Mellifont Abbey

 

Mellifont Abbey in County Louth is one of the most interesting if inconspicuous (at first glance) abbeys in Ireland.

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It was founded by St. Malachy, with a group of Irish and French monks in 1142. It was the first Cistercian monastery in Ireland.

The Cistercian Order was founded in 1098 in Citeaux in what is now France. While its foundation is complex, essentially it was a reaction against the perceived corruption and extravagance of the older Benedictine monasteries like Cluny. The aim of the Cistercian Order was to return to the original ideals of St Benedict and to live a very simple life. Cistercian abbeys were usually isolated and self sufficient, though the lay brothers did the work on the farms because the monks were cloistered. They lived simply and ascetically, closely following the rule, away from the gold, excesses and luxuries often seen in the bigger older monasteries. They also deliberately founded daughter houses. By 1153 over 350 houses had been established across Europe, including Mellifont. This was at least partly due to the work of the man who is probably the best known Cistercian of his period; Bernard of Clairvaux.

Bernard is not one of my favourite historical figures, largely due to his puritanical opposition to Eleanor of Aquitaine when she was Queen of France. He was, however important. He joined the Cistercian Order as a novice in 1113 and by 1115 was the founding abbot of one of the early daughter houses in Clairvaux. He preached the 2nd crusade, was a councillor to Louis VII and had an immense amount of influence. He died in 1153 and was canonised  by 1174.

It was Bernard’s friend St Malachy who founded Mellifont Abbey. He was granted the land by Donnchadh Ua Cerbhaill, King of Airghialla. It was founded with roughly 300 monks and 300 conventuals. The church in the abbey was consecrated in 1157. The remains of part of the transept can be seen below.

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The foundation was part of a general re-evaluation of christianity in Ireland. There were several Synods leading up to Mellifont’s foundation in 1142. Furthermore the Cistercians were only one of a number of continental orders that arrived in Ireland at around the same time.

Mellifont might have been the first Cistercian abbey in Ireland, but it certainly wasn’t the last. It was the mother house for at least 8 daughter houses by 1153, including Boyle Abbey which was founded in 1148. The church of which can be seen below.

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The Cistercian Order spread quickly, partly because of Ireland’s landscape, which worked well for the Cistercian model of isolated self-sufficiency. The abbeys were also supported by the incoming Norman-French/ English nobility who came to Ireland in c.1170. Many of the Cistercian abbeys can be found in parts of Ireland that were  under Norman control by 1200. An example is Tintern Abbey which was founded by William Marshal.

Marshal came to visit his lands in Ireland that came to him by right of his wife Isabel de Clare in 1200-1201. They were caught in a terrible storm crossing the Irish Sea and Marshal vowed to God that if they survived he would found an abbey. The ship didn’t sink and Marshal kept his word. As thanks to God for their survival he founded Tintern Abbey, which  stands on Hook Head Peninsula. It’s known as Tintern of the Vow as well as Tintern Parva, meaning small Tintern in Latin. It can be seen below.
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It is a daughter house of Tintern Abbey in Wales, which also stood on Marshal land. It can be seen below.

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As you can see from the photos of other surviving Cistercian abbeys there is comparatively little left at Mellifont. IMG_4577IMG_4569IMG_4567IMG_4571It, like many other abbeys, was a victim of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. Following the Dissolution the buildings came to Sir Edward Moore who converted them into a fortified residence. It played a role in several Irish wars and during the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 King William based his headquarters there. It fell into disrepair in the early 18th century and eventually ended up in the hands of the state in the 1880s.

Despite that lack of large buildings remaining there are some fascinating surviving features. The one most people notice is the lavabo which dates to the beginning of the 13th century and would have been where the monks washed before entering the refectory. You can see it in the photos below. It is an unusual survival partly because it was octagonal.

IMG_4568IMG_4566Additionally much of the intricate stone work has survived and can be found preserved in the visitors centre. Examples can be seen below.

My favourite survivals however are the medieval tiles. I’ve written about medieval tiles before and that can be found here. 

The tiles at Mellifont aren’t in the original positions and they are kept in formation in a closed off area because they were damaged by vandalism. They were most likely first introduced to Mellifont sometime after 1230. Intricate patterns adorn the tiles. They represent  roughly 10 or 11 of the common medieval tile designs. You can see examples of surviving tiles below. IMG_4557IMG_4560

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I was also lucky enough to be able to have a look at some of the individual tiles which are in storage, including a really lovely lion rampant tile (see below). The tiles are surprisingly heavy and are earthenware with a lead glaze. They were fired in batches in a kiln. Mellifont would have bought them in, not made them on site

IMG_4564Most of these tiles were discovered during an excavation in the 1950s.

The overall evolution of Mellifont Abbey architecturally was key to religious architectural development in Ireland generally. It would have possessed some of the most dramatic and beautiful church buildings in Ireland. By 1540 Mellifont held estates that extended to 50 000 acres making the abbot one of the wealthiest landlords in the country. It was remodelled on several occasions and it is likely that other religious buildings across Ireland would have been based on its design. The photo below is a model which shows how the abbey itself might have looked at the height of its powers.

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Mellifont benefited from the support of many noble families including local Irish nobility, especially in its early years before the Norman conquest. For example Dervogilla, who was the wife of O’Rourke of Breffini, gave a gold chalice for the altar and furnishing for nine other altars as a gift for the consecration of the church in 1157. Only a little before this gift Dervogilla had, unwittingly, become one of the key sources in the Norman invasion of ireland.

Diarmait Mac Murchada was King of Leinster. He was involved with the other kings of Ireland in various disputes and battles. In 1152 during yet another conflict he carried off Dervogilla, who was the wife of his old enemy O’Rourke, and her cattle. Depending what source you believe she may have been consenting as her husband was a bit of a tyrant. This abduction was a personal insult to O’Rourke and he held a grudge. Although O’Rourke managed to reclaim Dervogilla, a little over a year later, he never forgave or forgot Diarmait. His grudge helped to lead to Diarmait’s loss of his kingdom in 1166 and his subsequent request for help from Henry II, which brought the Norman/French to Ireland in 1169. The never left again.

Dervogilla may have stayed with her husband after being reclaimed, but as well as Mellifont she had the Church of the Nuns at Clonmacnoise built. You can see some of Clonmacnoise in the photo below.

IMG_3598Dervogilla retired in 1186 to Mellifont and she died there. It is possible that she was buried in the wall of the church and legend has it that she was buried the wrong way round because she was a “fallen woman”.

Mellifont Abbey was at the core of faith in Ireland from its foundation in 1142 until its dissolution in the 16th century. It shaped the way religion was enacted in the country and it shaped the development of many other religious houses. For what now, especially in comparison to other sites, seems to be a small and inconspicuous grouping of walls and buildings it is of national historical importance.

 

References:

Site visit to Mellifont, Boyle, Clonmacnoise in 2015. Site visit to Tintern Pava in 2012 and 2015. Site visit to Tintern 2012.

Mellifont Abbey OPW guide-book.

Ireland Under The Normans 1169-1333 by Goddard Henry Orpen. ISBN: 9781851827152

Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 1980: Mellifont Abbey: A Study of Its Architectural History by Stalley. pg 264  http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.slv.vic.gov.au/stable/25506059

Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy :Excavations at Mellifont Abbey, Co. Louth: Liam de Paor, J. Hunt, H. J. Plenderleith and Michael Dolley pg 110. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.slv.vic.gov.au/stable/25505154http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.slv.vic.gov.au/stable/25505154

A Monastic Landscape: The Cistercians in medieval Ireland. Dr. Breda Lynch. ISBN. 9781453561003

Special thanks to Lindsay from OPW at the site who answered all my questions and showed me the tiles.

The photos are all mine.

 

Round Towers of Ireland

These structures have always fascinated me.

They were usually built sometime between the 9th and 12th centuries. They were generally part of monasteries and while they were built to stand alone some have been incorporated into later buildings. They are surprisingly uniform in design with circumferences at the base usually between 14 and 17 m and wall thickness from 0.9m and 1.7m. They also almost all have doors raised above the ground at least 3 m and they have at least four windows at the top, each of which often faces a cardinal point, along with more windows at lower levels in the tower. Most stand at close to 100 feet. There is a possibility that the dimensions were determined by the role of certain numbers in christian theology. They also had several levels connected by ladders. Additionally it is worth noting that the surviving conical tops were often reconstructed in later time periods.

Debate still continues as to their purpose. It is possible that they were simply bell towers, part of the system of the call to prayer with the height made necessary by the size of the ecclesiastical sites. They may have also been symbols reaching towards the glory of God and illustrating the importance of the ecclesiastical site, conveying messages of spiritual and temporal power. There is also an argument, though currently thought of as a little less likely, that they were watch towers and were part of defence systems. They may have been built partly as a response to Viking and other attacks. The monks would have been able to climb in, store their treasures, burn the stairs to the door, keep the raiders out and possibly ring bells from the top of the tower to call for assistance. Essentially no one is absolutely certain as to their purpose. It is also plausible that there were multiple purposes, combinations of the possibilities listed above.

They are immense structures though, the tallest at Kilmacduagh stands at 102 feet and is on a slight lean. They are beautiful and a testament to the ability of their builders as there are over thirty still standing in varying states of repair across Ireland.

Below you can see examples from all around Ireland of these beautiful and truly intriguing buildings.

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Glendalough Round Tower built between 900 and 1200.

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Glendalough Round Tower.

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St Canice’s Cathedral and Round Tower. Built c. 1111.

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View from St Canice’s  Round Tower.

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Interior of St Canice’s  Round Tower. It’s one of the only Round Towers you can climb.

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Kilmacduagh Round Tower c. 10th century.

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Kilmacduagh Round Tower.IMG_3586

The taller of Clonmacnoise’s two Round Towers c. 12th century.

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The taller of Clonmacnoise’s two Round Towers.

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The shorter of Clonmacnoise’s two Round Towers c. 12th century.

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Round Tower at Drumlane Abbey c. 10th- 11th century with c. 15th century additions.

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Round Tower at Drumlane Abbey.

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Kells high cross and Round Tower. The Round Tower dates to 10th century.

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Kells Round Tower.

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Monasterboice Round Tower 10th century.

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Monasterboise high cross and Round Tower.

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Donaghmore church and Round Tower 11th-12th century.

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Donaghmore Round Tower

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Lusk church and Round Tower c. 11th century.

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Lusk Round Tower

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Cashel Round Tower c. 11th century.

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Cashel Round Tower.

You can see the astounding similarity in all these towers. They truly stand as a testament to the immense skill of their builders and will, I’m sure, continue to fascinate people well into the future.

For more information see

This truly excellent article by Russell Ó Ríagáin which also investigates the possible influences in the building of the round towers.

https://www.academia.edu/399978/The_Round_Towers_of_Ireland_Date_Origins_Functions_and_Symbolism

For some more general information

http://www.roundtowers.org/

http://www.catholicireland.net/irelands-round-towers/

all the photos are mine.

Fontevraud, Robert d’Arbrissel and Monasticism.

Fontevraud has appeared in some of my other posts because Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard I and Isabelle of Angouleme are buried there.

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Isabelle of Angouleme and Richard I

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Henry II and Eleanor

It is, however, an absolutely fascinating place in its own right and one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen.

Fontevraud was founded in c. 1101 by Robert d’Arbrissel. The remains of his tomb can be seen below.

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Robert d’ Arbrissel was an enigma even in his own time. Fulke V of Anjou described him as a thunderclap of holy exhortation which lit up the whole church with its eloquence. Peter Abelard, a fascinating figure in his own right, called him “That outstanding herald of Christ.” But many contemporary churchmen viewed Robert as a danger to his own soul and the souls of his female followers. Robert was everything from a parish priest, to a student, to a hermit, but he has been remembered as the founder of Fontevraud.

Fontevraud was an atypical abbey even for its time because it was founded as a mixed community of men and women and the Abbess ruled over the whole community, male and female. This was exceptionally unusual. The fact that many of Robert’s followers were women was part of the reason he was distrusted, but was also in a way a product of his times. With older men marrying much younger women widowhood was common, but it is clear at Robert’s message and personality attracted not only widows but unhappy wives. Some of his followers were also former clerical wives cast aside in the newer push for chastity amongst the clergy. This was also a time where clerical celibacy was seen to imply a strict separation of men and women in religious life. An ideal that Robert definitively did not share. (Venarde, xi-xxix).

In fact it is quite possible that the majority of Robert’s followers were women. The only piece of surviving spiritual writing from Robert himself is directed to Countess Ermengarde of Brittany who was the sister of Robert’s main patron Count Fulke V of Anjou.

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The walls of Chateau d’Angers the home of the Counts of Anjou, though these were built after the time of Count Fulke V.

Ermengarde herself was fascinating. She was the daughter of Fulke the IV of Anjou, engaged but never married to Duke William IX of Aquitaine, the grandfather of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and then the wife of Count Alan IV of Brittany. She was her husband’s regent while he was on crusade from 1096 till 1101. She became dissatisfied with her marriage and attempted to end it through flight and an appeal to an ecclesiastical court, but she failed to get the annulment. It was shortly after this in 1109 that Robert wrote to her. She was described by poet-bishop Marbode of Rennes, who hated Robert, as powerfully eloquent, extremely astute and the glory of Brittany. In later life, after her husband retired to a monastery in 1112, she played an important role in the court of her son before following Bernard of Clairvaux to Burgundy. Bernard himself was an interesting figure, if very strange and in my opinion quite annoying, and I will write more on him in a later post. In Burgundy she became a nun before going with some fellow nuns to the Holy Land where her brother Fulke was King of Jerusalem. She returned to Brittany where she remained active at the court until she died in 1147. The extent of her relationship with Robert is unknown, it is possible that she visited Fontevraud but it can’t be proven. The letter he wrote to her just after she attempted to have her marriage annulled is very interesting.(Venarde, 68-69).

It is too long to go into great detail here, but a basic breakdown is possible.

1. The spirit of pride is bad

2. Do not trust or yield to every spirit

3. Take heart and be strong.

4. Do not regret too much that you are bound to an infidel husband. You can still benefit God’s people.

5. Don’t be too anxious about changes of place and appearance.

6. Fear not enemies of Christ for they will not harm you unless God allows it.

7/8. Do not get puffed up by good fortune or shattered by adversity, for those who fear God want for nothing.

9. Believe, love, hope in God, do good, settle in the land of your heart and feed on its riches.

10. Flee the wicked words of savage men in your heart.

11. Alms and prayer are good if done for God but profit nothing if done for the praise of mankind.

12. Many clerics are hypocrites

13. You can not get out of your own marriage but you should do what you can to get your daughter out her her’s as it consanguineous.

14. Don’t disclose all your plans to all your household and friends, many are self serving.

15. Exercise caution and discretion in all things.

(Venarde, 68-79).

Fontevraud also rose out of a period of change for monasticism in general. There was the beginnings of a shift in the way monasticism was practiced. The Cistercians rose out of a reaction against the interpretation of benedictine monasticism which created great wealth and power for the institutions, not the monks themselves necessarily. The best example of this was the monastery of Cluny which was founded  in 910 and financed by Duke William I of Aquitaine. Cluny created a number of brother and sister houses which answered directly to Cluny. By Robert’s time it had gained exceptional wealth.

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The Exterior of the Musee du Moyen Age in Paris. Which was originally the Paris townhouse of the Abbots of Cluny.

The Cistercians were a reaction against the opulence and focus on wealth that Cluny represented. They favoured a strict adherence to the rule of Benedict and Bernard of Clairvaux was one of the leading lights. The Cistercians wanted to go back to the basics and their monasteries were heavily focused on self sufficiency, simplicity and were often remote and agrarian.

riveauxRiveaux Abbey, a Cistercian abbey in England.

Robert’s Fontevraud was different again. In c. 1101 Robert settled his followers at what would become Fontevraud. Until that point he had been an itinerant preacher, albeit with a significant number of followers including a number of noble women. In fact he departed to continue preaching by c. 1103 having seen the beginning of permanent monastic settlement and appointed two female superiors. However it was not until October 1115 that an Abbess of Fontevraud was appointed after Fontevraud has been recognised by papal authority. Robert’s intentions for this mixed community were never exactly clear, except for working towards spiritual excellence. Despite this when he died on February 25th 1116 and was buried at Fontevraud, Fontevraud and the daughter houses it had established were, as described by Venarde, “Well on the way to becoming the wealthiest order of monasteries for women in Roman Catholic Europe.” (Venarde, xxii).

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The statutes of Fontrevraud are reasonably clear but they don’t conform exactly to specific monastic orders. Sisters and brothers lived and worshipped together. The women were guided by the rule of St Benedict, but the statutes don’t make clear whether the male members are to follow Benedictine or Augustine rule. So they are neither monks nor cannons, they are simply called brothers and Robert makes clear they are in the service of and obedient to the women of Fontevraud. (Venarde, 84-87).

There were a number of interesting women who became Abbesses of Fontevraud, Petronilla the first Abbess being one of them. She was a noble widow who became a follower of Robert’s and he personally appointed her the first Abbess of Fontevraud. Another was Matilda of Anjou. She was abbess from c. 1150 -1158. She is remarkable because if not for one of the most interesting accidents in the medieval period she would have been Queen of England. She was the daughter of Fulke the V of Anjou, the brother of Ermengarde and patron of Robert, but she was married to William the only legitimate son of Henry I. William drowned on the White Ship in 1120 along with much of the young nobility of England and France. Matilda could have remained at court and she did for a time. Henry I was more than happy to have her and he would have married her off again. In the end though she took vows at Fontevraud in c. 1128 and became Abbess there in c. 1150.

Many of the early Plantagenets were patrons of Fontevraud, as evidenced by the fact that four of the them are buried there. Indeed Eleanor of Aquitaine spent her last years there and died there in the 1204. She was a great patron of Fontevraud throughout her life. One of her surviving charters is evidence of her patronage. In this charter she gives the abbey and the “nuns serving God there” the “rent of one hundred pounds, in perpetual alms, from the provosture of Poitiers and the vineyard of Benon, particularly what is received from Marcilly.” (Epistolae).

Fontevraud as a complex of buildings has gone through many changes since it was built. The church was begun to hold the body of Robert and is Romanesque in style with a Byzantine influence. It dates from successive periods in the 1100s. You can see the interior below.

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You can see the spectacular grandeur of Fontevraud’s exterior built in the beautiful creamy local tuffeau stone in the photos below.

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When it was built much of the interior would have been painted.  Some of the early paint remains in fragmented sections.

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Some of the later paintings can be seen in more detail. As can be seen in the  chapter house photo below, which was painted and remodelled in the 16th century to show the wealth and prestige of King Francis I.

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 Probably my favourite of all the buildings is the kitchen. It  dates to the early 1100s though it has been remodelled. It is built of the more heat resistant charente stone. It is also built in the Byzantine Romanesque style brought back from the crusades.

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font kitchen

The interior is constructed so one embrasure was used to make hot coals and the meals were cooked in the embrasures away from the prevailing wind to prevent the blowback of smoke. The central chimney got rid of both smoke and vapours.

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The fact that anything of Fontevraud survives at all is really saying something because it was deconsecrated in the revolution and  Napoleon decided to use it as a prison in 1804 and it remained one for a long time. In fact the last prisoners left in 1985.  The abbey was completely restored in the 20th century and now is also used for a variety of art installations such as the two that can be seen below. The first was in the dormitories and the second was in the cloister and could be walked on, giving you different perspectives of an ancient building.

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Font art

The gardens are also absolutely worth visiting.

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Font garden

It is a truly beautiful place with a fascinating history. A place where the calm seems to have seeped into the stone.font cloisterI went to Fontevraud so I could see Eleanor of Aquitaine’s tomb but it is much more than that. It is truly one of the most incredible places I have ever been.

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Bruce L. Venarde. Robert of Arbrissel. ISBN: 9780813213545.

Eleanor of Aquitaine Charter to Fontevrault, 1185 at http://epistolae.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/letter/885.html, accessed 26/9/2010.

Other sources include the signs at Fontevraud, and my university course notes on monasticism.

The photos are all mine.