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The ruins of medieval abbeys and monasteries are found the length and breadth of Britain; but why on earth would you want to visit one? Well, no reason at all – except to wonder at the achievement, think on a time and lifestyle that was so very different to ours and bask in the beauty of some of these places.
Valle Crucis Abbey was built by the Cistercian order, which was founded in Citeaux, Burgundy, in 1098 (‘Cistercium’ is Latin for Citeaux). The Cistercians chose secluded locations to build their abbeys and, even now, Valle Crucis is an evocative spot. With a little imagination, you can picture the white-robed monks quietly going about their business of prayer and contemplation in this beautiful valley, and, if you listen carefully, hear their long-gone voices raised in song. In 1201, when work started on the building, they must have felt that they had found an idyllically isolated position.
In fact, like many abbeys, Valle Crucis found itself at the heart of political events. Not only was it blighted by a serious fire, but it was also damaged during the Welsh wars against the English. At its height, it probably sustained about 60 monks, including 40 ‘lay brethren’, who did most of the manual work. Cistercian establishments set out to be self-sufficient, and were renowned for extensive and highly productive agriculture.
Valle Crucis was one of 86 Cistercian houses in Britain. The number of brethren was greatly reduced by the ravages of the Black Death in the 14th century (see When death walked the land for more about this) and, by all accounts, though still wealthy, the Abbey was in decline when it was dissolved by order of King Henry VIII in 1537.
The abbey gets its name – “Valley of the Cross” – from Eliseg’s Pillar, originally a cross, which is just up the road to the north and was erected by the King of Powis in the 9th century in memory of his grandfather, Elisedd ap Gwylog. Inscriptions on this, now illegible, celebrated British (Welsh) achievements against the Anglo-Saxons (English). They also apparently supported entries in the Historia Brittonum, the History of the Britons, attributed to 9th century monk, Nennius. The work cannot be wholly relied on, but is one of the few written sources we have on the Dark Ages – including for the legendary King Arthur. Eliseg’s Pillar underwent a detailed archaeological investigation in 2012.
Back to Valle Crucis Abbey. It is situated on the A542, just a few miles north of Llangollen adjacent to a farm and camp site. There is parking, but it’s a bit of a pain – you might need to be patient…