Abbey and garrisoned it against the Welsh. It was eventually returned to the Cistercian Order. But even then, things weren’t squeaky clean. A monk was accused of counterfeiting coin in 1534. The decline in fortune continued and by 1535 the Abbey was valued £118 7s 3d – well below the £200 mark needed for a religious house to remain open. In February 1539 it was suppressed by Henry VIII.
The skeleton of the Abbey now provides an echo only of past glories. But in an area of beauty as it bounds under the rising hill sides behind. The relatively modern church next door was built around 1700. Mind you it’s only in the UK you can claim a church that is 400 years old to be modern! The church yard seems to be too large for such a sparsely populated area, but this used to be a lead mining area, though there is precious little evidence to be seen in the countryside. It is said that Dafydd ap Gwilym (1315-50) spent some time at Strata Florida, and is buried under the yew tree in the church yard. Dafydd was chiefly a love poet and some 150 of his poems survive.
Lastly, what about the name Strata Florida? Doesn’t sound very Welsh does it? It is in fact is a Latinisation of the Welsh Ystrad Fflur; “Valley of Flowers”. The Welsh word ystrad is synonymous with “strath” and “dale”, while fflur (“flower”) is also the name of the nearby river. So there you have it. I think I prefer Ystrad Fflur.