Anatomy of a Monastery – The Abbey Church

Abbey Church Diagram

Now that we’ve examined the monks, it’s time to dissect the monastery itself and we’ll begin with its heart: the abbey church. The church was the largest and most important of the buildings within the monastery. The monks spent between six and nine hours a day there in the opus Dei – the work of God. The opus Dei was made up of prayers, liturgy, and chants or plainsong.

For the first office of the day, at 2 a.m., the monks would get up in the dark. Night stairs connected the monks’ dormitory to the church so that they didn’t have to go outside in the middle of the night. For the other offices they used the main entrance to the church.

The church was in the shape of a cross. As far as the ground on which they were built would allow, the presbytery at the head of the cross was to the east, with the arms north and south. The presbytery housed the main altar and was the most important part of the church, for it was where the Mass was celebrated.

Lay people were keen to be buried in the abbey church as near to the altar as possible. Such a favoured position was reserved for patrons of a monastery, as shown below at Easby Abbey. These tombs are in the nave.

Easby Abbey Scrope family niches

Scrope family niches, Easby Abbey

All churches and chapels had a piscina by the altar in which the priest washed the cups and other vessels used in the Mass.

Piscina, nave, Rievaulx Abbey

Piscina, Rievaulx Abbey Church

The nave ran from west to east. The name comes from the Latin for ‘ship’, presumably because a nave resembles the hull of an upside-down ship. Naves could be made wider by adding aisles.  The naves in abbey churches were unusually long and were used for processions as part of the offices.

The photograph below was taken from the presbytery at Rievaulx Abbey, behind the altar. You can see how the nave stretches away into the distance.

Nave, Rievaulx Abbey

Nave, looking west, Rievaulx Abbey Church

The transepts formed the arms of the cross, one to the north and one to the south.  Architecturally, they were buttresses preventing the weight of the tower above from pushing the walls out. Not every abbey church had a tower where the transept and the nave intercepted, but most of them did. The night stairs usually came down into the south transept.

The photograph below shows the transepts and the presbytery at Rievaulx from the nave.


Abbey Church, Rievaulx Abbey

Many churches had chapels within the body of the church. These were for private Masses, which became important as the percentage of monks who were priests grew as the centuries passed. Priests believed that they had to say Mass every day, so more altars were needed to accommodate them. This was also where the Masses for the dead were offered. The relatives of a dead person would give the monastery large sums of money to ensure that prayers were made for the soul of the dead person in perpetuity. This would reduce the time that person spent in purgatory.

As always, you should imagine the church as full of colour, with painted statues, walls and ceilings.  This didn’t apply in Cistercian monasteries, as we’ll see later. The church would also be dressed according to the liturgical season.

Painted vault

Painted vault, Romsey Abbey

In Cistercian monasteries the east end of the nave was for the monks and the west end, furthest away from the main altar, was for the lay brothers who did the manual work. The two sections of the church each had their own entrance, altar and furnishings. These churches were plainer than those of other orders. No images were allowed, there were no ornaments and glazed windows were clear. All of this was to ensure that nothing distracted the monks from their worship.

In Cistercian monasteries, the lay brothers were only in the church at the beginning and the end of the day. The lay brothers were divided from the monks by a rood screen when they worshipped.  There was a gap in the screen to allow passage through the length of the nave. The remnants of a Cistercian rood screen are still visible at Roche Abbey.

Screens, Roche Abbey

The rood screen, Roche Abbey

Rood was the old English word for cross. In churches, the rood screen was made of wood or stone and it stood between the choir and the nave. On top of the screen was the cross, usually with a statue of the Virgin on one side and St. John the Evangelist on the other.

This Saxon rood is on the outside of the abbey church at Romsey.


In many Benedictine and Augustinian monasteries the nave or an aisle was also used by the local lay population as their parish church. The north aisle at Romsey Abbey was used in this way and it saved the church from destruction when the convent was dissolved under Henry VIII. The town paid £100 to be allowed to continue to use it. Where the nave was the parish church, there would be an altar in front of the rood screen, as there was in Cistercian monasteries for the lay brothers.

Muchelny Abbey by John Goodall and Francis Kelly
Roche Abbey by Peter Fergusson and Stuart Harrison
Richmond Castle and Easy Abbey by John Goodall
The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Life in a Monastery by Stephen Hebron


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:










Filed under Church, Medieval Life, Medieval Monks, Monastery, The Medieval Church

19 responses to “Anatomy of a Monastery – The Abbey Church

  1. Fascinating stuff, April. It’s easy to see how the church became so wealthy if the people were paying for prayers. Lovely photographs.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I am continually amazed at the beautiful constructions humans can mak…those soaring columns, those graceful vaults – yet these days builders will wreck beauty spots with developments using the cheapest materials and fastest methods. We are going backwards. Thanks for the lovely pictures.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes. Monasteries were often built in what we’d consider beauty spots, but they’ve become part of the landscape, not an eyesore. I try to imagine the impact they would have made on someone in the Middle Ages seeing them for the first time, but can’t.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Intriguing post, April! The graphic you made together with the photographs really help me conceptualize the space.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great information April! (Have you been to Mount Grace Priory? If not add that to your list 🙂 )

    Liked by 2 people

  5. You’re very good at looking at ruins and being able to figure out what’s what. I have no flair for it, I’m afraid. I tend to latch onto little bits, but have trouble visualising the whole.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Such a clear and interesting post, and I agree that the diagram is particularly helpful. We have a list of abbeys etc., that we are planning to visit next year inspired by this series of posts!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Anatomy of a Monastery – The Refectory | A Writer's Perspective

  8. Pingback: Anatomy of Monastery – The Dormitory | A Writer's Perspective

  9. Pingback: Anatomy of a Monastery – The Chapter House | A Writer's Perspective

  10. Pingback: Anatomy of a Monastery – The Library | A Writer's Perspective

Please join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s