Colonised with a small group of canons from the house of St John at Amiens in north-east France, Talley Abbey was the only Premonstratensian abbey to be established in Wales. Founded by Lord Rhys c1185, Talley Abbey takes its name from its location at the head of two lakes, and is situated in the remote lowlands of Carmarthenshire.
Difficult and troubled times were soon experienced by the alienated French canons, beginning with their plans to construct a grand church at the heart of their new abbey. Insufficient funds from the Rhys endowment, coupled with costly quarrels between them and neighbouring Cistercian foundations who threatened to convert Talley to a house of their own order, resulted in further depleted funds to complete the abbey when they were allowed to return in the 13th century.
Abandoning the original plan of an eight bay nave, the abbey church was reduced to just four bays, there was no north nave aisle, and lower grade building materials were used to complete the buildings. Already impoverished, Talley Abbey became one of the first victims of Edward I's Welsh conquests, and this was the start of a prolonged battle between the English and the Welsh over the paternal rights of the abbey. Plagued with the turmoil of war, bringing insecurity and financial difficulties, it is doubtful whether all the monastic buildings were ever completed. Somehow struggling to survive through to the 16th century, the monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536 and most of the buildings were destroyed, but the abbey church was saved for use by the parish until 1772.
By the middle of the 19th century the whole site had collapsed into decay and became buried under later constructions. Fortunately, a Victorian engineer with a great enthusiasm for monastic archaeology, initiated an excavation programme at Talley Abbey, and more extensive excavations were undertaken during the 1930s which revealed the ground plan of the abbey. Today, rising out of the pastoral landscape, Talley Abbey is immortalised by one surviving feature of the simple church. The imposing remains of the central crossing tower still rise to a height of some 85ft (25.7m), completely dominating the site and the surrounding area. Other than this solid, grey structure, there is little left to see. A few low walls, the rubbled stone bases of the rectangular piers, and evidence of where the altars were positioned.
For atmosphere and scenic quality, Talley Abbey fairly represents a case of 'less is more'. On the one hand, the magnificent range of hills provides a perfectly romantic backdrop to the ruinous, slate grey monument. But on the other hand, it is quite a humbling experience to stand among the sadly sparse remains, devoid of any kind of decorative feature, and imagine what an uncertain lifestyle the early monks endured to follow their faith.