Cutting Down the Cloister

The cathedral builder was an ambitious prelate, John of Tours, who moved the Somerset see from Wells to Bath. Perhaps he envisaged creating one of the greatest monasteries in the country, a cultural centre like Tours. The monks were certainly renowned for their learning in his day, but if he managed to attract and support large numbers of them, it did not last. In 1206 there were only 41.

So how were these huge buildings to be maintained? The cloister would have been among the largest in the country. It seems the community decided on a drastic solution. Claustral buildings were often built in timber at first, to be gradually replaced in stone as funds became available. Excavation under Sally Lunn's uncovered the stone base of a timber-framed building occupied between the 12th and early 14th centuries. It is in the right place to be part of the Norman refectory. Under the present Abbey vestry excavation more recently uncovered a masonry wall with part of the cloister alley beside it. English Heritage's expert on monastic buildings, Glyn Coppack, dated it as 13th century. So presumably the cloister was cut down to a more convenient size when these ranges were rebuilt in stone.

Since the monks had been using the cloister garth as an additional cemetery, that meant building the new dormitory and refectory actually over the graves of Norman monks. Some were found under the masonry refectory in recent excavations. Monastic builders were curiously unconcerned about that sort of thing. The cut-down cloister would have made for an absolutely unique layout. It is almost unheard-of for the monks' dormitory to lead into the nave. The whole function of the monastery would be disturbed. But the problem could be solved by moving the choir and rood screen to the west. Certainly the crossing was neatly re-tiled in the early 14th century with no marks of choir stalls. So we can deduce that the cloister was cut down and the choir moved in one operation around 1300.

Continue to Austerity to luxury.