Monastic Wales.

Remnants of Strata Florida

The layout of the church and monastic buildings at Strata Florida was fairly typical for a Cistercian house. The church was cruciform with an aisled nave, square-ended presbytery and side transepts. The cloister and its ranges were south-facing, making optimum use of the heat and light from the sun.

The church
The west doorway is the most striking remnant of the medieval church to survive and would have made an impressive entrance into the abbey church for visitors to Strata Florida; but it was also used by the monks as a processional entrance into the church. It is a work of great craftsmanship and fuses various styles with its roll mouldings and spiral motifs seen here. There were likely three lancet windows above the door and perhaps an oculus (round window) above that.
Today there is a clear view from the west end of the church to the east, where the presbytery was. This was not the case in the Middle Ages when a stone screen - the pulpitum - separated the nave from the monks' choir in the east. The pulpitum's stone footings survive indicating where it once stood. The bases of two altars on the west side of the pulpitum would have served the lay brothers whose choir was in the nave.
The nave was divided into seven bays and likely had a clerestory above the arcades. The lay brothers' choirstalls would have backed on to screen walls that separated the aisles from the nave; each bay was marked by a pair of pillars that was rather unusually set on top of the screen walls.
The monks' choir occupied the east of the church, at the crossing, but may initially have extended into the first bay of the nave. The timber choirstalls were set against the partitions which screened off the aisles and would have enclosed the choir. A rather unusual feature in the choir is a stone-lined basin in the middle of the floor - view image. It is not clear what exactly this was; it may simply have been connected to drainage, or it was perhaps used for the weekly Maundy when the abbot washed the monks' feet after the example of Christ washing the disciples' feet.
Two steps led from the choir to the presbytery; the site of the sanctuary is indicated by another step, now covered in grass. From the early fourteenth century the High Altar was near this step. Remnants of what seemingly were a piscina and sedilia can be seen in the recess in the south wall.
In the late twelfth century the extended part of the presbytery which comprised three bays was vaulted in stone (rib-vaulted) and was duly spared from damage in the fire of 1284.
The transepts were vaulted in stone and each had three chapels; it was more common to have just two. A step led to each chapel and another to the altar that was fixed on the east wall. Surviving stone bosses may have been inserted in the roof above the altars. The south transept is slightly older than the north and is the better preserved of the two; traces of the painted wall plaster and glazed floor tiles can be seen in situ. Excavations here in the late 1880s uncovered the foundations of the monks' nightstairs near the south wall; these provided covered access from the monks' dormitory on the first floor of the east range to their choir in the church. There would have been two canopied tombs in the recesses on the south wall - one was seemingly a fourteenth-century knight, the other a lady. An ornately carved doorway in the north transept led to the monks' cemetery; a stair near the north chapel gave access to the roof space and perhaps the bell-tower.

The church interior
The church would have been richly decorated with arches, mouldings, capitals and bosses, as well as carved timber. Various motifs were painted on the walls including foliage and geometric designs. Alternating bands of purple Caerbwdy stone and pale cream limestone from the Bristol Channel brought colour to the interior and produced a similar effect to that seen in St David's. This use of alternating colours was common in the West Country from at least the early twelfth century. Additional colour was introduced through the insertion of painted glass in some of the windows and from the early fourteenth century red-brown glazed floor tiles in the east of the church; several thousand of these survive and some can be seen today in the south transept: Click to view. They depict a variety of images including a griffin, birds, fleur-de-lis and a man holding a mirror which was perhaps an allegory of vanity view tile. In the presbytery a rather unusual domino motif decorated the ribs and the detail was picked out in red and black further enhancing the interior.

The cloister and ranges
The cloister stood to the south of the church and was accessed via a door in the south aisle; most of the dressed stone has been robbed from this doorway but it would have been an ornate and impressive entrance. The cloister garth was surrounded by three ranges which were initially open but in the later Middle Ages were enclosed with the addition of windows and a lean-to roof. Much of the cloister is now visible although the southern range lies beneath the seventeenth-century manor house; the warming house, refectory and kitchen were likely on this range. The north alley was used for reading and private study. The monks also gathered here for the Collation reading which took place before Compline. The monk assigned to read to his fellow brethren would have stood at a lecturn which was positioned in the alcove that survives in the centre of the alley. The rest of the community sat on stone benches against the wall of the church.

The east range
The east range was of two storeys with the monks' dormitory occupying the upper level and the sacristy / library and chapterhouse on the lower floor.
The building immediately abutting the church on the east accommodated the sacristy and library. A door connected the sacristy to the church whilst the library opened on to the cloister. The pit that can be seen near the east wall of the presbytery is in fact part of the burial vault for tombs in the south transept.

The chapterhouse
The chapterhouse stood beside the sacristy and was a large and impressive building but has a 'complex' structural history (Robinson). The building probably dates from the late twelfth century and was originally contained within the range but in the 1220s it was extended and reconstructed; a new entrance was made with an ornate central doorway and it was perhaps at this time that the building was extended eastwards beyond the range. Later it was contracted. A partition was probably inserted to divide the vestibule from the east end extension that was now used solely for burial. A number of members of the Deheubarth family were buried here in the thirteenth century.
Remnants of the benches on which the monks sat during the chapter meetings can be seen around the walls.

The west range
Some traces of the west range survive. This was probably a two-storey building and largely for the lay brothers whose refectory would have been on the ground floor and their dormitory above. There was probably also cellarage and a parlour. [1]

Current research
Exciting new research at Strata Florida is exploring the monastic precinct and its surroundings. Geophysics has revealed what may have been a large inner gatehouse to the west, as well as an infirmary and mill to the south and perhaps a guest-house just south of the gatehouse. Other buildings seem to include ‘back’ gates and the refectory out of which the plas of Mynachlog Fawr was built.
For further details see:

D. Robinson and C. Platt, Strata Florida Abbey Talley Abbey, Cadw Guide (Cardiff, rev. edn 1998); D. Robinson, The Cistercians in Wales: Architecture and Archaeology 1130-1540, Society of Antiquaries of London, Research Committee Report (London 2006), pp. 267-274; The Cistercian abbeys of Britain: far from the concourse of men, ed. D. M. Robinson (London, 1998).

Monastic sites related to this article

Strata Florida, Ceredigion(Abbey)