Abbots of larger monasteries were on a similar social status to a temporal lord – indeed there was every chance that they were the younger sons of the nobility. Their role within local and national society required that they should have quarters fit for entertaining their peers and if Cromwell’s list of misdeeds recorded by his commissioners during their Visitation of 1536 are anything to go by sufficient privacy to entertain numerous ladies of ill-repute.
Sometimes the abbot’s quarters were built into the west range above the cellarium (an undercroft where provisions were stored – think very large pantry). The abbot would have his own chapel, a hall for entertaining and two or three other rooms.
Elsewhere, and as time progressed, the abbot might expect to have his own separate dwelling – sometimes with a private necessarium as at Netley Abbey near Southampton (abbot’s lodging shown at the start of this paragraph). There is no particular rule as to where the lodgings might be. Cistercians tend to put their lodgings to the south of the cloister, though strictly speaking Cistercian abbots had no business being anywhere other than the dormitory with the rest of the monks. As well as a garderobe an abbot’s lodging might reasonably be expected to include a fireplace to warm distinguished guests, in some cases they had their own kitchen and stables. The fireplace shown at the opening at the post can be found at Monk Bretton Priory – the remnants of a Cluniac foundation. In Kirkstall a rather grand staircase led to the abbot’s lodging and at Fountains there was a monastic prison in the basement complete with three cells and means of restraining prisoners. At Fountains the abbot’s ‘modest dwelling’ underwent considerable expansion at the beginning of the sixteenth century on the orders of Abbot Huby who added an office and bay windows.
In Carlisle, which had a bishop so the abbot was technically a prior there was a pele tower where the prior and his officers could flee in the event of marauding Scots.
The abbot’s lodging often survived the dissolution of the monasteries in the guise of a manor house. In York the abbot’s lodging of St Mary’s Abbey was retained by Henry VIII and used during his visit north. It played host to King Charles I and is now part of the University of York.
A 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.