A visit to Cymer Abbey in Wales by Author Judith Arnopp
Cymer Abbey, or to give it the correct name, Kymer deu Dyfyr means the meeting of the waters, and the abbey is sited at the meeting of the river Mawd-dach and the river Wnion. It is a peaceful setting, or it would be without the traffic roaring on the by-pass and the holiday makers in the small camping and caravanning park, that has sprung up alongside. But, despite these modern day intrusions, it is still possible to discern the original peace and quiet that first drew the Cistercians to the spot in 1198.
The Cistercians sought places ‘far from the concourse of men’; somewhere to contemplate God and their own human failing. Cymer must have seemed ideal. It was founded in 1158-9, its first patron Maredudd ap Cynan ab Owain Gwynedd, Lord of Merioneth. The church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The first monks to settle at Cymer came from Cwmhir Abbey in Powys, a sister house of Whitland which was itself founded by monks from the mother house of Clairvaux in Burgundy. Cymer was never a large house, the monks existing in poverty and piety, their living subsidised by sheep and dairy farming and horse breeding. Cymer was noted for the fine horses it provided to Llewellyn ap Iorwerth, more widely known as Llewellyn Fawr (the Great.)
Cistercian buildings were traditionally stark and undecorated but even by Cistercian standards Cymer is remarkably plain and the buildings were never extensive. In the early days the monks lodged in wooden structures, the stone buildings being built over the following years of local boulders and rubble. Only the dressed stone around the windows and doors was cut from buff sandstone and a few carvings in red sandstone.
Today, all that remains standing of the monastery itself are parts of the abbey church. It was never a large building, measuring no more than 105 feet internally. The aisles are separated from the central church by solid stone walls with three arcaded bays on the western side. The eastern wall has three tall windows remaining and the remains of three smaller ones are just discernible above. These windows illuminated the church interior and allowed the light of the lord to flood in.
The remains of the seats used by the officiating priest, his deacon and the sub deacon during mass can still be seen. At the opposite end there is an unusual diversion from the conventional Cistercian model in the remains of a tower with a few worn steps which would once have led to the top. The lack of conventional tower is further evidence of the poverty at Cymer.
Only the footings of the cloister and other monastic buildings now remain and there is evidence that the lay brother’s range may never have been completed. The cloister, chapter house and dining hall are all in their expected positions on the south side, but their planning suggests that the monks anticipated a future enlargement of the church.
The nearby farmhouse has been built on the site of the medieval guest house, the post dissolution building utilising much of the abbey stone. The original building, which would have contained the abbot’s lodging, was a single storey hall and the fifteenth century timber roof still survives but is not accessible by the public.
In 1291 the annual income at Cymer was £28 8s 3d and records show that by 1388 there were just five monks remaining; financial debt, made worse by the war waged by Edward I, is believed to have initiated the decline. By 1535 when Cromwell began his inventory of all monastic property, Cymer’s annual income was just £51. It was dissolved by 1537 but in the nineteenth century a large silver gilt chalice and paten (Eucharist plate) were discovered hidden in the hills above the monastery and are now in the National Museum in Cardiff. You can read more about the chalice and Paten by clicking here.
It is impossible for the modern day visitor to imagine the hardships of medieval Cymer. We turn up in our waterproofs, our bellies recently filled at the local hostelry, our bodies strong from years of good nutrition and modern day dentistry. The monks at Cymer had to work hard for every mouthful, they were frozen by the wind and snow, wet through by the wicked Welsh rains, and their rough woolen habits probably left to dry on their bodies. Their accommodation was stark and windowless and the stone floors upon which they prayed were cold and unyielding. Records suggest that toward the end of the abbey’s life religious observation had slipped. The state rolls of Henry VIII claim that many monastic settlements were nests of evil where “manifest synne, vicyous carnall and abhomynable lyvyng, is dayly used and comytted comonly in suchlytell and smalle Abbeys Pryoryes and other Relygyous Houses of Monks, Chanons & Nonnes…” (HOL,Henry VIII, Roll of Parliament,) but perhaps in retrospect we can be a little less judgemental. After all Henry VIII and Cromwell had an agenda, they craved the destruction of the monasteries and wanted to get their hands on monastic wealth.
The impoverished monks of Cymer were a different breed from the fat, grasping abbots of the larger houses that we are so used to hearing about. If they hid their only two treasured items up in the hills away from the greedy hands of Cromwell and his king, who can blame them? And if they sometimes skimped on Matins in favour of the meagre warmth offered by their narrow beds well, we all roll over in the morning and hide under our own pillows. And if, starved of human contact, they turned to each other to indulge in a little ‘manifest synne’ I can understand and forgive them for that too. They were after all human beings living in absolute penury and I am far too fond of the comforts of my own soft warm duvet to stand in judgement upon them.
Cymer Abbey lies near the village of Llanelltyd, just north of Dolgellau, Gwynedd, in north-west Wales, United Kingdom. Entry is free.