Roofless and in ruins, it’s hard at first to imagine why someone would want to go out of their way to visit a place tucked in the countryside of Wales. But upon seeing the ruins of Tintern Abbey, surrounded by tree-covered hills in the Wye Valley, you’ll see why so many artists and poets from the Romantic period flocked to the abbey in the late 17th and early 18th centuries – and why so many tourists continue to do so today.
History of Tintern Abbey
Walter de Clare, Lord of Chepstow, founded Tintern Abbey on 9 May 1131 for Cistercian monks, one of the most successful orders of the 12th century. It was only the second Cistercian abbey in Britain and the first in Wales.
Through the continued generosity of the Lords of Chepstow, the abbey built new buildings throughout its tenure, the most ambitious being between 1200-1287 through Robert Bigod III’s patronage. Most of the ruins today are from buildings built during this period.
The large church, whose structure is primarily intact today apart from the roof, was constructed between 1269-1301. It is one of the great examples of British Gothic architecture, despite it being in ruins.
In 1326, King Edward II stayed at Tintern Abbey for a couple of nights. He died the following year and is buried at Gloucester Cathedral. During the Black Death in 1349, the abbey experienced a labor shortage and had to tenant out land to local farmers in order to cultivate the land on their property. In addition, the abbey continued to decline in the early 15th century due to short cash reserves following a Welsh uprising against the English kings.
King Henry VIII dissolved the abbey in 1536 along with most abbeys throughout Britain through his Dissolution of the Monasteries. On 3 September 1536, Abbot Wyche, 12 monks, and 35 monastic servants surrendered the Abbey to the king’s visitors. The king granted the abbey to the then Lord of Chepstow who sold the lead from the roof. From that point, the abbey lay forgotten, falling into ruin for the next couple of centuries.
From the mid-16th to late 18th centuries, the abbey ruins housed local workers for nearby lime quarries and mines.
The “rediscovery” of the abbey
It wasn’t until 1732 when Tintern Abbey resurfaced widely, specifically because of a popular print published by the Buck brothers. Then, in 1770, Reverend William Gilpin recounted his Wye River voyage, describing the abbey as “the most beautiful scene of all.” Subsequently, tourists and artists alike flocked to Tintern Abbey in search of the romantic spot hidden in the Wye Valley in southern Wales.
Visitors and depictions
From the late 1700s to the early 1800s, artists drew great inspiration from Tintern Abbey. It’s not hard to see why the abbey lends itself so nicely to beautiful drawing, painting, and poetry.
JMW Turner was the first prominent artist to depict the abbey. He sketched the abbey on a visit in 1792 and subsequently painted “Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window” in 1794. Perhaps most famously, William Wordsworth wrote “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” in July 1798 after he visited the abbey with his sister Dorothy. Artists Frederick Calvert and James Duffield Harding depicted the abbey in “South Window” and “View of Tintern Abbey,” respectively, in 1815. In addition, Australian/English poet Louisa Anne Meredith composed four sonnets titled “Tintern Abbey in Four Sonnets” in 1835. The opening lines of her group of sonnets read as follows:
I did not visit thee "by pale moonlight" - I needed not the midnight's lonely hour To add its spells unto thy wondrous power, And people with strange form and airy sprite Each silent cloister - each deserted aisle.
Information for Visiting Tintern Abbey
As always, check out the official Tintern Abbey website before planning a visit. The abbey is normally open year-round with the exception of 24-26 December, 1 January, and private events. Tickets are free for the disabled and Cadw members and range from £4.60 for children, students, and members of the armed forces to £7.70 for adults, and £21.60 for families.
The easiest way to get to Tintern Abbey is via car. It is a 15-minute drive from Chepstow and a 45-minute drive from Cardiff. A rail station is located 4 miles away in Chepstow and a bus stop on Route 69 from Chepstow to Monmouth is located about 325 yards from the abbey.
Looking for more about Wales?
- Take a day trip to Cardiff with this guide.
- Plan a road trip through South Wales with stops at these places.