Researching the history of monasteries

Gatehouse of St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, 1782 by Paul Sandby (Tate)Monasteries arosefrom the desire for a spiritual life apart from society, yet in a community. By the time of Christ, the monastic ideal was centuries old. Prince Siddhartha Gautama rejected riches in the search for enlightenment c.530 BC, founding the Buddhist order of monks.

Christian monasticism sprang from the Egyptian desert, where hermits sought a solitary life. Some were so renowned that they drew disciples, who formed communities in the 4th century. Monasticism gradually spread across the Roman Empire and had taken firm root by the time the Western Empire dissolved in 476.

St. Benedict too fled the world for a hermitage, only to find disciples beating a path to his door. For the abbey he founded at Monte Cassino in Italy c.530 he devised a code which emphasised obedience, communal life and moderation. The Benedictine Rule proved a practical and flexible model for the monastic movement in the West. Monasteries were founded in Britain and Ireland from the 6th century onwards and eventually they came to adopt the Benedictine Rule.

Layout

A communal life requires communal buildings. A church was a priority. The round of prayer was the whole function of the monastery. The dormitory, refectory and other main buildings were placed around a cloister preferably on the south side of the church to catch the sun. The masterplan was thrashed out at a synod at Aachen in 817. The then Abbot of St Gall in Switzerland asked for a copy, now known as the St Gall plan. While the cloister was the quiet centre of the contemplative life, the court beyond was the hub of its practical support. There all would be noise and bustle. Around it were ranged the kitchen, bakehouse, brewhouse and workshops. Visitors came into the court through a great gate. Hospitality was part of the Benedictine Rule, so a guest house was usually provided in the outer court. The monasteries of later orders could be distinctly different from the Benedictine. For example Gilbertine priories housed both nuns and canons, and so needed two cloisters. R. Gilyard-Beer, Abbeys: an introduction to the religious houses of England and Wales (1958) remains a good introduction to monastic layout.

Estates

In centres of pilgrimage the guest house was over-burdened, so a monastery might build an inn in the town, outside the monastic precinct. Monasteries owned estates, the income from which supported them. Beware confusion between ownership and use. A common mistake is to suppose that every property owned by a monastic house was personally inhabited by monks. Monasteries could build monastic granges and other farm buildings, dovecotes, mills, churches and chapels on their estates. J. Bond, Monastic Landscapes (2004) studies this process in England and Wales.

Dissolution

The monasteries of England and Wales were dissolved between 1536 and 1540. Their property was acquired by the Crown, much of it to be sold to wealthy families. The process left much documentation on the monasteries in the hands of the Crown (see Augmentation Office.) Those in Ireland and Scotland were dissolved more gradually (see Reformation.) Most Irish records relating to the Dissolution were destroyed in 1922.

Guides to sources

Gazetteers and databases

Monasticon

For other engravings, etc see images.

Primary Sources

Cartularies

G.R.C. Davis, revised by C. Breay, J. Harrison and D.M. Smith, Medieval Cartularies of Great Britain and Ireland (2010) provides a guide to published and MS cartularies, generally monastic. These contained copies of foundation charters and subsequent deeds. Occasionally they may list benefactors to the monastery, specifying their particular contribution to work on the fabric, or record a wage or corrody to a building craftsman.

British History Online has digitised some published cartularies and similar material at Monastic and Cathedral Records. The Ystrad Marchell Charters are also online, courtesy of the National Library of Wales. The Buckinghamshire Record Society has made available its volumes The Cartulary of Missenden Abbey, Part 1, part 2 and part 3 as pdf files.

Monastic chronicles

13C manuscript illumination showing Guthlac building a chapel at Crowland (British Library)A monastic chronicler is more likely to give us paeans of praise of the founder of his abbey and the miracles wrought by its relics than a description of the buildings. Still one may find a rare nugget or two.

Bede in The Lives of The Holy Abbots of Weremouth and Jarrow describes how Benedict Biscop brought masons and glaziers from Gaul to build a church in the Roman style at Monkwearmouth c.675. The biographer of St Oswald says that he secured masons in the winter for the building of Ramsey Abbey (966), then laid the foundations for a cruciform church, with a central tower (Historians of the Church of York, vol. 1, 434). The Chronicle of The Abbey of St. Edmund's (1173-1202) by Jocelin of Brakelond is fascinating account of the politics and practicalities of monastic life. Shady financial dealings underpin the building of the church tower. But Jocelin approves the proper husbanding of a great monastic estate: Abbot Samson restored the old halls and ruined houses, through which kites and crows flew.

See early sources.

Augmentation Office

The National Archives holds the records of the Augmentation Office, which dealt with the monastic properties acquired by the English Crown at the Dissolution. These include surveys and some inventories which give useful information on monastic layout. See:

Also see