Driving home from a trip to St David’s, Pembrokeshire, through horrible rain, I made a detour to see the ruins of the late-12th century Premonstratensian (White Canons) foundation of Talley Abbey, a Cadw operated site in Carmarthenshire. The site was fabulous in heavy rain and low clouds, most mysterious!
Founded by the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth between 1184-89, it was to be the only Welsh religious house of this order. Disputes with the Cistercian foundation of Whitland who forcibly ejected the canons leading to a protracted dispute, and later the fall off in patronage following Edward I’s invasion of Wales created circumstances in which the plan for a large church was abandoned for one of reduced size and without a north aisle. The Welsh language of the canons and their Welsh patrons, together with the isolated location might have also, collectively, had an impact on the abbey’s receipt of patronage. There were also accusations of loose living: those loose canons….
While relatively poor, the house remained supported by Welsh patrons and the Lord Rhys’ great-grandson Rhys Fychan was interred in the church in 1271.
Stephen W. Williams conducted excavations at the abbey in the late 19th century. Up until that time, the site was occupied by a farmhouse and homestead. Excavations revealed details of the building now on display, plus some indications of the fittings such as evidence of glazed windows from stained glass fragments.
Today, this is a splendid ruin, partly the product of the 19th-century ‘excavation’, it comprises mainly the church and part of the cloister. Built following the Cistercian plan, key notable elements including the crossing tower and the transepts, three chapels in each. The setting is between two lakes in a sheltered valley, fitting both religious ideals and the needs of the monastic economy. The site has new bilingual heritage boards.
Displaying Loose Living?
For the ruins themselves, Williams also noted not only the reduction in size of the original church, but also the move from freestone to local stone. Cadw differentiate between the ruins of the incomplete large church designed in the 12th century and the smaller church as completed: the area of the latter marked with shingle as oppose to grass. In this way, the visitor gets to imagine on two levels, what had been and what was planned to have been…. Whatever the precise reasons for the failure to complete, it amuses me to wonder whether this is archaeological evidence of loose living.
Reburying Canons or Patrons?
As mentioned above, the church would have contained burials of patrons as well as canons. Williams’ reports make no mention of finding graves, but Sian Rees mentions the discovery of lead-lined graves. The Cadw guidebook makes no reference to these.
Burials may have persisted since, following the dissolution, the canon’s church was converted to serve as a parish church until 1772 when the present church was built to the north utilising the ruins for convenient stone.
Rees mentions that the medieval skeletons recovered were reburied beneath a plinth in the nave. I think she might mean the two grave-slabs which I had taken to be relics of when this had remained a parish church. I couldn’t adequately discern the text on these slabs but they do indeed appear late 19th century rather than 17th/18th century. If so, these are early examples of archaeological memorials to the reburied dead.
The ruins loom over the graves of the more recently dead, affording a sense of distinction and continuity to the churchyard as a place of burial. These three images make my point:
There were many fabulous dimensions to the church including:
- Some distinctive memorial types I hadn’t encountered before, in the Gothic style.
- Some superb restored late 19th and early 20th-century memorials, still in use/brought back into use by the same family with additional names augmenting the original.
- A war memorial situated outside the western entrance to the church
- I was particularly struck by arrangements of graves paired with benches on the north-eastern boundary of the churchyard.
- As always, I was struck by how displaced gravestones are displayed, as discussed in a previous blog for Dyserth churchyard.
Pratt, C. and Robinson, D.M. 1992. Strata Florida Abbey. Talley Abbey. Cardiff: Cadw.
Rees, S. 1992. Dyfed: A Guide to Ancient and Historic Wales, Cardiff: Cadw.
Williams, S. W. 1893. Excavations at Talley Abbey, Journal of the British Archaeological Association 49: 34-44.
Williams, S.W and Taylor, H. 1897. Excavations at Talley Abbey, Archaeologia Cambrensis i5th Series, XIV: 229-47.