Not far from the A548 coast road at Greenfield, Flintshire, is the peaceful site of Basingwerk Abbey, founded in 1132 by Ranulf de Gernon, the fourth Earl of Chester, who brought the Benedictine monks from the Savigny monastery in southern Normandy to North Wales. The abbey became part of the Cistercian order in 1147 and ten years later became affiliated to the Buildwas Abbey in Shropshire, thanks to which the Basingwerk Cistercians received significant salaries and lands in the English county of Derbyshire. In that same year Owain Gwynedd, Prince of Wales, encamped at Basingwerk with his army before facing the forces of Henry II at the Battle of Ewloe. The abbey suited him for its strategic location as it blocked the route Henry had to take to reach Twthill Castle near Rhuddlan, and in the fights which followed the English were defeated near Ewloe.
In the first half of the 13th century the abbey was under the patronage of Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd. His son Dafydd Llywelyn gifted to the monastery St. Winefred’s Well with its pilgrimage chapel and the monks used the nearby Holywell stream to run a corn mill and process the wool from their sheep. In the latter part of that century the abbey suffered considerable damage during the Welsh/English wars and for that reason, in 1284, King Edward I paid compensation of £100 but by the end of the century the monastery’s revenues had become very low, though the situation was improved by permits obtained from Edward for weekly markets and annual fairs.
During the 15th century the monks benefitted greatly from the pilgrimage movement and the abbey wasn’t without its royal visitors. In 1416 King Henry V arrived on foot having made a pilgrimage from Shrewsbury to Holywell and in 1461 the abbey was visited by Edward IV. It was during that century that disputes occurred over the appointment of the abbots. In 1430 the monastery was occupied by Henry Wirral, a self-appointed abbot who ruled until 1454 when he was arrested for various offences; another dispute flared up soon afterwards between one Richard Kirby, previously a monk of Aberconwy, and Edmund Thornbar and though Edmund received the support of the general chapter Richard held office until 1476. The disputes were only brought to an end by the rule of the abbey’s first Welsh abbot Thomas Pennant between 1481 and 1523, a man greatly respected and adored for his generosity, high education and love of music and poetry.
In 1536, at the start of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the abbey was dissolved, its lands were granted to various non-religious owners and by the spring of 1537 all monastic life had terminated. Most of the buildings were dismantled, with some of the lead being used to repair Holt Castle near Wrexham and some being taken to Ireland for use in Dublin Castle, while the impressive roof truss went to the church in Cilcain near Mold and some of the stained glass was taken to Llanasa Parish Church just a few miles away. Eventually Basingwerk Abbey fell into ruin and it’s these ruins which can be seen today.
The original abbey church had a central nave and two aisles and at only 50 metres long it was among the smallest Cistercian churches in Wales. From the 13th century the plan of the abbey came into line with the rule of the Cistercian Order and various parts were built, rebuilt, added to and extended over the years.
The church’s southern transept was adjacent to a narrow sacristy just 1.8 meters wide behind which the chapter house was located within the ground floor of the east wing; initially a square shape, at the beginning of the 13th century it was rebuilt and extended eastwards. On its south side was a narrow parlour where the monks could talk freely without fear of breaking vows and the extension ended with a day room, above which was a dormitory on the first floor; this was connected by ‘night stairs’ to the church’s south transept to allow monks to quickly reach night masses.
In the mid-13th century a refectory 20 meters x 8 metres was built on the south wing, and typical of Cistercian abbeys it projected beyond the outline of the monastery buildings. In the 14th century new Gothic cloisters were created and the buildings on the south east side were enlarged, though these were rebuilt again towards the end of the century. By the end of the 15th century the abbey had been roofed with lead and decorated with stained glass windows, and new rooms had been built for guests on the south-east side. Of the ruins which can be seen today the 13th century refectory building is the one which has survived in the best condition, along with the western wall of the church’s southern transept, fragments of the east wing and the guest rooms on the south east side.
Following the abbey’s dissolution in 1536 the site was leased in May 1537 to Hugh Starkey who retained custody until 1540 when it was sold for just over £28 to Henry, the son of Harry of Llanasa, and Peter Mutton of Meliden. In later years the site was sold to the Mostyns of Talacre and it stayed within the family through the generations until 1923 when Miss Clementina Mostyn passed it into the care of the Welsh Office, through which it then passed into the care of Cadw in 1984.
Since August 1991 Basingwerk has been Grade l listed as an important example of a Welsh Cistercian abbey and is also classed as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Now part of the Greenfield Valley Heritage Park the abbey is still a significant religious site and is the starting point of the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way, a long-distance walking route stretching over 80 miles south to Bardsey, the ‘Island of 20,000 Saints’ off the Llyn Peninsula.
Apart from New Year’s Day and three days over Christmas the abbey and its grounds are open daily, free to visit and dog friendly. The ancient remains have a fascinating history and through its wonderful architectural features it’s still possible to gain a sense of the dignity and grandeur of this once proud Cistercian abbey.