Tag Archives: Easby Abbey

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.

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

Anatomy of a Monastery – The Cloister

The Cloister, Rievaulx Abbey

The Cloister, Rievaulx Abbey

Last week I wrote about monks borrowing books from the monastery library, but not reading them there. That’s because they read them in the cloister: the square/rectangular/odd-four-sided space around which the most important buildings were gathered.

Monks had two hours of spiritual reading (Lectio Divina) a day. Their reading would not have been a private matter, however, as silent reading was not encouraged, nor was it the normal practice in the Middle Ages. Reading was generally done aloud, usually with an audience. The monks probably couldn’t choose a book, but had one assigned to them. Whether it was their own choice or not, whatever they borrowed was recorded and they had to return it within a certain time period. Many books were stored in the book cupboard in the cloister and some monasteries never needed more than this one cupboard in which to keep their books.

Easby Abbey refectory and cloisters

Cloister and Refectory, Easby Abbey

The central part, the cloister garth, was uncovered, but the cloister itself was covered and enclosed. It was also the place where the monks worked, taught, walked and meditated. In some monasteries the cloister garth was a lawn, in others it was a herb or vegetable garden. In Cistercian monasteries it was the burial ground. Some monasteries had their lavatorium here and most monasteries had a well.

Where possible, the cloister was on the south side of the church. The floors were covered with rushes or matting, which must have helped with the cold. Some monasteries allowed braziers to be lit on very cold days, but most cloisters were unheated. At night, lamps burned in the cloister. I’m not sure why, since no one was supposed to be there then and access to anyone who didn’t belong to the monastery was severely restricted at all times.


Reconstructed Cloister Arcade, Rievaulx Abbey

The exterior walls of the surrounding buildings formed the interior walls of the cloister. The exterior wall was usually in the form of an arcade, allowing as much light as possible into the cloister. The church wall of the cloister was lined with carrels where the monks studied, except in Carthusian monasteries where the monks studied in their own cells.

A carrel was made of stone or wood and was an enclosed space. They had rooves, or canopies, and doors to keep the drafts out. There was enough space in each for a bench and a desk. In some monasteries there were additional carrels along other walls.

The cloisters, Roche Abbey

The Cloister, Roche Abbey

The novices were often taught on the western side of the cloister and, in Benedictine monasteries, the southern side held the scriptorium, where books were copied.  In some monasteries the scriptorium wasn’t in the cloister, but in a separate room, usually on an upper floor. The scriptorium was located so that it would receive as much light as possible. Some monasteries had carrels in the scriptorium, others did not.

Copying books was considered to be a good thing for monks to do, because they could do it in silence. Books weren’t just copied; most were also illuminated and painted. Books were produced in places besides the monasteries, but the monasteries were the main source, at least until the development of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century.

The cloister at Easy Abbey is a very odd shape, due, I think, to the site, which is very uneven. It has three shorter sides and one long side. Sadly, this hasn’t come out in my photographs.

Easby Abbey cloister towards church

The Cloister and Part of the Church, Easby Abbey

The cloister at Rievaulx was one of the largest built by the Cistercians in England.


The Cloister and Refectory, Rievaulx Abbey

The cloister also had a part to play in the offices. It was used on some occasions for processions before the monks entered the church.

The Companion to Cathedrals and Abbeys by Stephen Friar
Rievaulx Abbey by Peter Fergusson, Glyn Coppack, Stuart Harrison and Michael Carter


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.

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

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

The Importance of Looking Up

In the last post I caused some confusion by mentioning ground and first floors. I believe they don’t mean the same thing to Americans as they do to me. Since there was more that I could write on the subject of looking up when visiting a medieval site, I thought I’d add another post, with a few more photographs to explain what I mean.

I made this diagram last year to show where the great hall was in Richard II’s palace at Portchester Castle.

Richard II's Hall diagram

King Richard’s Great Hall, Portchester Castle

As you can see, the great hall was above the servants level, which is at ground level. Medieval lords and abbots lived above: on the first floor. Great halls, refectories and solars were upstairs. The halls of men of lower status were on the ground floor.

People had to climb stairs to reach King Richard’s hall. It showed that he was a man of high status. His hall also had large windows, not that you can see them in the photograph. The wall on the right is an exterior wall of the castle, not just of the hall. It has no windows for the sake of security.

When I first started visiting medieval sites properly, I was confused by many of the things I saw. It was ages before I understood even a little about how to look at medieval buildings. This photograph from Rievaulx Abbey will illustrate this well.

Undercroft and refectory, Rievaulx Abbey

This space is labelled ‘Refectory’ and you might wonder, as I did the first time I saw something similar, why there are walls in the refectory. The refectory should have been a large open space where the monks had their meals. The refectory is not at the bottom of the picture, though, but at the top. The walls below are what remains of storage rooms. The refectory starts where the walls change from rough stone to the paler, more finished blocks of stone above. These walls would have been plastered and painted with colourful designs.

This is another refectory, this time in Easby Abbey. Since I was on ground level when I took it, it’s a bit easier to see the vaults below and the magnificent windows of the refectory above.

Easby Abbey refectory 6

The refectory, Easby Abbey

The photograph below shows John of Gaunt’s great hall at Kenilworth Castle. It looks very odd when you see a fireplace halfway up a wall, but, once again, the hall sits on top of storage vaults. The huge windows and the fireplaces are the clues that it was in the room upstairs that the lords of the castle spent their time.


Fireplace in the Great Hall, Kenilworth Castle

Looking up and asking questions about what you’re seeing at a medieval site is a good way to learn more about how people lived in the Middle Ages.


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 Castle, Medieval Buildings, Monastery