Llanllyr was a house of Cistercian women, founded in 1190 by the great Lord Rhys, ruler of Deheubarth. The position of the women’s houses in the Cistercian order was always equivocal. Women were accepted only reluctantly, and as second-class members of the order. They were strictly enclosed, which made it impossible for them to live according to the order's guiding principle of self-sufficiency.
Llanllyr was unusual among Welsh Cistercian houses in that its name suggests there was an earlier settlement in the area. Llan is the Welsh for a church enclosure. More, Llanllyr has one of the earliest inscribed stones in Wales, recording the gift of a patch of waste land belonging to one Ditoc, which Occon son of Asaitgen gave to Madomnuac. These are Irish names, and the formula suggests that Madomnuac was a priest, possibly the head of a religious community. Many of these early religious communities were mixed, but mixed communities came in for too much criticism after the reforms of the eleventh century were brought to Wales by the Normans. Could Llanllyr have been the home of a community of religious women which survived until the end of the twelfth century and eventually adopted the Cistercian rule?
Llanllyr is set in fertile ground in the head waters of the Aeron valley, but the site itself is in the marshes and the land with which the abbey was endowed was not good. This was fairly typical of the women’s houses, in other orders as well as the Cistercians. Their sites were remote and uncomfortable, preserving both strict enclosure and penitential austerity. They were not given huge tracts of land, presumably as it was felt they could neither farm nor manage them.
More about the history of the abbey at http://www.monasticwales.org/site/38 .
Nothing is now left of the abbey: the site is occupied by a substantial Victorian house set in elegantly-landscaped gardens with a mini-Versailles of formal ponds and fountains . The present owners are the direct descendants of the family who bought the site and land at the Dissolution. This is highly unusual. So many of the families who bought monastic land died out in the course of the sixteenth century that even robust Anglican Protestants suggested there might be a curse on it. The gardens of Llanllyr are a delight, full of quirky designs and imaginative planting. There is a new maze planted in symbolic colours. The dead ends lead to the Seven Deadly Sins and the way out is marked by the Cardinal Virtues and the Four Evangelists. The gardens are open regularly under the National Gardens Scheme and private visits can also be booked.
There are some lovely thumbnails of the garden on the Natural Visions web site.
Wynford Vaughan-Thomas stopped here on his famous ride across Wales in the late 1960s. He had lunch with the Lord Lieutenant before trotting on to Tregaron and a Pony Club cavalcade. But when we came here in 1998 we were on foot, dusty and sweaty after our walk across the marshes, and uncertain of our welcome. We need not have worried. The family welcomed us and took us around the monastic fishponds and drains. They have been organic farmers for generations. They also market bottled water from the nuns' well, and drinks made from it - details on the Llanllyr Source web site.
The photograph of the inscribed stone is by Howard Williams - see his blog.