Anatomy of a Monastery – The Gatehouse

The gatehouse, Roche Abbey (2)

The Gatehouse, Roche Abbey

This is our final visit to the monastery and we’re leaving, as is proper, via the gatehouse. Like castles, monasteries were surrounded by a wall. In some parts of the country monasteries were subject to raids at various times, so some kind of fortification was important. Since monks had no means of defending themselves, the wall and the gate had to be as strong as possible. 

Gatehouses were staffed by porters, whose job it was to question those who wanted to enter, or leave, the monastery. The purpose of their questions was to find out whether that person had the right to come in or go out. Once he had made sure of the visitor’s identity and their reason for coming to the monastery, the porter directed them to the relevant obedientiary.

The porter could either be a monk or a lay employee and he was usually given accommodation in or near the gatehouse.

Gatehouses didn’t just allow entry to people, but also to carts. Supplies arrived from the abbey’s granges in carts or on the backs of horses, and guests would arrive with carts containing some of their belongings. My favourite gatehouse is this one where you can see the separate entrances for both carts and for people on foot. In many monasteries there was a single entrance for both.

Visitors were only allowed into what was effectively an outer courtyard. They were not allowed into the inner courtyard: the cloister. Like an outer bailey of a castle, this outer courtyard, known as the precinct, could be very large. It was here that any stores, barns, workshops, cattle-sheds, mills, smithies, stables and cemeteries were located.

The gates were closed at Compline, the last office before the monks went to bed. The porter could, however, open them for guests who had been delayed on their way or even pilgrims arriving after dark.

Large gatehouses like the one at Easby Abbey below, had rooms upstairs that could be used as offices or accommodation for the porter. Stores of items to be given as alms to the poor could be stored there so that they could be dispensed without the poor needing to enter the monastery. Alms were given out from a covered porch on the other side of the gate.

Easby Abbey gatehouse (2)

Gatehouse, Easby Abbey

Another use for the space on the upper floor was as a prison. Prisons were used to punish disobedient monks. We saw some weeks ago how they were sentenced in the chapter house and imprisonment was one of the most severe forms of punishment.

The gatehouse at Roche Abbey was built in the fourteenth century. Most of the slabs underfoot are original. Considering its purpose, it’s very elegant. It has beautiful vaulted ceilings with carved heads scattered about. When it was built it had an upper story, but that hasn’t survived.

Corbel, gatehouse, Roche Abbey

Carved head, Gatehouse, Roche Abbey

Medieval pavement, gatehouse, Roche Abbey

Medieval Pavement, Gatehouse, Roche Abbey

The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Roche Abbey by Stuart Harrison
Richmond Castle and Easy Abbey by John Goodall


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 Medieval Buildings, Medieval Monks, Monastery, The Medieval Church

23 responses to “Anatomy of a Monastery – The Gatehouse

  1. This is another fascinating post, April. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Do you know how they decided who to accept as a guest, or did they accept anyone who asked? And were guests expected to pay or make a donation to the monastery?

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I have so enjoyed this series of posts April, thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Good ending to a fascinating series. I like the carved head shot 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  5. An intriguing end to a great series. Thanks for sharing, April!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. It’s wonderful and quite amazing to think they are the same flags today as they walked on so many years ago. Loved reading this, April, really interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. So sorry not to have commented sooner. Finally past a nasty illness. I could not let this series end without my heartfelt thanks for your comments, photos, and wealth of information that you unstintingly share with your readers. This series answered so many questions!

    Ohboyohboyohboy! Where are you taking us next? ♥

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Sophia

    This has been such a wonderful series!! Thank you. I was wondering if you could share any more details to help me fully visualize the entrance/gate house experience. Were the gates usually iron or was it more of a wooden or metal door? If they were left open during the day, then how would the porter stop enemies from entering? Would the porter escort them to the right obedentiary or just give directions? (or is this a level of detail impossible to say with certainty?) I know we have left the series behind (I am so sorry to hear it!!!) but I would love to know more about the guest experience, from arrival to departure (and probably different experiences, depending on who they were . . . )

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sophia. Most of what you’re asking is unknown. The gates were wooden. I suspect that the pedestrian gate was open, but the cart gate wasn’t. Where there was only one large gate, there was probably a door within it for pedestrians and that might have been kept open.

      If the porter took the visitor to the obedientiary, he would have locked the gate, I think. Alternatively, he might have handed the visitor over to another monk while he stayed by the gate.

      I should probably have written more about the guests. I’ll keep in in mind for a future post.


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