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Monasteries & Abbeys in England

Throughout the history of English Christianity, there have been Christians wanting to spend their lives in religious devotion. Some have chosen to do so as hermits, while others have chosen a life of devotion as part of a community of monks or nuns, in what is often called a religious house. These religious houses had a profound influence across English society during the Middle Ages until being forcibly swept away in the Reformation of the 16th century, ultimately making a return, if on a smaller scale, during the Victorian era. While no longer a major facet of English life, the country’s monasteries, convents, abbeys, and priories offer an important and fascinating insight into this nation’s past.

What are Monasteries & Abbeys?

Religious houses are residential institutions where monks or nuns can live communally, devoting their lives to celibacy and religious observance rather than marriage and the raising of children.

The term monastery is mostly associated with religious houses inhabited by monks, while those religious houses that were home to nuns are more commonly called convents or nunneries. Although some religious houses have been home to both monks and nuns, concerns about sexual temptation has meant that monasteries and convents have typically been established separately.

Religious houses could also carry names that reflect who was in charge of them. Monasteries or convents under the control of an abbot or abbess are called abbeys, while those under the control of a prior or prioress are called priories. In this way, abbeys and priories are simply types of monastery.
Many of England’s religious houses have been located in isolated areas, meaning that those living there could devote themselves to religious pursuits without the distractions of the ordinary world. Other religious houses were established close to major population centres, for instance in the heart of urban areas, allowing their inhabitants to more easily care for the sick and needy within the local community.

A Brief History of English Monasteries

Christianity arrived in Roman Britain around the 2nd century, although we only have evidence for monasteries emerging in this part of the world during the subsequent Early Middle Ages.

By the 6th century, many of the English kingdoms predominantly practiced polytheistic religions that the Christians labelled “pagan.” Efforts to convert these “heathens” came from both continental Europe and from the Brythonic and Gaelic-speaking communities of Western Britain and Ireland. These non-English missionaries probably played an important role in establishing some of England’s earliest monasteries; the Irish missionary Saint Aidan for instance helped form a monastic community on Lindisfarne in Northumberland during the 630s.

From the mid-7th century, monastic settlements became the main framework around which English Christianity was organised. The Latin term monasterium was translated into Old English as mynster, with new minsters often established by rulers of the various English kingdoms. These minsters were ecclesiastical hubs, serving not only as religious houses for monks but also bases from which priests could travel around the surrounding region, providing pastoral care to its communities.

This was an era before every village or town had its own church, and thus the role of these minsters inevitably changed with the introduction of the parish church system in England during the 10th and 11th centuries. Today, the term “minster” survives in various ecclesiastical placenames, such as York Minster in North Yorkshire and Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire, although the term is now largely honorific and does not bear the specific connotations it had in Old English.

Different religious houses belonged to different monastic orders, each with their own rules, regulations, and approaches to the devotional life. Benedictines, for example, followed the example of a 6th-century Italian, Saint Benedict. The Cistercian Order arose in late 11th-century France and soon spread to England, while the Franciscan Order was created in 13th-century Italy by Saint Francis of Assisi. New orders often emerged out of concerns that existing monastic communities had degenerated from their original intentions, reflecting repeated attempts to get back to the purity of Saint Benedict’s teachings.

Often boasting impressive libraries, these religious houses were the main repository of learning and scholarship in medieval England. It was in monasteries, for instance, that the monk Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in the early 8th century, and where intricate manuscripts like the 8th-century Lindisfarne Gospels were produced. The monasteries were also often involved in charitable work, providing alms to the impoverished and medical treatment to the sick.

English monasteries became increasingly powerful during the Late Middle Ages, often growing rich from their extensive landholdings. Fountains Abbey and Rievaulx, both in Yorkshire, for instance grew very wealthy on the wool trade. Monasteries also raised funds by attracting pilgrims eager to see holy relics associated with the saints. As well as stealing relics from other monasteries, many monks were not above creating elaborate stories to attract the pilgrim trade. In the 12th century, Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset for instance claimed it had unearthed the body of the legendary King Arthur. These funds helped monasteries pay for construction projects, executed largely in the Romanesque style during the 11th and 12th centuries, before Gothic architecture became increasingly popular from the late 12th century onward.

The wealth and elaborate ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church were not popular with all Christians and by the 16th century the Protestant Reformation was challenging Catholic dominance across many parts of Europe. England moved towards the Protestant camp during the 1530s, under the reign of the Tudor King Henry VIII. After the Pope refused to grant Henry a divorce from his first wife, the king broke with Rome through the Act of Supremacy in 1534, declaring himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England. He then initiated the dissolution of the monasteries, a process that occurred in stages but which ensured that by 1540 all of England’s monasteries had closed, their lands and assets confiscated and sold off. The impact on English society was seismic. Attempts to restore the monasteries were made under the reign of Henry’s Roman Catholic daughter, Queen Mary I, but after her death the crown returned to Protestant hands and efforts at monastic restoration were abandoned.

While the monasteries closed, their buildings were often maintained for new purposes, sometimes retaining the old title of “abbey.” Many monasteries were sold off to wealthy nobles who transformed them into country houses; Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire and Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire are examples of stately homes that had their origins as medieval religious houses. Meanwhile, other dissolved monasteries became parish churches or even cathedrals, as at Waltham Abbey Church in Essex or the famous Westminster Abbey in central London.

The dominance of Protestantism in England meant that monastic activity was largely absent from the country for over two hundred years. This began to change in the 19th century, when growing tolerance for the “Old Religion” of Rome allowed for the establishment of new Roman Catholic monasteries across England. These were often constructed in the then-fashionable Neo-Gothic or Gothic Revivalist style inspired by the original Gothic architecture of the Late Middle Ages. This style was part of a broader medievalist trend in Victorian England that perceived the Middle Ages as a noble era of chivalry from which modern people had much to learn. One of the foremost Neo-Gothic architects of the day, Augustus Pugin, was himself a Roman Catholic and was responsible for designing many of the new monasteries from the 1830s, such as Mount St Bernards in Leicestershire.

Roman Catholics were not the only ones interested in establishing new monasteries in Victorian England. The Tractarians, or Oxford Movement, represented a tendency within the Church of England that was inspired by the Middle Ages and wanted to reinforce the role of ceremony in Anglican worship. Tractarian Anglicans established various religious houses, such as Saint Mary’s Convent in Wantage, Oxfordshire, designed for the Sisterhood of Saint Mary the Virgin by one of the most famous architects in Victorian England, George Edmund Street, during the 1850s.

The appeal of monasticism declined in England during the 20th century, with various Victorian religious houses being turned over to other uses or even demolished. A few new monastic houses nevertheless appeared, as with the Olivetan Benedictine monastery, designed in a Dutch Expressionist style and opened in Cockfosters, North London in 1940. Moreover, despite its broader decline, English monasticism also diversified under the influence of new religions, often introduced from Asia. In Southwark, South London, a former library building dating from the 1890s now houses a monastic community of Tibetan Buddhists, for instance. Today, there are still several active monasteries around England, while the ruins of many medieval religious houses are open to visitors as heritage attractions.

What is there to See at an English Monastery?

While most medieval English monasteries exist in a state of ruin, their general layout can often still be seen. In some instances, these ruins have visible since the dissolution, but in other cases, as at Lesnes Abbey in South London, they have largely been revealed through archaeological excavation.

Medieval monasteries will often have dormitories or cells where the monks or nuns would have slept, as well as a kitchen for the preparation of food and a refectory where residents would have eaten. Many religious houses would also have had a sickroom, used for the care of the ill, and in some cases a chapter house from which the abbot or prior would have operated and held meetings.

Often, monastic buildings would be arranged around a cloister, a quadrilateral open courtyard flanked by a covered walkway on each side. Various activities would have taken place within the cloister, including study. One of the most ornate surviving examples of such a cloister walkway is at Gloucester Cathedral in Gloucestershire, a former monastery. The common presence of a cloister in religious houses has contributed to the term “cloistered” becoming a general reference to a monastic or otherwise sheltered lifestyle in the English language.

Another of the most important features of an English religious house was the chapel, the layout of which was often similar to those of churches more broadly. In instances such as Waltham Abbey Church in Essex, it is the church building itself that has best survived thanks to its continued use after the dissolution.

Where to See Monasteries & Abbeys in England

Netley Abbey

Netley Abbey is one of the best preserved Cistercian abbeys in the south of England, with remains of the church, cloister buildings, abbot’s house, as well as remnants of the post-Dissolution mansion. The abbey was founded in 1239 and closed by Henry VIII in 1536. Its 300 year history was unremarkable, despite Royal patronage it was never a wealthy nor influential abbey. The extensive ruins have been an inspiration to Romantic writers and poets, and today the site is a popular visitor attraction.

Quarr Abbey

Completed in 1912, Quarr Abbey is one of the most important examples of early 20th century religious architecture in England. The church and monastic buildings, Grade 1 listed, were built using Belgian brick using a combination of French, Byzantine and Moorish architectural styles. The abbey is not far from the 12th century, Cistercian monastery. Although only just completed, the Guest House was used as a convalescence home for soldiers returning from France during the First World War. The Abbey is now home to an art gallery.

Saint Michael’s Mount

Occupation of the tidal island goes back to the Neolithic, although it is the fourteenth century priory church and castle dramatically constructed on rock that draws peoples attention today; the Cornish equivalent of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy. Owned and still lived in by the St Aubyn family, Saint Michael’s Mount is managed by the National Trust. During the summer the castle provides a backdrop for a wide range of activities and events, suitable for all ages.