Church of Llanbarn Fawr
Helen Fulton

Ceredigion: Strata Florida and Llanbadarn Fawr

Writing in the late fourteenth century, the Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym says:

Ni bu Sul yn Llanbadarn
Na bewn, ac eraill a’i barn,
Â’m wyneb at y ferch goeth
A’m gwegil at Dduw gwiwgoeth.

There was no Sunday in Llanbadarn when I was not – and others may judge this – with my face turned towards a delicate girl and the back of my head towards the fine true God.

Behind the humour of the poem lies a strong sense of place, the centrality of Llanbadarn Fawr and its ancient church to a local community in west Wales, where English burgesses lived amongst Welsh farmers and gentry. The fourteenth century was a peaceful time for the Welsh, but the uprising of Owain Glyn Dŵr in 1400 brought violent reprisals from the English state. The castle at nearby Aberystwyth fell to Welsh rebels in 1404 and was defended by Owain himself after a full-scale siege by an English army led by the prince of Wales and the duke of York. The English finally regained control of Aberystwyth and the parish of Llanbadarn late in 1408, as Owain’s revolt began to run out of steam.

When Dafydd ap Gwilym died, somewhere towards the end of the fourteenth century, he was buried at the abbey of Strata Florida, some 14 miles  to the south-east of Llanbadarn Fawr. One of his contemporaries, a fellow-poet called Gruffydd Gryg, wrote:

Yr ywen i oreuwas
Ger mur Ystrad Fflur a’i phlas;
Da Duw wrthyd, gwynfyd gwŷdd,
Dy dyfu yn dŷ Dafydd.

This yew-tree for the best of men, near the walls of Strata Florida and its hall;  God’s blessing on you, happy tree, for growing as a house for Dafydd.

The Cistercian settlement at Strata Florida was founded in 1164 under Norman patronage, but its great abbey, now in ruins, was built by a dynamic Welsh prince, Rhys ap Gruffydd (d. 1197), the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth, whose territory included the whole of Ceredigion. Almost from their first entry into Wales, the Cistercians were supported by native Welsh rulers, with generations of princes of Deheubarth buried in the grounds of Strata Florida and a series of Welsh, rather than Norman or Anglo-Norman, abbots appointed to the monastery. When Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (d. 1240), prince of Gwynedd in north Wales, summoned the princes of Wales in 1238 to swear allegiance to his son Dafydd (d. 1246), it was to Strata Florida that they all came, in a rare display of unified nationhood.

Cistercian Abbey, Strata Florida

The scriptorium at Strata Florida inherited from Llanbadarn a tradition of native learning and became a significant locus of native cultural production, including chronicles, histories and poetry in Welsh as well as Latin.  Significant Welsh texts produced at Strata Florida during the fourteenth century include the Hendregadredd manuscript (containing mainly court poetry), Brut y Tywysogion (‘Chronicle of the Princes’, a continuation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae), and the White Book of Rhydderch, an anthology of Welsh prose including the tales known as ‘The Mabinogion’.

By the middle of the fourteenth century, Welsh abbots of Strata Florida were commissioning poems from native Welsh court poets. Llywelyn Fychan ap Llywelyn, abbot from 1344 to 1380, received a poem from Llywelyn Goch ap Meurig Hen describing him as ‘arglwydd Ystrad Fflur a’i phennaeth a’i llywodraeth da’ (‘lord of Strata Florida and its leader and its good governor’), but the main point of the poem is to give thanks to God for the abbot’s recovery from haint, ‘disease’, a possible reference to the plague.

The outbreak of the Glyn Dŵr rebellion saw the abbey requisitioned by the avenging armies of Henry IV for their counter-attacks on rebel strongholds in west Wales. Despite its glorious location in the folds of the Ceredigion hills, Strata Florida, multilingual clearing house for cultural influences brought from England, France and further afield, could not be entirely protected from politics, war, or disease.