Monthly Archives: June 2015

Netley Abbey

IMG_5242A Bishop of Winchester called Peter des Roches wanted to found an abbey for Cistercian monks. The bishop died in 1238 having purchased land for this purpose, not only for its building but to support it financially. King Henry III completed the project in 1239 and went on to make them other gifts including a tun of wine each year. A group of monks came from the Cistercian abbey of Beaulieu.  Three of the four remaining crossing pillars contain inscriptions dedicated to Henry III relating to his foundation of the abbey.  Building continued during the thirteenth century.  The days of Cistercian austerity had passed and this is, in part, reflected in the size of the church.

Disaster struck in the fourteenth century. The abbey was too close to The Solent. Passing mariners demanded hospitality and in 1338 stole large numbers of the abbey’s flock of sheep. The days of the abbey’s financial prosperity were over. It struggled with debt thereafter.

The Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535 estimated Netley’s annual income at £160 2s. 9½d but the income it received was only £100 12s. 8d.; it was a lesser monastery. On 30 May, 1536, Sir James Worsley and the other commissioners presented their report. Netley was ‘A hedde house of Monkes of thordre of Cisteaux, beinge of large buyldinge and situate upon the Ryvage of the Sees. To the Kinge’s Subjects and Strangers travelinge the same Sees great Relief and Comforte.’ In addition the commissioners listed seven monks with whom no fault could be found as well as thirty-two servants who worked the abbey estate.

The king gave to Sir William Paulet, the comptroller of his household the site and buildings of the abbey. Paulet turned the abbey into a Tudor mansion. The nave of the church became his hall while the eastern range became his living-rooms. The cloister was turned into a courtyard.

It was only in the eighteenth century the abbey/mansion was to be demolished by a builder from Southampton. The enterprising chap was crushed to death beneath some falling masonry at which point everyone else decided it was a sign not to knock the building down. In 1922 it passed into the hands of the delightfully named Ministry of Works.

Of the ruins that remain today the abbot’s house retains evidence of the abbot’s own personal convenience whilst the drainage system for the reredorter (the monks toilet) is a work of engineering excellence. It should also be added that Netley Abbey is today the largest Cistercian ruin in the south of England – it’s not as grand as Rievaulx or Fountains but it’s story is still very interesting as are the narrow Tudor bricks that show where Paulet made some of his alterations.

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St Mary’s Abbey York

kylebday 192When the Benedictines arrived in York in 1088 they had a fight on their hands. Their patronage came from Alan Rufus of Richmond. The monks of York Minster and Archbishop Thomas of Bayeux were not amused. There was in effect a nasty bout of monastic fisty-cuffs which was only resolved when William Rufus gave the Archbishop the church of St Stephen’s while the Abbot of St Mary’s handed over land in Clifton. In return the monks of St Mary’s gained the church of St Olaf’s. Ultimately St Mary’s would have possession of seven churches in York as well as many others across the country, meaning that they selected the vicar and claimed the various fees and taxes that were levied within the parish for the Church. By the time of the Dissolution the abbey was worth £2,085 1s. 5¾d per annum.

My own interest in St Mary’s Abbey comes not just from the lovely Museum Gardens in York with their picturesque ruins and from several visits to the museums itself where this roof boss can be found but from the fact that the abbey sent out monks to form cells in Cumberland. These cells became the priories of Wetheral and St Bees. During the twelfth century thirteen monks left St Mary’s in search of a more devout existence including the prior – Richard. They went on to found Fountains Abbey, a Cistercian monastic house.

As might be expected of a medieval monastery St Mary’s acquired lands through patronage and privileges from kings. The church of St Olaf’s was was founded in 1055 and found some patronage from Wiliam the Conqueror.  St Mary’s was supported by William Rufus and by King Henrys I, II and III. It gained land in and around York including Bootham fair; it sustained fire damage in 1137 and was occasionally visited by the Archbishop of York who wanted to check on the spiritual and financial healthiness of the monastery.  In 1534 the abbot was found sadly lacking – he was spending far too much time with married women.

The abbey also developed a rather unfortunate relationship with the people of York. In 1262 the rivalry and resentments about tolls and unpaid debts resulted in murder and destruction. At that time according to the Victoria County History the abbot was one Simon de Warwick who was clearly so alarmed that he went on prolonged holiday – for two years.


Image (‘The sites and remains of the religious houses’, in A History of the County of York: the City of York, ed. P M Tillott (London, 1961), pp. 357-365 [accessed 20 June 2015].)

Most monasteries follow a similar layout.   The church which was the most important building was usually, but not always, in the shape of a cross.  Churches might also contain additional chapels and chantries (places where prayers could be said for the souls of individual benefactors.)  Cloisters were usually placed to the south of the church not only so that they would trap the sun but so that the shadows from the church would not fall on them.  In this respect St Mary’s fulfils the stereotype.  Each of the four sides of the cloister would be covered – think glorified carport in the first instance.  This allowed the monks to shelter from the rain as well as to sit in the sun.  Many cloisters contained stone benches.  Some cloisters ruins even contain individual study carrels hewn from the masonry.  In addition most cloisters contained a book cupboard.  I would not have liked to have been a Benedictine monk trying to study in the middle of winter with the wind coming off the River Ouse as the waters rose.  Perhaps that’s why later versions of monasteries had more elaborate cloisters which were effectively closed in corridors with a dwarf wall, lots of windows and a central square open to the elements – though it still sounds chilly.

On the east side of the cloister, typically, there is a dorter range.  The dorter was where the monks slept.  It would have been a two storey building with the first floor being where the monks slept. The ground floor was usually divided into several rooms, one of which may have been used as a parlour, with at least one doorway out into the cloisters and another leading in the general direction of the monks’ cemetery.   In many monasteries there would have been access to the night stairs in the transept of the church for ease of singing divine service during the night hours rather than trekking out through the cold – not that it can have been wildly warm in any event.  The other important link with the dorter would be the reredorter – a.k.a. the toilet block.  These are usually rather grand affairs with the ground floor of the block being given over to effective drainage and flushing action.  The first floor provided the location for the toilets themselves which tended to be communal in nature.

The room that was second in importance only to the church was the chapter house.  This was where the monks met to listen to the Rule and to conduct their business affairs.

The frater, again typical of monastery plans, is opposite the church.  This was the monastic canteen. In many cases there would be a passage joining the dorter with the frater – back to cold monastic types catching chills from wondering around in the rain.  The kitchen was usually separate to the frater, away from the cloister and it was usually rectangular – the plan in this post shows such a building.

The first plan does not show the position of the cellar (not that kind of cellar!)  The cellar is the name given to the monastic stores.  These were usually situated to the western range but could just as well be situated in a ground floor room.  One of the reasons that the cellar lays to the west in most monasteries is because this was where the main entrance to the abbey could be found so it meant that goods could be delivered with little disturbance to the rest of the monastery. Indeed, St Mary’s conforms to the model of having its main gateway on the west (ish) wall.

st-marys-abbey-york (accessed 24/06/2015 23:33)


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Monastic Orders – part 4: the military orders

Monastic military orders are inevitably associated with the crusades of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  There were a number of European orders but the two most closely associated with the British isles are the Knights Hospitaller or to give them their full title the Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem.  Their original role was to care for pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land.


The Templars or the Knights of the Temple of Solomon were dedicated to a life of poverty protecting the holy places and the pilgrims.  Poverty did not last long as they soon acquired rich and powerful benefactors including Bernard of Clairvaux who helped found the Cistercians as well as finding time to advise King Louis VI of France.  Many of other wealthy individuals joined their ranks.  King David I of Scotland had strong associations with the Templars.cd7660d1e590c2d208a1539fc3626ee9

templarsIn 1187 Jerusalem fell and shortly after that the Holy Land was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire – leaving the Templars without gainful employment and rather a lot of cash.  They spread throughout Europe with headquarters in Paris and also in London.  In England, Yorkshire became a centre for the Templars and this can be seen today in the number of places and locations preceded by the name Temple e.g. Temple Newsam.  Approximately one hundred years later on October Friday 13th, 1307 King Philip IV of France took the opportunity to accuse the whole order of some deeply nasty activities, had their leaders tortured and then judiciously murdered.  The Pope obligingly suppressed the entire order.

In England things were slightly different.  Edward II was on the throne.  His wife, Isabella who went on to become the ‘she-wolf’ was his wife, so Philip IV was his father-in-law but Edward did not follow Philip’s path.  It took many sternly worded notes from Philip and from the Pope before Edward got around to suppressing the order and even then he didn’t arrest many members of the order and the vast majority of their property passed into the hands of the Hospitallers.

In the meantime their history has spawned countless works of fiction – Rosslyn Chapel and Dan Brown springing most immediately to mind. There is also the idea that the superstition regarding Friday the 13th being bad luck stems from the Templars mass arrest in France.

Knights-HospitallerThe Hospitallers were so wealthy that they purchased their own island in the fourteenth century- Rhodes- from whence they continued their work until 1522 when the Ottoman Turks kicked them out.  They went from there to Malta, they’re sometimes known as the Knights of Malta, where they remained until Napoleon turned up on the scene.  Whilst they had their stronghold in the Mediterranean they still retained an interest in the British isles.  Given-Wilson records that there were over a thousand Hospitaller properties; the majority  of them hospitals caring for the sick and feeding the poor.  They were also associated with the isolation hospitals of the period – leper hospitals.  As an international order, however, their importance was relatively minor in England.

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Monastic Orders – part 3: friars

images-2Friars were a later addition to the medieval clerical echelons.  Like the monks before them their orders developed in response to perceived laxity by the monks.

There were four orders of medieval friars; the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites and just because confusion is good for the soul – the Augustinians.  The Augustinian friars were not related in any way to the canons.  All four groups flourished, initially at least, because of changing social and economic conditions.  There was also a growth in population in the thirteenth century.

Rather than living within the confines of their houses friars travelled from place to place.  They were mendicant. They begged and they preached.  They did not rely upon endowments or noble patronage.  This made them very popular.

The Dominicans or ‘Black Friars’ as they were also called arrived circa 1221.  They swiftly became associated with education, in particular university education.  The Franciscans or ‘Grey Friars’ recruited from the lower echelons of society and initially eschewed learning although in later years it was argued that the more learning a friar had the better he would be able to preach.  The Carmelites began as hermits but by the thirteenth century were doing what the other friars were doing.


Friars swore their spiritual allegiance to their order rather than to a particular abbey or priory.  Indeed there are very few remaining friaries because the early friars took their vows of poverty very seriously and ensured they lived in poor conditions.  Later, when they lived in larger more substantial houses they did not conform to a particular plan of the kind that can be discerned in monasteries and nunneries.  This oath to an order rather than a place gave them freedom to roam.  In addition to teaching and preaching they saw it as their duty to minister to the people around them.  This, for the Franciscans, on account of St Francis’s beliefs included administering the sacraments – hearing confessions and absolving folk from their sins.  This stance rather peeved the average parish priest as well as the local bishops who regarded the friars as intruding upon their territory. The other services that they offered including burial took fees from the Church. In short, friars were popular with the lower classes, less so with the clergy: inevitably as time went on friars lost some of their initial shine, as illustrated by Chaucer’s description of a friar in The Canterbury Tales.

In the medieval world it would have been unsuitable for women to go wandering around the countryside so female friars did not exist as such.  In their place the order known as the ‘Poor Clares’ was formed.  They were a female order of Franciscans formed by St Clare. Their role was prayer, poverty, fasting and silence.  In England the Poor Clares were called Minoresses.


In the first of these posts I identified three specific groups of religious orders.  There is actually a part four:  I overlooked a key group people in the medieval period – the military orders.

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Monastic Orders – part 2: canons

german-school-(16)-portrait-of-an-augustinian-canon-wearing-a-black-almuceAugustinian Canons, or ‘Black Canons’ because of their black cloaks were all priests who followed the Rule of St Augustine of Hippo. They were similar to monks in that they lived in religious communities, shared property in common and took religious vows including poverty and obedience. They were required to take part in Divine Service just like the monks but the stipulations with regard to the number of services and amount of physical labour were slimmed down so that the canon could preach, teach and care for the needy.   Their order proved very popular during the twelfth century and many of their houses boast huge churches as they attracted very large congregations to hear them preach.

Thus the key differences between the Augustinians and monks of other orders was that they were all priests – you could not become an Augustinian canon unless you were a priest whereas you could be a monk without being a priest. Monks stayed in their houses whereas Augustinians went out into the community often being sent in ones or twos to minister to the parish churches that had been granted to them by their patrons.

In a sense because the religious Rule was a ‘light’ rule the Black Canons eventually gained a reputation for enjoying the comforts of life. They were certainly well-known for their hospitality.

7541_originalInevitably more zealous groups of priests sought to reform the rule. This happened in Premontre in France in 1123 when a wandering preacher called Norbert (he was later sainted) arrived on the scene. The reformed rule followed the Cistercians more closely than the Benedictines – poverty and austerity were the order of the day.   The Premonstratensians distinguished themselves from their Augustinian brethren with a white habit. They arrived in England in 1147 at Alnwick. The Premonstratensians are also sometimes called Norbertines which is at least easier to spell.


Both the Black and the White canons had separate priories for canonesses who were nuns, some communities lived an enclosed life but others were of service to their wider communities e.g. caring for the sick.

Another similarity shared by the two groups of canons was that they were known as ‘regular’ canon. Regular comes from regulus which is Latin for rule: they were priests who followed the rule.

Regular canon can be distinguished from secular canon not because of their beliefs but because of where and how they lived. Regular canon lived like monks for the most part whereas secular canon served in large churches, often in shared accommodation, but they were simply priests rather than having taken any additional monastic vows. Thomas Becket is a patron saint of secular canon.

A final group of canons need also be mentioned. The Gilbertines were the only English monastic order. Gilbert of Sempringham founded a small convent in 1131 for seven women who wanted to follow a religious life. In time the convent expanded to become a double house with women on one side and men on the other – strictly separated of course. The nuns did not go out into the world – so there needed to be a community of lay sisters to do the work. Because Gilbert felt unworthy to lead the growing numbers of nuns, he incorporated regular canons into the set up – their role was pastoral care.

My previous post was about monks and my next post, part three, will be about friars.


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Medieval Monastic Orders- part I

imagesDuring the later Anglo-Saxon period all monasteries were Benedictine. Benedictine monks follow the rules written by St Benedict in the early sixth century (535-540) for his monastic foundation at Monte Cassino. The rule covers what monks are and aren’t allowed to do as well as regulating their days and nights with regard to Divine worship, study, manual labour and prayer.  However, as the medieval period went on many monks, such as the Benedictine in the manuscript image to the left of this paragraph developed a reputation for behaving in a decidedly unmonastic manner.

By the eleventh century, Cluny Abbey, which followed the rules of St Benedict, as indeed did X889_727_CWBernhardBoxevery monastic order that followed, chose to reinterpret the rules. The order applied itself to the liturgy rather than educational and intellectual work expanded. In England, William Warenne founded the Cluniac abbey at Lewes just after the conquest. William the Conqueror requested more Cluniac monks to come from their mother abbey in Cluny to England but was unsuccssessful in the first instance. Gradually though more Cluniacs did arrive. William Rufus, not known for his piety, encouraged the Cluniacs to come to England as did his brother King Henry I who funded Reading Abbey which interestingly was inhabited initially by Cluniac monks but did not go on to become a Cluniac establishment. The royal family continued to support the Cluniac order. King Stephen founded the Cluniac priory at Faversham which became notable as the burial place for his family. In Yorkshire Pontefract was a Cluniac establishment. Despite this early popularity the Cluniacs did not prosper as an order in England as the centuries progressed not least because all Cluniac houses were daughter houses following the rule and direction of the mother-house in Cluny and thus aliens.  Whilst the Plantagenets held a huge European empire it wasn’t a problem but as English monarchs found the size of their continental domains dwindling they didn’t want monks who looked to Europe for direction and preferred to sponsor home-grown talent.

images-101The Cistericans, pictured left, were founded in 1098 by the monks of Citeaux who believed in austerity and hard work – again a reinterpretation of the rule of St Benedict and reforms designed to counter perceived laxity in other monastic houses. Their habit was made from unbleached wool. These were the so-called ‘White monks.’ They arrived in the south of England in 1128. In 1132 Walter Espec gave the white monks land at Rievaulx – the rest as they say, is history. Fountains Abbey is also a Cistercian foundation. Unlike the standard Benedictine monks they refused gifts and rights of patronage – in short anything that would have made them easily wealthy. Instead they cultivated the wilderness. An emphasis was placed upon labour. The great Yorkshire abbeys acquired land and farms over the next two hundred years extending south into Derbyshire and north into Cumberland. In 1147 Furness Abbey was founded. At that time Furness was in Lancashire rather than Cumbria as it is in present times.

The next influx of monastic types were the Charterhouse monks or Carthusians as they should be more properly named. ThisDP808069 order was developed by the monks of Chartreuse. The first monastic foundations for this order were in Somerset at the turn of the twelfth century. They lived in isolation. Each monk had a cell and a cloistered garden. They did not see one another, even for Divine service as each stall was screened – together but alone. They arrived during the reign of King Henry II as part of the monarch’s penance for the death of Thomas Becket. The Carthusians restricted the numbers of monks in each priory to 13 monks composed of a prior and twelve monks and eighteen lay brothers. There was a vow of silence and they were vegetarians. The order did not really take off until the fourteenth century by which time monasticism was suffering on account of the Black Death: changing economy and social structures. In Yorkshire the Carthusians established Mount Grace Priory in 1398. Today its ruins remain the best preserved Carthusian monastery in England. The seated Carthusian on the right is an early eighteenth century portrayal and can be found in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of these orders only the Carthusians do not have nuns as well as monks.

So far, so good.  Part two of Medieval Monastic orders will cover the canons and part three will cover friars.


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Monasteries- 1066 +

DSCN2029William the Conqueror was committed to a programme of monastery building in his new kingdom.  The invasion of England, complete with papal banner, was after all a crusade.  However, in comparison to the twelfth century when monastic foundation and building reached an apex the first Normans on English shores were relatively slow off the mark.  Chester, Colchester and Shrewsbury were early establishments as were Tewkesbury and Lewes which housed monks from Cluny.  All of the above mentioned were funded by Norman barons eager to emulate their monarch and no doubt to give thanks for doing so very nicely out of the English venture.

In addition to these new foundations and, in the North, refoundation of early sites such as Whitby there was another significant change in the Church.  Leading Anglo-Saxon abbots and bishops with a few notable exceptions such as Wulfstan of Worcester were shown the door and replaced by William’s men headed up by Lanfranc of Bec who promptly reorganised and reformed the Church.

Lanfranc did use some of the earlier Anglo-Saxon administrative structure including the incorporation of cathedrals into monastic foundations.  Given-Wilson lists them: Bath ( & Wells), Canterbury, Carlisle (hence my interest), Coventry, Durham, Ely, Norwich, Rochester, Winchester and Worcester.  Both Canterbury (pictured at the beginning of this post) and Worcester had been founded before 1066 and may have acted as the models which Lanfranc chose to emulate. Carlisle was home to an order of Augustinian Canons the other nine were Benedictine.  These cathedrals were at the heart of their dioceses with a bishop at their head.  The monastery would have been headed up by an abbot or a prior – the two posts need not be held by the same person which could, and in deed did, lead to some lively disagreements.

Not all cathedrals were staffed by monks.  Some cathedrals were ‘secular’ – which means that the clergy who ran the cathedrals were not attached to a religious order.  Lincoln Cathedral was never associated with a monastery and neither bizarrely, given the number of monasteries in the vicinity, was York.


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Darley Abbey

lh_derbyshire_darleyabbey_fsWright’s Discovering Abbeys and Priories lists the principal monastic sites in England.  It’s alphabetical.  Devon follows Cumbria.  There are no significant monastic sites remaining in the county but in medieval England as with the rest of the country Derbyshire was home to more than one monastic foundation.

Darley Abbey, confusingly a priory rather than an abbey as it housed Augustinian canons, was founded by Robert Ferrers, who was the seond Earl of Derby. The Victoria County History for Derbyshire is quick to point out that there is no evidence for a claim that there was an earlier abbey closer to Derby. Perhaps this was because the abbey was founded during the reign of King Stephen – so the “Nineteen years when Christ and all his apostles slept.” In any event Robert Ferrers survived the demise of Stephen and continued his abbey building with the approval of King Henry II. Funds came in part from the church at Crich which was in Ferrers’ possession. The land itself came from a Rural Dean of Derby. So, Hugh is the abbey’s joint founder. It was populated as a daughter house to the Augustinian Canons of Calke Abbey.

The Victoria County History goes on to explain:

Other gifts speedily flowed into the new foundation, so that in a very short time the abbot and canons, in addition to lands at Crich, Wessington, Lea, Dethick, Tansley and Little Chester, and various mills, held the advowsons of the churches of Bolsover, Pentrich, Ripley, Ashover, South Wingfield, and the three Derby town churches of St. Peter, St. Michael, and St. Werburgh.

So, while there may not be many – okay none- great abbeys in Derbyshire remaining it is evident that their influence covered the religious needs of many villages in the region.

Over the next three hundred years the abbey gained more land and many more gifts including one man who was seeking to avoid giving all his possessions to a moneylender in return for his debts. Some of its abbots gained reputations as arbitrators amongst their fellow clergy but by 1538 the writing was on the wall. Thomas Cromwell needed to fill his master’s treasury.

Darley Abbey had escaped the cull of 1536 being worth considerably more than £200 per annum but in October 1538 Abbot Thomas Page and twelve other Augustinians signed the surrender document and handed the abbey nto the hands of Dr Leigh who sold off the granges, the harvest and the livestock that belonged to the outlying farms. In the abbey itself he calculated the worth of the paving and the glass in the windows. He even sold off the cooking utensils.

As was usual all the monks received a pension, in 1555 the prior and sub-prior were still receiving their pensions. What is more unusual was that a certain “Doctor Legh” who has featured elsewhere in this blog appeared on the list in receipt of £6 13s 4d per year. Cromwell spotted the addition and had stern words with his commissioner for his dodgy accounting.

In 1541 the site of the abbey was granted to Sir William West who built himself a rather nice house on the site of the priory. As is the way of these things the house passed through several hands and each owner and each new generation wished to place their own mark upon Abbey House so that in the end no evidence of the abbey which had once been so important to the economy and faith of the people of Derbyshire. Ultimately the house was demolished in 1962. The image at the start of this post comes from a website entitled England’s Lost Country Houses which not only lists all the demolished stately stacks in the country but provides photographs of many as well as an informative discussion about their demise. Click on the image to follow the link in a new window.

However, there are other remnants of the monastic foundation. The Abbey Pub is housed in a former abbey building – the abbey guest house as it happens.


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