Tintern Abbey in Wales

On the bank of the River Wye, the hauntingly beautiful ruins of a medieval abbey have inspired artists, poets and travelers for centuries.

On the border of Wales and England, Tintern Abbey is among the most picturesque ruins in Europe. (photo by Lori Erickson)

Tintern Abbey was founded on the border between Wales and England in 1131 by monks of the Cistercian Order. It was the first Cistercian house in Wales, and only the second in Britain. The Cistercian Order was founded in France in 1098 when a group of monks felt that their Benedictine monastery was too lax. The Cistercians, as they came to be known, wanted lives of greater poverty, simplicity and removal from the world. They supported themselves primarily with their own manual labor, typically by farming.

In a scenic spot on the bank of the River Wye, the monks built a complex of buildings for their growing community. Their greatest treasure was a magnificent Gothic church, which was constructed between 1269 and 1301. The monastery also included a chapter house, infirmary, refectory, and cloisters. It became one of the wealthiest monasteries in Wales, in part because of pilgrims who brought gifts when they came to pay homage at an image of the Virgin Mary that was said to have miraculous powers.

A sign at Tintern Abbey includes an artist’s rendition of what the church looked like in its prime. (photo by Lori Erickson)

In 1536 King Henry VIII began his policy of Dissolution of the Monasteries. Wanting independence from Rome—and coveting the wealth of the monasteries—the king seized control of all the church’s properties. About 800 religious houses closed between 1536 and 1540, including Tintern Abbey. Its buildings fell into disrepair, and lead from its roofs were salvaged for other uses. This left the structures open to the elements and led to further deterioration.

Then, in the eighteenth century the ruins at Tintern became a magnet for a new generation of pilgrims, this time by those in search of beauty. Inspired by the ideals of the Romantic Era, poets and artists flocked to the picturesque ruins set in the lush river valley.

Tintern Abbey became a favorite subject for artists of the Romantic Era. (Wikimedia Commons image)

Two men in particular are associated with Tintern Abbey. The first is the poet William Wordsworth, who wrote “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” during a visit to the ruins in 1798.  The second is the artist J.M.W. Turner, who first came here at the age of 17 in 1792. He made a series of sketches that eventually became watercolors exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Fueled in part by this artistic attention, visits to the abbey surged. With the Continent closed because of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, many people turned to exploring the landscapes of their native Britain instead. Tintern Abbey became one of the earliest, and most popular, tourist attractions in Britain.

The Gothic arches of the church frame beautiful views of the river valley. (photo by Lori Erickson)

Today the ruins of Tintern Abbey continue to attract the romantic, the artistic, and the curious. I think the best views are from within the church, which has soaring Gothic arches that frame views of the rich green of the surrounding countryside. This is still a place for strolling, for sketching, and for contemplation.

Listen to a reading of Wordsworth’s poem about Tintern Abbey:

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Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of books that include Holy RoverNear the ExitThe Soul of the Family Tree, and Every Step Is HomeHer website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.

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