The Wolf Hall effect – Cromwell’s legacy and the Welsh landscape

Monday 09 February 2015

  • Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell. Image by Giles Keyte.

    Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell. Image by Giles Keyte.

  • Tintern Abbey

    Tintern Abbey

  • Strata Florida Abbey

    Strata Florida Abbey

  • Neath Abbey and Gatehouse

    Neath Abbey and Gatehouse 

  • St Davids Bishop's Palace

    St Davids Bishops Palace 

  • Lamphey Bishop's Palace

    Lamphey Bishop's Palace 

  • Valle Crucis Abbey

    Valle Crucis Abbey

  • Llanthony Priory

    Llanthony Priory

  • St Dogmaels Abbey and Coach House

    St Dogmaels Abbey and Coach House

  • Rug Chapel

    Rug Chapel

Wolf Hall has been dominating TV viewing figures this year, but there was a time when the popular show’s protagonist Thomas Cromwell and his men were transforming Wales and its landscape.

In his short time as Henry VIII’s adviser, Cromwell forever changed Welsh history.

Following the split from the Catholic Church, Cromwell and his men set about closing the monasteries and religious houses of Wales, taking their wealth to line the King’s pockets.

The stunning ruins of these once great monastic houses dot the Welsh countryside, with many now in the care of Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service.

Their crumbling beauty attracts thousands of tourists to Wales every year, and has been the inspiration for countless artists and poets, including JMW Turner and William Wordsworth – but how much do you really know about them?

Tintern Abbey

The best preserved medieval abbey in Wales, majestic Tintern sits merely yards away from the banks of the River Wye on the English border.

When Cromwell’s men closed the abbey in 1536, they stripped it of all of its wealth, including more than 13kg of silver and gilt plate that was sent straight to the King’s treasury. The valuable lead from the roof was also stripped, leaving the abbey exposed to the elements.

These days, visitors can marvel at the vast windows and decorative details displayed in the walls, doorways and soaring archways and picture Cistercian life within the walls of this beautiful monument.

Strata Florida Abbey

Meaning ‘The Vale of Flowers’ in Latin, Strata Florida Abbey was a centre of medieval Welsh culture and is the said to be the burial place of the great poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym. ‘Loved and cherished’ by its great patron, Lord Rhys ‘the Good’, prince of Deheubarth, the abbey was the site of a great assembly of Welsh princes summoned by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth in 1238 to swear allegiance to his son.

Its clear Welsh leanings caused the abbey trouble over the years, with King John even issuing an order to ‘destroy the abbey of Strata Florida, which harbours our enemies... in so far as you are able’, which, thankfully, was never carried out.

This turmoil meant that, by February 1539, when it was finally closed, only eight monks remained at Strata Florida. The abbey was abandoned and over the following centuries fell into ruin, its buildings robbed for stone. Yet, miraculously, the beautiful and unique west doorway survived and remains to this day as a welcoming sight for visitors to this remarkable and tranquil cultural site.  

Neath Abbey

The Tudor antiquary, John Leland, thought that Neath was ‘the fairest abbay of al Wales’ when he visited it just a few years before its suppression. The abbey had been founded in 1130 and by the end of the thirteenth century had become one of the richest Cistercian monasteries in Wales.

Only seven monks and the abbot remained when the abbey was surrendered to the king’s visitors in February 1539. Soon after, the monastery and many of its estates passed to Richard Williams, son of Welshman Morgan Williams and Thomas Cromwell’s nephew on his sister’s side.

Richard took the name Cromwell after he entered his uncle’s service in 1530 and acted as one of Thomas’s agents during the suppression of the monasteries.

Richard and his son, Henry, were responsible for the transformation of parts of Neath Abbey into a fine Tudor mansion, and visitors to the site today can still see its ruins alongside those of the magnificent Gothic church. Cadw is currently undertaking an extensive programme of conservation to safeguard Neath’s future.

St Davids Bishop’s Palace

Despite its ruined state, St Davids Bishop’s Palace’s lavish decorations and chequerboard stonework display all the wealth and grandeur of the medieval church.

Built, it is believed, on the site of the monastery that St David founded in the sixth century, the medieval building stood for hundreds of years, but Cromwell’s reformation marked the beginning of the end for the palace.

The English bishop, William Barlow, placed in charge of St Davids following the 1536 reforms, has been blamed for stripping the palace of its valuable lead roof and the site began to decline until it became the ruin we can see today.

Lamphey Bishop’s Palace

Standing just two miles from the town of Pembroke in West Wales, this once lustrous site served as a country retreat for bishops from St Davids.

Surrendered to the Crown in 1546 by Bishop William Barlow, who received inadequate compensation for this rich estate, Lamphey was granted to Richard Devereux.

His heirs, the earls of Essex, held the palace until the Civil War, when it was garrisoned by the Parliamentarians to supply Pembroke. The Parliamentarians, of course, fought on the side of Oliver Cromwell, who was himself a descendant of Thomas through his sister Catherine.

It was later used as a garden and even farm buildings before coming into Cadw’s care in the 20th century.

Valle Crucis Abbey

Built in 1201, Valle Crucis Abbey survived a major fire in the 13th century and suffered greatly in Edward I’s Welsh wars due to the pro-Welsh leanings of its monks.

Despite the impact of the Black Death on the numbers of monks and upheavals during the Glyndŵr uprising, the abbey had revived by the middle of the 15th century and the abbots earned a reputation as scholars and liberal patrons of the Welsh bards.

It was closed by Cromwell’s men in 1537 and fell into ruin. Today the remains of its cloister and the chapter house, with its striking rib-vaulted roof, evoke the splendour of the former abbey.

Llanthony Priory

Situated in the wild and beautiful Vale of Ewyas, these stunning remains are all that survive of one of medieval Wales’ great buildings.

Always in a risky spot, the Augustinian priory suffered greatly during Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion in the early 15th century and never truly recovered. By 1504 only four canons were left. Cromwell’s men closed it in 1536, selling it for around £160 and leaving it to decay.

Despite this, due to its impressive mix of Norman and Gothic architecture and a series of grand arches and windows, the ruins still evoke the lightness and elegance of the original building, and even inspired JMW Turner, who painted it from the opposite hillside.

St Dogmael’s Abbey

St Dogmaels Abbey and Coach House is one of Pembrokeshire’s most beautiful historic attractions. The former Tironian Abbey standing on the banks of the River Teifi was once famed for its impressive library, and was even visited by Gerald of Wales in 1188.

Dissolved in 1536, St Dogmael’s was converted into a private mansion for a time, before falling into the ruin you can see today.

Rug Chapel

Looking at all the ruins of the great religious houses, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Cromwell only had a negative impact on Wales.

Without the Reformation, we wouldn’t have the many Protestant chapels and churches whose unique characters reflect the great changes in Wales’ religious history.
One of the most intriguing of these is Rug Chapel, built in the 17th century by Colonel William Salusbury.

From the outside Rug may look like any other classic Welsh chapel, quaint and rustic. Step inside however, and it’s a different story – Rug Chapel is filled with stunning carved and painted woodwork and unusual 17th-century wall painting.