Robert fitz Stephen is credited with founding the celebrated Cistercian abbey of Ystrad Fflur in 1164. He was a powerful Anglo-Norman baron, constable of Cardigan castle and lord of Pennardd with extensive possessions in west Wales. It is well documented that the original settlement was situated in the connote of Pennardd on the banks of the Fflur and from which the abbey took its name. Certainly, it seems the site had been suitably chosen, near the junction of the Fflur and its tributary the Gorphen. Cistercian abbeys were normally sited between two natural channels of water (the main and tributary)
. . . for it was often the waters of the latter which were led off to flush the drainage channels of the monastery .
The Fflur, the main river in this instance, is no more than a tiny unpretentious brook a couple of miles long and a tributary of the river Teifi, a renowned river famed for its trout and salmon.
Unfortunately there is very little documentary information available relating to this old abbey site. It stood close to the present Old Abbey farm, and what is certain is that a colony of Cistercian monks (under the patronage of Robert fitz Stephen) arrived here from Whitland Abbey in the summer of 1164 . Undoubtedly, their intention was to establish a permanent Cistercian settlement here, but their initial plans and ambitions (and those of their patron Robert fitz Stephen) were short-lived.
In 1165, Rhys ap Gruffydd, (also known as The Lord Rhys) seized all Norman holdings in south Wales including Ceredigion, thereby re-establishing the old kingdom of Deheubarth, once ruled by his grandfather Rhys ap Tewdwr. Cardigan castle was captured, and with Robert fitz Stephen imprisoned, Rhys ap Gruffydd assumed patronage of the young Cistercian colony. His intervention, effectively ensured the long-term future of the abbey, and he is often regarded as the real founder of Ystrad Fflur. Reputed to be wise, cultured and shrewd, he was well aware of the benefits that the Cistercians brought to areas where they settled. Gilardus Cambrensis said  :
Relative positions of the Old Abbey site to the Old Abbey farm, Ystrad Fflur, Rhydfendigaid and neighbourhood.
. . . settle the Cistercians in some barren retreat which is hidden away in an overgrown forest: a year or two later you will find splendid churches there and fine monastic buildings, with a great amount of property and all the wealth you can imagine.
Rhys ap Gruffydd and the future of Ystrad Fflur
Unquestionably, Rhys ap Gruffydd was a true visionary and, following his victory over the Normans, he applied himself to re-invigorating his new kingdom ; he built castles to strengthen his existing military might and used his power of patronage to augment his political authority and territorial management. It is more than likely, that he was anxious from the very outset to encourage and support the infant Cistercian community, being mindful of what they could do to further his progressive ambitions. It is also highly likely that he wasted little time in outlining his intentions for Ystrad Fflur and to make it known that his plans for the abbey were much more ambitious than those of his predecessor, Robert fitz Stephen. The founding colony would have soon realized that the existing site (situated between two small insignificant streams, the Gorphen and the Fflur) was hopelessly inadequate to accommodate their new patron’s ambitions. Finding a new location must have been an early priority. Eventually, they settled on a spot (where the remains of the celebrated abbey of Ystrad Fflur stand today) about two miles north-east of the original location and separated from it by some rugged mountainous terrain. Vestiges of the old site have now long gone and it is often dismissed (and ignored) as simply a temporary base-camp and of no real historical significance.
Why not Ystrad Teifi?
On the other hand, the ruins of its succesor (also named Ystrad Fflur) still stand proudly, straddled by two remarkable rivers – the Glasffrwd and the Teifi. The latter is one of the longest and most beautiful rivers in Wales, a noble river according to Giraldus Cambrensis. And therein lies an enigma. Why build a majestic edifice on the banks of a noble river and give it the name of an earlier temporary site situated about two miles away, near a scrubby, tiny brook called Fflur?
What is more, why would Rhys ap Gruffydd wish to retain a name which was so closely associated with an Anglo-Norman baron whom he had just defeated in battle and imprisoned? If the old abbey site was still, as is currently thought by many, at an early stage of development, then presumably the name given to it would have had no historical or time-honoured significance. In relocating to a new site close to a noble river, surely Ystrad Teifi would have been a more discerning and honourable eponym.
The river Fflur about ¾ mile below the Old Abbey farm
Despite the lack of rigorous documentary proof, tradition has it that the Cistercians from Whitland Abbey were not the first to colonize the old abbey site, and there is some convincing long-held local lore suggesting that a modest but permanent monastry (the very original Ystrad Fflur) stood near the present Old Abbey farm prior to 1164. Stephen Williams, whose work on the history and architecture of Ystrad Fflur is widely acknowledged, claimed that Rhys ap Tewdwr founded an old monastery for monks of some order on the banks of the Fflur sometime during his reign as king of the Deheubarth (1078 – 1093). He believed the place must have been, at one time, the site of a significant religious house, although it could not be compared, he said, in size or splendour with its successor near the Teifi and the Glasffrwd. However, he added that:
. . . the application of the title ‘Ystrad Fflur’ to a building not on the Fflur implies the existence of an earlier building of which it was the recognised successor.
He also suggested that the Whitland colony took advantage of an old abbey which was :
. . . in a ruinous condition owing to the long-continued wars in which the country had been engaged in . . . since Rhys ap Tewdwr’s death, and that . . . the Cluniac monastery as it was called by Camden, became merged in the new foundation for the Cistercian order in 1164 .
Certainly, it was not unknown at the time for some extant monasteries to become established Cistercian houses.
For further testimonies underpinning the belief that Rhys ap Tewdwr was the original founder of Ystrad Fflur on the banks of the Fflur, click button
The existence of an old abbey founded by Rhys ap Gruffyd’s grandfather on the bank of the Fflur would go a long way towards explaining why Rhys would wish to retain the name Ystrad Fflur.
There is another good reason. An old long-established monastery would have been a place of pilgrimage albeit, perhaps, not a very important one. But whatever the number of visitors per year they would be a source of income for the abbey. It is reasonable to assume that the old abbey would be known to many pilgrims but, in particularly, to those who could ill-afford to travel long distances for their salvation. And in common with all other holy places, it would be important for Ystrad Fflur to have an established and readily recognized name – what could be called today a brand or trade name. Pilgrims, on their journeys around the country, swapped stories about different houses of religion, the relics they possesed, etc. Promotion was by word-of-mouth, and a long-established historic name was an asset.
Changing a name at any time could lead to some confusion, but changing it at a time of a major upheaval (such the relocation of the old abbey to Ystrad Fflur) could result in a loss of identity and revenue. Maintaining some continuity must have been a priority for the monks, and keeping the original title of Ystrad Fflur was probably a well considered decision.
Rhys ap Tewdwr
Rhys ap Tewdwr’s was a member of the House of Dinefwr and a powerful king of Deheubarth. He was the last of his line to hold the title of king or prince of Deheubarth and it seems more than likely that he was the first to found a monastery on the banks of the Fflur. What is more, he was Rhys ap Gruffydd’s grandfather and it is quite possible that the young Rhys was probably motivated in part to move against Robert fitz Stephen to avenge the killing of his grandfather by the Normans. But his overiding ambition must have been to reposses the land lost to the Normans and become, like his grandfather before him, sole ruler of the kingdom of Deheubarth, something his father failed to achieve.
To read more about Rhys ap Twedwr click here
Continuity was also at the heart of their thinking when choosing a site for their trade fairs. These fairs were a needed element in the economy of the abbey to help further the buying and selling of goods and attracting visitors to the abbey itself. To read more about the fairs, see page Ffair- Rhos and the Old Abbey
 David H Williams, The Welsh Cistercians, Volume 1, Caldey Island, Tenby, p 13.
 Robinson, D. M., Strata Florida Abbey and Talley Abbey, CADW, Welsh Assembly Government, 2007, p 23.
 Gerald of Wales, Journey Through Wales, trans. L. Thorpe (Harmondsworth,1978).
 Stephen W Williams, The Cistercian Abbey of Strata Florida, London,1889, p 22
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