Reflections on a Visit to Tintern Abbey
Not long ago a professor colleague and I shepherded nineteen university students on a tour of sites in Europe. Caitlin, the history professor, introduced us to the story of Tintern Abbey.
It’s a beautiful place in the Wye Valley, just over the border from England into Wales. In the last two hundred years, poets and painters have celebrated the ruins of Tintern Abbey as a place to get back to nature, to appreciate wild country and perhaps to feel a bit of holy otherness. I want to reflect on the abbey’s story long before it became a talisman for romanticism.
Cistercian monks founded Tintern Abbey in the 1130s. Cistercians followed the Benedictine rule for prayer seven times a day, but they differed from other monastic orders in their desire for simplicity. Cistercian monasteries aimed at economic self-sufficiency. The Cistercian community earned its keep through a variety of enterprises: farming, manuscript copying, production of books, and (perhaps most profitably) raising sheep for wool. The monastery had a guesthouse for visitors and a hospital space for the sick. People of the region could buy a medieval version of retirement home with hospice care; an elderly person could move to the abbey and know that the brothers would take care of him until he died.
Over four hundred years, Tintern Abbey experienced good times and bad. A magnificent gothic church was built, and as many as three hundred brothers lived at the abbey at one time. At other times, plague or mismanagement brought the abbey population down. But from the 1130s to 1536, the community persisted, ministering by means of prayer and hospitality to an out-of-the-way corner of Wales.
In the 1530s, Henry VIII decided that if the pope would not grant an annulment of his marriage, he would endorse Protestant theology (some of it, anyway) and leave the Roman church. Henry himself became head of the English Church.
It was a politically charged and dangerous move. Henry feared rebellion from Catholic loyalists, and the monasteries seemed likely threats. So Henry dissolved the monasteries of England. Seizing the monastic lands made Henry suddenly the richest man in Europe, and he used his new wealth to buy loyalty from powerful nobles by distributing church property to them. The monks were displaced from Tintern Abbey, artwork and gold were shipped to London, and the abbey lands given to Henry Somerset, 2nd Earl of Worcester. Somerset turned the abbey property into cash the quickest way possible: he stripped away the lead—including the roof—and sold it. Almost overnight, the abbey community disappeared and the abandoned buildings became ruins.
In my imagination I try to enter into the mind of a monk of Tintern Abbey in the 1530s. Perhaps he came to monasticism as a youth, or maybe later in life. He feels certain that God has called him to this life of prayer, simplicity, and service. As a Cistercian he has misgivings about some church practices, for he has heard of the wealth and ostentation of Rome. But he is convinced that Martin Luther and John Calvin, the Protestants, are worse, and he is appalled that King Henry has adopted Protestant notions. For four hundred years the brothers of Tintern Abbey have been serving God by prayer and labor—and now they are turned out by the order of an English king! My imagined monk might well have been tempted by despair. How could God allow his church to suffer such injustice? What possible good could come from Henry’s destruction of the monasteries? The Cistercian monk might lament corruption in the church and yet lament even more the church’s destruction at Henry’s hands. He could not know what we know: the long cold war between Protestants and Catholics was just beginning. But he may well have felt despair over what seemed to be the death of Christianity.
And yet…God was not finished with his church. The Quaker renewal would not come for another 115 years. John Wesley and Methodism a century after that. Pentecostalism came 150 years later still. There are many other examples.
For me, the ruins of Tintern Abbey are more than a romantic poet’s wilderness. These ruins speak to me of Christians whose world was broken, who had reasons to despair over the church. And they remind me that even when the world I know seems to be going to hell, God is not done.