When 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 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/city-of-york/pp357-365 [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.
http://www.1902encyclopedia.com/A/ABB/abbey-08.html (accessed 24/06/2015 23:33)