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Explore England's Past

Abbeys, Priories and Collegiate Churches

The remains of Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset, which during the 14th century was the second wealthiest Abbey in England (behind Westminster Abbey)

Until their Dissolution under Henry VIII in 1536-40, the 650 abbeys, priories and other religious houses in England included some of the wealthiest institutions in the country. They were not a homogenous group, however. The largest included old-established Benedictine abbeys such as St Peter’s Gloucester (founded before the Norman Conquest), which at its height had over 50 monks, and which at the Dissolution owned endowments worth £1,430. At the opposite extreme were small priories, cells and daughter houses with only 1 or 2 inmates. Above all, religious houses belonged to a variety of monastic orders,  each one of which represented a variant of the monastic ideal.

As with the medieval Church as a whole, English monasticism developed as part of a wider movement involving the whole of western Christendom. The earliest monks were Egyptian desert hermits who withdrew from secular society to lead a solitary ascetic existence. (The word monk derives from the Greek monos, meaning 'solitary' or 'alone'.) Transmitted to western Europe, the ideal was developed into the concept of a group of ascetics leading a contemplative, communal life in a single institution. Key to this was the obscure Italian abbot St Benedict (c.480-550), whose famous Rule set out a detailed code for monastic living and worship which soon spread across much of Europe.

In the British Isles, the earliest monastic communities in Ireland, Wales and Strathclyde followed a different, distinctly Celtic model. But from the 7th century important monasteries following the Benedictine Rule were established in the north of England, at Hexham, at Whitby, and at Wearmouth and Jarrow in County Durham. The latter became famous as the home of Bede (c.673-735), whose 'History of the English Church and People' is a major source for the period. These early northern monasteries were largely destroyed during the Viking invasions, but a monastic revival in the 10th century led to the refoundation of many, and initiated a golden age of Benedictine foundations by kings and other pious laymen which went on into the early 12th century. Despite the monks’ individual vows of poverty, the monasteries themselves very swiftly became extremely wealthy through endowments of land, churches and tithes, both at their foundation and through subsequent piecemeal gifts.

From the 11th and 12th centuries the Benedictines’ hegemony was challenged by several new orders, which reinterpreted the monastic ideal to meet changing social and economic conditions. The most important originated in France, and were transmitted to England shortly afterwards. Cluniac houses observed a variant of the Benedictine Rule developed at Cluny Abbey in Burgundy, focusing on relentless and elaborate liturgy in a suitably ornate architectural setting. The first Cluniac house in England was founded at Lewes in 1077 by William de Warenne, and was eventually followed by around 30 more. More radical in some ways was the Cistercian Order, established at Cîteaux Abbey in Burgundy in 1098. This enforced a more rigorous and more stringently ascetic version of the Benedictine model, characterised by plain, functional architecture, hard physical labour on the land, and the innovative inclusion of lay brothers or conversi. Cistercian abbeys were often located in remote areas, their estates organised around self-contained granges. The first in England was at Waverley (Surrey), followed by Tintern and Rieveaulx, and by the 1150s there were around 40. A further innovation was the double houses of canons and nuns established by Gilbert of Sempringham in the mid 12th century. Nunneries had existed from an early date, but were relatively few and less well endowed, and the success of Gilbert’s scheme suggests that it met a genuine social need.

Monasticism was by definition inward-looking, but by the 12th century the growth of towns and of a more complex commercialised society was creating a need for a more outward-looking form of communal life. Houses of Augustinian canons fulfilled such a role, combining communal organisation and contemplation with work among the laity in parish churches, in hospitals (such as St Bartholomew’s in London), and as teachers. The Rule adopted was that drawn up centuries earlier by the north African St Augustine of Hippo (354-430). The first truly Augustinian priory in England was founded at Colchester c.1100, followed by many more over the next 50--60 years, as the new order (like the Cluniacs and Cistercians) caught the laity’s imagination and became fashionable to support. Similar in scope were the Premonstratensians, established at Prémontré in northern France in 1120, and in England at Newhouse in 1143. By the Dissolution the order had 35 communities in England.

The move towards more active engagement with the laity reached its logical conclusion in the 13th century with the orders of friars, in particular the Dominicans and Franciscans. The Dominicans were a preaching order set up specifically to combat heresy, and settled in Oxford and London in 1221. By the Dissolution they had over 50 English friaries. The Franciscans, established in Italy by St Francis of Assisi (d. 1226), were also itinerant preachers, who established communities in Canterbury, London and Oxford in 1224, and had around 60 English houses by 1300. In a reaction against the wealth of many earlier foundations the friars were allowed no property, and were expected to beg for a living (hence their occasional description as mendicants). In reality they acquired communal houses mostly in towns, although the orders never accumulated property or wealth comparable with that of the monastic orders. Franciscans such as Roger Bacon remained closely associated with the universities, playing an important role in the intellectual and scientific life of the 13th century.

Other forms of collegiate churches existed before the Norman Conquest, among them the Anglo-Saxon minsters served by groups of secular priests. Non-monastic cathedral chapters were similarly made up of groups of secular priests or canons, supported from individual endowments or prebends. The arrangement continued throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times.

Despite their wealth and worldliness the monasteries’ contribution to medieval life was enormous. To contemporaries they were power-houses of prayer, ensuring salvation not only for their inmates but for the whole of society. As consumers, builders, landowners, speculators and employers their economic impact was considerable, and their contribution to intellectual and cultural life immeasurable. The swiftness and completeness of their demise had an equally profound impact, initiating the single greatest transfer of property since the Norman Conquest, and arguably necessitating the creation of the Elizabethan poor law.

Theme Items

The Anglo-Saxon monastery at Wearmouth (Monkwearmouth) was founded in 673 by the Northumbrian nobleman, Benedict Biscop and was supported by a larg

After its destruction by the Vikings the once proud Anglo-Saxon monastery of Wearmouth remained ruinous and uninhabited until the later 11th centur

Aylesford, the Friars. The Carmelite Order was established here in 1242.

Water Colour painting of Croxden Abbey.  Showing the west wall of the chapter house, the interior and the high transept wall, exterior, from the so

Lammana or Lamanna priory was a small Benedictine cell on the island of Lammana now called St George’s or Looe Island off the south Cornish coast n

Friars are often underrated in local history because they have left fewer records than monks, and hardly any of their buildings survived the Reform

The best-preserved plan of a medieval monastery in Cornwall is that of the Augustinian priory of Launceston.

The best-preserved plan of a medieval monastery in Cornwall is that of the Augustinian priory of Launceston.