Incredibly rare medieval abbey shows power of nuns, say archaeologists in Wales

By Ben Miller | 10 June 2014

A rare medieval convent, cemetery and Tudor mansion has been found in Ceredigion. Dr Jemma Bezant reveals some of the discoveries made so far

A photo of two people digging and taking measurements on a green and brown site
The precise location of Llanllyr nunnery, in the tranquil Aeron Valley, has remained a mystery until now© Courtesy University of Wales Trinity Saint David
“Medieval nunneries like this are incredibly rare with only one other known in Wales. This is an incredibly important site dating back to at least the late 8th century.

It gives us an unparalleled opportunity to gather more information about monastic life. We know the nuns farmed sheep and cattle successfully and they would have tended mills, orchards and fishponds.

There are medieval fairs nearby at Talsarn and LLanerchaeron and they could have been trading far and wide, with coastal access only a couple of miles away at Aberaeron.

A photo of archaeologists in wellington boots digging a section of brown mud in a field
The Cadw-funded investigation held a public open day last weekend© Courtesy University of Wales Trinity Saint David
The abbey was well served by fairs and markets immediately adjacent to Llanllyr.

This was no accident, we feel – they must have successfully traded their wares through the coast, only two miles way at the same time as serving pilgrimage and diplomatic travellers as part of a European order.

We have already recovered fragments of sumptuous glazed floor tiles indicating that the nunnery was lavishly built and decorated.

The site is on a wetland valley floor and waterlogged timbers are being analysed at Lampeter Dendrochronology laboratories.

The discovery of grave features is very exciting but it is unlikely that skeletal material remains in the acidic west Wales soils.

If we are able to recover such fragments, they could tell us about who was buried here, how many lived on the estate and what kind of lives they led.

The convent was a daughter house of Strata Florida and this project complements the major research programme being undertaken by University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

Very little is known about the layout of the convent and the activities that the nuns undertook.

The convent was on the edge of a wetland valley floor that was drained and improved, although watery places were likely to have held continuing spiritual significance for the nuns and pilgrims alike. Today the Llanllyr Water Company sells this water globally.

An image of a black ink illustration showing a medieval abbey
The mansion depicted in a drawing by Thomas Dineley in 1684© Courtesy University of Wales Trinity Saint David
The nunnery turns up in brief historical glimpses.

It was founded by Rhys ap Gruffudd in around 1180 AD as a daughter house of Strata Florida nearby.

In around 1200, the famous chronicler, Gerald of Wales, writes disparagingly about Strata Florida, accusing it of stealing one of the nuns’ more productive granges at Hafodwen, nearby.

In 1284, the nuns were given monetary compensation by the crown to account for damage to the abbey during the conquest of Edward I – he built a new castle at Aberystwyth on the coast, and there were many bloody battles and uprisings.

In 1291, a general survey for tax purposes estimated that the abbey held 60 sheep and 1,200 acres.

This would be the nuns’ own ‘home farm’ but they would have been landladies, if you like, of many other tenanted farms.

Some of the abbesses and nuns would have been females from some of the most high-status and princely families of the time and may have been very influential - though invisible - from historical records much of the time.

For instance, Abbess Annes was accorded a poem by the famous Welsh bard, Huw Cae Llwyd. The praise poem records the request of an ape from Sir William Hubert, the Earl of Pembroke, as a gift for the abbess, implying a familial link between the two.  

In 1532, near the end of the life of the monastery, the surveyor and chronicler John Leland records the cell of Stratflere with Talesarne green, referring to Llanllyr and the village and fair of Talsarn.

This picture shows a U-shaped building range with three-storey buildings and many chimneys with a formal courtyard. And an estate map almost exactly a century later shows the same (we think) building range but now in an L-shape.

Using GIS - Geographic Information Systems, digital mapping techniques - we can superimpose this estate map onto the modern Ordnance Survey, showing this range of 17th-18th century buildings in a lightly wooded area and in part of a pasture field.

This has allowed us to locate our excavation trenches with fair accuracy over the site of this old mansion.

The abbey was suppressed as part of the Dissolution in the 1530s and, in 1684, Thomas Dineley records the famous picture of Llanllyr mansion depicting the arms of the Lloyd family, who were owners after the dissolution on the 26th of February 1537.

What we are hoping to be able to say with certainty is that this old mansion was built onto the medieval nunnery site.

So far we are confident that we have picked up the mansion site and its gardens and that there also appears to be medieval activity elsewhere on site – perhaps in woodland to the east, where we suspect unusually well-preserved medieval fishpond complexes, and also to the west, where there is a relict mill site and perhaps other buildings in and around the modern farmstead.

This site is rare and offers us the opportunity to discover the day-to-day lives of nuns and their household, but also to explore the influence and power of females so often absent from the historical record, to place this site into an international context."

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