The Lord Rhys, ruler of the kingdom of Deheubarth, wasn’t officially the founder of Strata Florida. That was a Norman, Robert fitz Stephen. But ‘Rhys the Great’ took it to his heart and put it on the map.
He gave the monks vast tracts of lands on which to farm their sheep and cattle – and they rewarded him with loyalty. Under his patronage Strata Florida became a place of huge religious significance and a cradle of Welsh culture.
It’s no accident that the abbots of Strata Florida were as Welsh as the land they farmed. Under the likes of Deiniol, Cedifor, Morgan ap Rhys and Dafydd ap Owain the busy monks wrote or copied some of the central Welsh texts of the day.
These included the first history of Wales in the Welsh language – the ‘Brut y Tywysogion’ or ‘Chronicle of the Princes’ – and some of the mythic tales of the Mabinogion.
So when Llywelyn ap Iorwerth decided to summon all the Welsh princes to swear allegiance to his son Dafydd in 1238, he didn’t have to think long about a suitable venue. Strata Florida, custodian of Welsh culture, was the obvious choice.
But all this came at a price – the enmity of the English crown. It was damaged by the wars of King Edward I, weakened by the Black Death and occupied by English troops during the rising of Owain Glyndŵr.
The heyday of Strata Florida was long gone by the time Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. It was partly dismantled in 1539, starting with 10 tons of lead from the roofs, and gradually allowed to fall into ruin.
That was how it remained until 1887 when archaeologist Stephen Williams began to excavate the site. The lost treasures he revealed were so popular with Victorian tourists that the railway station at Ystrad meurig was renamed Strata Florida.
The abbey still holds a special place in Welsh hearts. One local resident says she moved to the area because of her love for the poem ‘Ystrad Fflur’ by Hedd Wynn, who died in 1917 before he could receive the bard’s chair at the National Eisteddfod.