This article was first published in the June 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
Much has been written about Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, but less is said about what is often referred to as the ‘monastic revolution’ – a period of reform that began in Italy and France in the 11th century, and reached the British Isles in the c1120s.
Andrew Jotischky, professor of history at Lancaster University, says: “Monastic reform in the British Isles during the 12th century came about as an indirect consequence of the Norman conquest, which allowed greater exposure to developments – religious and otherwise – on the continent.
“By the time of the Norman invasion of England in 1066, Italian religious reforms were already exerting influence on Norman monasticism. Indeed, one of the reasons given by William the Conqueror for invading England in the first place was to reform the English church, which was generally viewed as being out of line with reforming trends in the church in Rome.” Many continental reformers believed that, despite monastic reforms introduced under Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester in the 10th century, English monasteries were not following the rule of St Benedict as they should. This took the form of a set of guidelines written by St Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century, outlining how monks residing communally under the authority of an abbot should live.
What also troubled reformers was the fact that there was no consistency in the way that monasteries in the British Isles were run. These establishments were often affiliated with saints that were unknown outside of the country. But, as Jotischky explains, things began to change rapidly after 1066. “By the 1080s the majority of abbots in existing monasteries across the British Isles had been replaced by Normans,” he says. “Monks would also have experienced liturgical changes (mainly in the prayers they recited), as well as adjustments to other established customs and traditions.”
The extent of these changes, however, depended a great deal on the attitudes of the incoming abbots. Some, like Anselm (appointed abbot of Christchurch and archbishop of Canterbury in 1093) were sympathetic to English traditions. Others were not so sensitive.
“It is the Cistercian order that is probably the best known and important of the reforming groups active in France in the late 11th century,” says Jotischky. “But they were not alone in their quest for religious change. All the reforming orders had the same aim: for monasteries to follow the rule of St Benedict and observe a more simple way of life.”
The Cistercian order was especially eloquent when it came to extolling the virtues of good land management and manual labour, as set out by St Benedict: “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have specified periods for manual labour as well as for prayerful reading… When they live by the labour of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks.”
Most monasteries during the 12th century were great land owners – mostly thanks to bequests by local aristocrats. However, the tradition of monasteries directly cultivating their land – as Benedict advocated – had all but died out by the 11th century. “By this time,” says Jotischky “monasteries commonly rented out land to local tenant farmers, and collected rent in kind or in cash. This was something the Cistercians sought to change.
“The Cistercian order issued its first set of statutes in 1134; among them one instructing the abbey church of Cistercian monasteries to display no form of decoration save a wooden cross. This was introduced as a move against what was seen as the ‘excessive’ amounts of sculpture and art often found in monastic buildings.
Another criticism that the Cistercians levelled against Benedictine monasteries was that the monks ate too much, and too well. A monastic diet, they said, should consist of plain foods such as vegetables, beans and bread.
That the Cistercians made great strides in transforming the way that monasteries on these islands operated is beyond doubt. According to Jotischky, the order’s success can, to a large degree, be traced to its uniformity. Unlike some of their predecessors, these monasteries boasted the same structure and adhered to the same principles.
Other notable reforming orders included the Gilbertines, the only uniquely English contribution to the monastic reforms; the Carthusians, who combined communal and individual styles of monastic life in their monasteries; the Tironensians, an order founded in northern France; and another French order, the Savignacs.
Yet the new status quo wasn’t to last for long. “Cycles of reform were characteristic of religious life in the medieval church,” says Jotischky, “and by around 1200 the continental reforming orders were seen to be in need of reform themselves.
“Although monasticism did continue through the 13th century, relatively few new monasteries were founded after 1200. The 13th and 14th centuries are generally viewed by historians as the ‘age of the friars’ – who spent more time working among lay people than their monastic predecessors. The final death knell for monasticism in the British Isles was, of course, the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII in the 1530s.”
8 related places
Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset
Where a Norman abbot provoked rebellion among his brethren
Although we don’t know exactly when Glastonbury Abbey was founded, there seems to have been a monastery at the site from the seventh century onwards. Once one of the grandest and richest abbeys in England, Glastonbury is not affiliated to a particular saint, but is instead said to have been founded by Joseph of Arimathea, one of Jesus’s disciples.
In 1082 a Norman abbot, Turstin, was appointed and the changes he implemented, particularly regarding the chants used in church, provoked resistance among the abbey’s monks. The quarrel escalated and resulted in the death of three monks at the hands of Turstin’s household knights. Although the abbey continued as a monastery after the Norman conquest, it saw a gradual decline in its importance. This was partly because much of its significance rested on the predominately English legend of Joseph of Arimathea – one that the Normans did not take seriously – but also because of growing competition for lay patronage from other monasteries.
There are many legends associated with Glastonbury, including its being the resting place of King Arthur, and it still attracts pilgrims today.
Kelso Abbey, Roxbrughshire
Where the future king of Scotland founded his first monastic order
Founded by the Tironensian order in 1128, Kelso Abbey eventually became one of the largest and richest abbeys in Scotland.
The order hailed from Tiron in France, and were particularly popular in Scotland; they are thought to have entered the country in around 1113 under the patronage of the then future David I of Scotland, who also patronised Cistercian monasteries. David’s son Prince Henry was buried at Kelso in 1152. The abbey was once widely hailed as a superb example of Romanesque architecture, with its semi-circular arches and thick walls. Although evidence of its former grandeur can still be seen, the building now exists in a fragmentary state.
Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire
Where the first Cistercian abbey in Wales was founded
Sited close to the river Wye in what was once a remote area of the Wye Valley, Tintern Abbey was only the second Cistercian monastery in the British Isles, and the first to be founded in Wales. It began life as a daughter-house of L’Aumône in the diocese of Blois in France – itself a daughter-house of Cîteaux Abbey – and would have retained links with its mother-house, which was ultimately responsible for the running of Tintern.
Today, the abbey ruins are an amalgamation of 400 years of rebuilding, which took place from the 13th century onwards. Little is left of the original 12th-century buildings, but the traditional Cistercian layout remained much the same during subsequent phases of rebuilding. Some 12th-century details do remain, however, including two recessed cupboards for books on the east of the cloisters. The 13th-century church, built by Roger Bigod, Lord of Chepstow, is the most complete of all the remaining buildings, and was created between 1269 and 1301.
Quarr Abbey, Ryde, Isle of Wight
Where Cistercian monks attended to the practical and spiritual needs of islanders
The Cistercian abbey at Quarr was founded in 1132 by Baldwin de Redvers, later lord of the island and Earl of Devon, who populated it with monks from Savigny Abbey in Normandy. The abbey quickly became a religious and practical centre for island life: monks tended to the physical health of islanders and were responsible for the large agricultural establishments and churches that surrounded the abbey. Quarr Abbey ships also sailed to Normandy, the Low Countries, the West Country and the North Sea coast to trade.
The ruins stand in the grounds of the present Quarr Abbey, which has housed congregations of monks since 1907. Visitors can arrange to view both the modern and medieval abbeys, the latter of which includes part of the infirmary chapel, the refectory and the monks’ servery hatch.
Rievaulx Abbey, North Yorkshire
Where a 12th-century monk wrote of monastic life
Once one of the wealthiest monasteries in England, Rievaulx boasts some of the most complete monastic ruins in the country. The abbey was founded by a Yorkshire knight named Walter Espec. According to Andrew Jotischky, it typifies the Cistercian presence in the north of England in that it was built to the instructions of its mother abbey at Clairvaux, in north-eastern France.
The expansion of Rievaulx began in earnest during the abbotship of Aelred, from 1147, and it is through him that we know so much about the running of the abbey in the 12th century. By the time of Aelred’s death in 1167, the abbey housed 140 monks and around 500 lay brothers and lay servants.
In an account of Aelred’s life, one of the abbey monks, Walter Daniel, described in detail his brethren’s daily routine. Daniel recorded that Rievaulx’s monks drank only water, ate little, laboured hard and slept on hard boards. They never spoke, he claimed, except to their superiors on necessary occasions, and loved prayer.
Dundrennan Abbey, Dumfries & Galloway
Where a Scottish king sought to extend his power
Established as a daughter-house of Rievaulx Abbey in 1142, Dundrennan was co-founded by David I of Scotland for political as much as religious reasons. Says Jotischky: “Scotland was very much contested ground during the 12th century, with a number of self-proclaimed ‘kings’ setting themselves up as rivals to the Scottish royal house. One of these was Fergus of Galloway who had claimed much of the Dumfries & Galloway area as his ‘kingdom’. Fergus co-founded Dundrennan with David I, as part of a peace settlement between the two. It is no coincidence that David chose to establish Dundrennan Abbey in an area that he wished to extend his control over.”
Among the abbey’s highlights are the north and south transepts, considered to be the best-preserved late 12th-century Cistercian architecture in Scotland.
Chicksands Priory, Bedfordshire
Where evidence of England’s only ‘homegrown’ monastic order remains
Chicksands Priory was founded in c1150 by the Gilbertines, the only English reforming order of the period. A relatively small order, the Gilbertines were also unique in that they allowed women and men to live in the same community, albeit in separate quarters.
Chicksands passed into the hands of various families after the Dissolution, and the buildings were altered considerably. In 1936 the estate was sold to the Crown Commissioners and in 1940 it became a base for the RAF. The Friends of Chicksands Priory was established in 1975, and within the present building you’ll find the only surviving remains of a Gilbertine cloister. Tours of Chicksands run from April to October, twice a month.
Bective Abbey, County Meath
Where an ‘abbey fortress’ provided protection
The substantial remains of Ireland’s second Cistercian monastery, founded by Murchadh O’Melaghin, King of Meath, in 1147, can still be found near Trim in County Meath. Bective Abbey was a daughter-house of Mellifont Abbey in County Louth (itself Ireland’s first Cistercian abbey), and was founded just over 20 years before the first Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169.
Bective stood on the frontier of English and Irish control and, by 1228, had been fortified substantially, resembling more a castle than a religious house.
“Monasteries during the medieval period could be the only stone-built edifices for miles around, and also functioned as places of defence and refuge,” says Jotischky.
Nothing now remains of the 12th-century monastic buildings – the earliest stonework dates from 1274, when the abbey church was rebuilt – but the site is open to the public.
Words by Charlotte Hodgman. The historical advisor was Professor Andrew Jotischky of Lancaster University