Sunday, 3 March 2013

Great British Monasteries

The dissolution of the monasteries reduced many of the greatest religious establishments in Britain to rubble as the stone was taken as valuable building material or they simply collapsed due to lack of care. Today the ruins of many of these monasteries still stand and they give us insight into just how spectacular the monasteries would have been in their prime as the ruins themselves are not just old stones, they are intricately carved masterpieces of architecture which have done wonderfully well to survive after all that they have endured across the centuries. (the monasteries aren't in any particular order)

Waverley Abbey, Surrey: 

Remains of the lay brothers' range
Waverly Abbey was the first Cistercian house established anywhere in Britain, it was founded by the Bishop of Winchester in 1128 and was initially colonised by twelve monks and a French abbot. Built on the floodplain of the River Wey the abbey was susceptible to flooding so in 1203 new foundations were laid on higher ground. The abbey was important due to its active participation in the Cistercian wool trade, care for the sick and and production of the famous annals of Waverley. The abbey was dissolved in 1536 and was one of the lesser monasteries at this time as it only housed thirteen monks and had an annual income of £174 (at its peak in the late 12th century the abbey had housed 70 monks and 120 lay brothers). After it was dissolved much of the abbey was dismantled, with most of the stone being sent to Sir William More who was building his house at Losely. The most substantial part of the ruins is the lay brothers' quarters, the walls of the monks' dormitory, the chapter house and the south transept of the church.

Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire:

Fountains Abbey was founded as a Cistercian monastery in 1132 after 13 monks left the Benedictine house of St Mary's in order to pursue a harsher and more disciplined way of life. The abbey had a reputation for its care of the poor as it provided daily food rations and had an infirmary where the sick were treated. This reputation gained the abbey a number of wealthy benefactors, so that by 1535 it was the wealthiest and largest Cistercian abbey in England. In 1536 the abbot, William Thrisk, was accused of immorality and inadequacy so he was forced to resign. He was replaced by Marmaduke Bradley, a monk of the abbey who had reported and testified against Thrisk. The abbey was dissolved in 1539 when Bradley surrendered it to the royal commissioners. In 1540 the abbey and its 500 acres of land were sold by the crown to Sir Richard Gresham, who then dismantled parts of the abbey buildings in order to sell the materials. In 1597 the abbey was acquired by Sir Stephen Proctor who further dismantled parts of the abbey so that the stone could be used to build Fountains Hall. In 1986 the abbey and surrounding parkland was made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Today the ruins include the calefactory, the lay brothers' range, the abbot's house, part of the gate and the guest house.

Rivaulx Abbey, North Yorkshire: 

Rivaulx Abbey was founded in 1132 as a Cistercian monastery by Walter l'Espec, Lord of Helmsley. It was built as an abbey from which the white monks could reform northern England and Scotland and St Bernard Clairvaux was the inspiration for its foundation. The monks of the abbey built up a profitable business in rearing sheep for their wool and mining lead and iron; they sold these goods all over Europe and in doing so became the wealthiest Cistercian Abbey after Fountains. When the abbey was dissolved in 1538  it consisted of 72 buildings which were occupied by an abbot, 21 monks and 102 servants. It also had an annual income of £351. Henry VIII ordered that the abbey was stripped of its lead and then it was sold to the Earl of Rutland. Today the ruins of the church, the cloister, the dormitory, the warming house, the refectory, the kitchen, the western range, the novices' house, the abbot's porch and the gatehouse can still be seen. There is also a good example of a 14th century altar.

Kirkham Priory, North Yorkshire: 

Kirkham Priory was founded as an Augustinian Priory by Walter l'Espec sometime in the 1120s. It is often said that Kirkham was founded by l'Espec in memory of his only son who died after falling from his horse when it was startled by a boar. Very little is known about this priory, but it is known that it struggled within just 20 years of its foundation as the Cistercians were more popular at this time. The priory was dissolved in 1539. Most of the ruins date from the 13th century including the spectacular gatehouse, which is pictured above. The gatehouse was built c.1205 and is a fine example of English Gothic architecture. It is covered with intricate carvings and sculptures; the sculptures include the figures of St George and the dragon, David and Goliath, St Bartholomew, St Philip and Christ. The remains of a medieval cross (in the foreground of the above picture) and fragments of stone vaulting have also survived.

Tintern Abbey, Wales: 

Tintern Abbey was founded in 1131 as Cistercian abbey by Walter de Clare, Lord of Chepstow. The monks who lived at Tintern followed the Rule of St Benedict and held the basic principles of obedience, poverty, chastity, silence, prayer and work. The abbey's lands were divided into agricultural sections which the local people from the village of Tintern worked on. The abbey was dissolved in 1536, the abbey's valuables were confiscated and sent to the royal treasury and the abbot was given a pension. The abbey estate and buildings were then sold to Henry Somerset, Earl of Worcester, he then had the abbey roof stripped of its lead and some of the buildings were dismantled for their valuable stone. The most substantial part of the ruins is the abbey church which stands almost as it would have when it was a working abbey but it is missing windows and a roof.

Dryburgh Abbey, Scotland: 

Dryburgh Abbey in the Scottish Borders was founded in 1150 by Hugh de Morville, Lord of Lauderdale. He invited Premonstratensian canons from Alnwick Abbey to occupy the new abbey, and they arrived in 1152. It became the premier house in Scotland of the Premonstratensian order and although it was not the wealthiest it received notable patronage from David I of Scotland and Beatrice de Beauchamp. Due to its location in the borders it was greatly affected by the Scottish Wars of Independence and it was burned down twice, once in 1322 and again in 1385. The Protestant Reformation in Scotland led to the gradual disintegration of monastic life at the abbey and by 1584 just two brethren remained alive. In June 1600 the last of the canons died and the abbey's working days ended, all of the abbey's remaining possessions were then given to John Eskine, Earl of Mar in 1604. Today the ruins of the 13th century chapter house (which still displays the original painted wall plaster), the warming house and the dormitory in the east range survive in substantial chunks. The final resting place of Sir Walter Scott can also be seen at the ruins.

Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire: 

The first monastery on the site was founded in 657 AD by the Anglo-Saxon King Owsy of Northumbria. It was named 'Streoneshalh' which is thought to mean 'Fort Bay' or 'Tower Bay'. The abbey was abandoned after raids by the Danes between 867 and 870 and it lay desolate for more than 200 years. The abbey was then re-founded as a Benedictine order by the Normans in 1220. The second monastery prospered until it was dissolved in 1540, and it suffered a similar fate to many other abbeys as the buildings were dismantled for their stone and the rest left to collapse with time.  The ruins include the abbey church where the pinnacled east end and north transept tower over the rest of the abbey, displaying its intricate Gothic stonework. In 2011 the abbey was named the UK's 'most romantic ruin' after a nationwide vote.

Walsingham Priory, Norfolk: 

Walsingham Priory was founded as an Augustinian priory in 1153. It was a priory of particular significance as it housed the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. The shrine was first made in Walsingham in 1061 after a devout noblewoman, Richeldis de Faverches, had a vision in which the Virgin Mary appeared. On the spot where she had her vision Lady Richeldis had a Holy House built and the priory was later built there by her son Geoffrey. It was a shrine that drew pilgrims from all over Europe, including monarchs like Henry III, Edward II, Edward III, Henry IV, Edward IV, Henry VII and Henry VIII. Katherine of Aragon was also a notable patron and visitor to the priory as she visited it on many occasions in order to pray to Our Lady for the deliverance of a healthy son. A visitation to the priory in 1514 discovered that the prior was leading a scandalous life and that the canons were regulars at the local tavern. The priory was dissolved in 1538, but during the proceedings the sub-prior, Nicholas Milcham, resisted the commissioners and for his trouble he was hanged outside the priory gates. Despite the suppression of the priory, the significance of the site was not forgotten and in the 19th century pilgrimage and shrines at Walsingham were restored; today there are both Anglican and Catholic shrines. Today the west front of the priory still stands in good condition and it gives a good indication of the size of the original priory.

Grey Abbey, Northern Ireland: 

Grey Abbey was founded as a Cistercian abbey in 1193 by Affreca, the wife of John de Courcy who was an Anglo-Norman knight. Affreca dedicated the abbey to Saint Mary of the Yoke of God and asked to be buried at the abbey after her death, her stone effigy can still be seen today. The abbey is of architectural importance as it was the first fully gothic style building in Ulster, this is clear from the way that the door and window arches are pointed and not round headed. In 1541 the abbey was dissolved and granted to Gerald FitzGerald, Earl of Kildare, most of the abbey was then destroyed during the 'scorched earth' strategy used in Ireland in the reign of Elizabeth I. Today a significant portion of the abbey church survives and the abbey's herb garden has been recreated so that it now contains over fifty varieties of medicinal plants.

Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset: 

Glastonbury Abbey was founded as a Benedictine abbey in 712 AD by the Anglo-Saxon King, Ine of Wessex. The first Glastonbury Canal was built in the mid 10th century to link the abbey to the River Brue and it was used to transport stone building materials to the abbey. In the 11th century the abbey was the centre of a water based transport network as many new canals and channels were made in the region. Due to its prime location the abbey grew in wealth and importance so that in 1086, when the Domesday Book was commissioned, it was the wealthiest abbey in the country. In 1184 many of the monastic buildings were destroyed in a great fire, but some good came from the destruction as during the rebuilding the tomb of King Arthur and Guinevere was discovered. The abbey continued to prosper and in order to protect its treasures during the Wars of the Roses a wall was built around the abbey's precincts. The abbey was dissolved in 1539, stripped of its valuables by men sent by Thomas Cromwell and the abbot Richard Whiting who resisted was hanged, drawn and quartered on Glastonbury Tor as a traitor. The finest sections of the abbey ruins are the Lady Chapel (pictured above), the church, the gatehouse, the barn and the 14th abbot's kitchen. 

Further Reading: 
The Stripping of the Altars by Eamon Duffy

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