Neath Abbey – Ruins not Ruin
Firstly, apologies for being so tardy in delivering this report on the March lecture, sometimes days should include double the amount of waking hours!!! (Ed)
This was the sixth time that Mr John Richards has spoken to the History Society and the packed hall was evidence that the other five had also gone down well. His topic this time was the well-known local ancient monument - Neath Abbey. Mr Richards was at pains to emphasise that the site include several ruins, as against that of the ancient abbey itself. The Norman lord Richard de Granville had bequeathed the land to site a monastery in 1130. The Normans had a reputation for being a blood thirsty race, yet their code meant that they were forbidden from spilling Christian blood. In order to overcome this encumbrance to conquering other countries, the Normans employed the clever device of penance. Pilgrimages, would atone for past sins, or indeed bequeathing land to religious orders , the appearance of Norman monks at Neath.
There is some evidence of a pre-Norman Christian presence on the site, however, the Abbey itseld was commenced in 1147. The dozen or so monks hailed from Sauvignac in Normandy, but fairly quickly joined the Cistercian (White Monk) order based at Citeaux. This began a rivalry with another Cistercian Abbey at Margam, which sometimes included fights between the lay brothers of Neath and Margam along the granges of the Neath valley. Three English kings had visited Neath Abbey during its time as a monastery, King John, Richard the First and Henry the Second. Indeed, it is reputed that Henry was captured at Neath Abbey. The Abbey itself fell into ruin in 1539 with the dissolution of the rich monasteries forced by Richard Cromwell in the service of the impecunious Henry VIII. The monks then disbanded to become the parish priests in local churches.
The Herbert family then bought the site and converted one of the wings into a Tudor style mansion. Mr Richards pointed out the divergent architectural styles of the mediaeval Abbey with its local Pennant sandstone blocks and Sutton stone English style doorways. This contrasted with the Tudor Windows and which had been constructed by the Herberts. Following the demise of the Tudor mansion, the Abbey entered an industrial phase with traces of smelting iron on the walls of some of its interior. It was later to lend its name to the Neath Abbey ironworks.
The last phase of the Abbey was the development of the Abbey as a tourist attraction and archaeological research in the twentieth century. CADW is currently a major development at the Abbey. Mr Richards made the evident point that the significance of the Neath Abbey site is not appreciated locally and indeed some local people are not really aware of its existence. Mr Richards then gave a detailed illustrated tour of the site to emphasise the history of the Abbey.
Following a lengthy question and answer session, Mr Gwyn Thomas thanked Mr Richards for giving the Society a very informative talk.