From Talley To Halesowen

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Talley Abbey by Jo Homfray

Having examined the connection between Dudley castle and Dryslwyn Castle in the last issue, I will now turn my attention to another connection between Carmarthenshire, South Wales and the Black Country: Talley and Halesowen.


            Talley, or Talyllychau, (meaning “at the head of two lakes”), is a small village, just north of Llandeilo, set against a magnificent range of hills at the head of the Talley lakes. But what makes it interesting are the ruins of the Abbey, which lie within it.


            Talyllychau Abbey was founded in the Twelfth Century, (between 1184 and 1189), by the Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd, (1132-1197), or “Rhys the Great”, the ruler of the ancient Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth in south Wales and who led campaigns against both Henry II, (1133-89), and Richard I (1157-1199). He established the Abbey for a small group of Premonstratensians, or “White Canons”, from their mother house of St.John at Premontre, Amiens, in North east France. Talley Abbey was the only Premonstratensian abbey to be established in Wales. However, he also established a community of Cistercian nuns at Llanllyr, Ceredigian and supported the Norman priory of Cistercian monks at the Abbeys of Strata Florida, in Cardiganshire and Whitland in Carmarthenshire. Hence his other nick-name: “Rhys the Good”.


            The White Canons, also known as “Norbertines”, followed the teachings of St. Norbert of Xanten, (d.1134). They had a constitution and way of life based on Cistercian lines, even adopting the same white habit, hence the “White Canons”, but followed the Augustinian canons in their undertakings of duties within the parish. The emphasis of their order was upon prayers and poverty.


            However, the alienated French canons soon experienced difficult times. Their plans to construct a grand church at the heart of their new abbey were thwarted due to insufficient funds from the Rhys endowment and costly quarrels between them and their neighbouring Cistercians from Strata Florida and Whitland, who laid claim to Talley. This led to them building a much reduced church.


            There were endowments made through the years to the abbey including grants of land both near to Talley and further afield in Ceredigion, Gwent and the Gower. The rents from these estates brought in much needed income. However, Talley was never wealthy and it has been speculated that many of the abbey buildings may never have been completed.


            Further difficulties were experienced when Edward I began his conquest of Wales (1277-1301). In 1278, Talley was taken into Edward’s hands:


            “…by reason of its impoverishment through the Welsh war and by diverse inconveniences it has sustained because of that war”.  


            At the same time the canons were accused of maintaining mistresses and between 1278 and 1291 were inspected at least four times upon royal command. Although this may be due to the abbey’s patron during this period: Rhys ap Maredudd, (whose activities were examined in the last issue). Edward also stated in a letter that he intended to expel the canons of Talley and replace them with:


            “…others of the English tongue who are able and willing to observe the religious life.”


            This was possibly because the majority of canons were Welsh by this time. To emphasise his resolve, supervision and visitation rights over tally were given to Welbeck Abbey in Northhamptonshire, and later, to Halesowen Abbey.


            Halesowen Abbey, (also known as St.Mary’s Abbey), was another Premonstratensian abbey founded in 1215 when the white canons were granted the Manor of Hales by King John, (1167-1216). (Halesowen Abbey also experienced its own share of scandal – but that must be left for another time…)


            Talley continued to experience further misfortune. During the Black Death, (1348-1349), many of its tenants were wiped out, subjecting it to further impoverishment. During the revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr, a number of canons were involved in the rebellion, with one of the canons, Matthew ap Llwelyn Ddu, still being hunted in n1427 on a charge of treason.


            It struggled to survive to the Sixteenth Century when it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536. Most of the buildings were destroyed, but the abbey church was saved for its use by the parish until 1772.


            By the middle of the Nineteenth Century the whole site had collapsed into decay and become buried under later constructions. Fortunately, Stephen Williams, (1837-1889), A Victorian engineer with a great enthusiasm for monastic archaeology, initiated an excavation program at Talley. More extensive excavations were undertaken during the 1930’s, which revealed the ground plan of the abbey. Unfortunately, finds were few.


            In 2007, I had the pleasure of being the first historical interpreter to perform at Talley Abbey where I delivered a presentation upon medieval medicine in the presbytery. Facing me were the hills and the forests, behind me, the Talley lakes, where the White canons had once fished. Within these lakes, the Leeches used for blood letting, (“Hirudo Medicinalis”), can be found, although today they are a protected species. The only disconcerting aspect was the herd of Alpacas, which a farmer kept in a neighbouring field. Nevertheless, a wonderful experience, and a wonderful theatre in which to perform.  


R.R. Davies (1987) Conquest, Coexistence and Change: Wales 1063-1415. Oxford.

D.Roberts and R.Suggett (1999) A late-medieval monastic hall-house rediscovered: The King’s Court, Talyllychau. Camarthenshire Antiquary, 35, 5-11.

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