Catching up – part one: The Abbey’s

After spending so much time over the last three years at a Premonstratensian Abbey (Leiston Abbey – Suffolk) I figured it can’t hurt to have a look at other remains from the same monastic order.

Egglestone Abbey
Egglestone Abbey

It does help being kindly invited to stay with friends who live just a mile away from one and 20 min or so from another.

Egglestone Abbey
Egglestone Abbey

First things first though – the last few days of this years dig where slightly wetter than previous years – to the extend that some of the tents either flooded or completely disintegrated after a night time storm just before the last weekend. Digging trenches through the sun baked clay is like using a mattock on concrete but doing it in the hauling wind and rain is no easy feat either – most of us agreed that those last two days of the official dig where not the best in terms of the weather and morale – but we battled on.

Easby Abbey
Easby Abbey

So much so that after the official dig finished we discovered the elusive boundary ditch while recording our last hand dug trench – and bingo two more hard days of digging for some of the crew. Meanwhile I tried to tie up loose ends in the finds barn whilst being entertained by the primary school children of the music school (not).

So Wednesday we said our good bye’s to one another and some of us headed north to North Yorkshire – a journey that took the best part of 7 hours due to constant road works or road closures.

Easby Abbey Gate house
Easby Abbey Gate house

The plan was to explore the small market town of Barnard Castle and the aforementioned Premonstratensian Egglestone Abbey close by and from there for me and my friend to explore Vindolanda Roman Fort near Hadrians Wall.

So a few words about those Premonstratensians first. From what I learnt they are also called “Norbertines” after  Saint Norbert, who later became Archbishop of Magdeburg (Wikipedia). They are still a religious order in many countries to this day and have been re-established in the UK in the early 1920’s. They are also known as the “white canons” as they are not monks but Canons Regular and their role has been/is  “to engage in public ministry of liturgy and sacraments for those who visit their churches” (Wikipedia).

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey

They appeared to have been late comers on the monastic scene in England and by all accounts did not have the wast lands to start with that other religious orders had and needed to resort to other ways of earning income (such as farming and trading in goods). Their monasteries or Abbey’s are usually a little out of the way and by the looks of it smaller than the ones by other more established orders such as the Cistercians, the Benedictines but slightly larger than the wholly British order of the Gilbertines.

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey

Most Abbey’s adhere to a basic ground plan and will have the usual buildings such as the Church (Nave, North and South transept, chapel/s choir and most importantly the Presbytery and Sacristy), Chapter House (where the day to day business is discussed), the Cloister, Dormitory and reredorter (latrines), Refectory (where the meals where served), kitchens, Abbot’s accommodation, guest quarters, Infirmary (often with separate kitchens), Gatehouse (to control access to the abbey precinct) and other associated buildings depending on the needs of the monastic community.

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey

At Leiston and Easby Abbey the cloister is firmly to the South of the church – however at Egglestone Abbey the cloister is to the North of the Abbey and it seems there is no Infirmary at all (but that could be because it has not been excavated yet). At Leiston we think we may have found the Infirmary – albeit with heavy plough damage to it’s foundations. You can learn more about our dig at Leiston by watching the video’s online here from day one.

Rievaulx Abbey
Rievaulx Abbey

So “Abbey visiting” was on my cards this year (just like last year it was all about castles) – and how different they all can be. I manged to see three Premonstratensian (LeistonEasby & Egglestone), two Cistercians (Rievaulx Abbey & Roche Abbey) and one Benedictine Abbey (Whitby Abbey) so far. I did try and visit Fountains Abbey as well but ran out of time.

Rievaulx Abbey Nave
Rievaulx Abbey Nave

I noticed that some of the abbeys are rather substantial and have no or only a small entry fee and others with less standing remains (such as Whitby) are more famous and therefore command a premium entry fee. I am not overly worried about that actually as I am a member of Heritage New Zealand and get free or reduced entry into any English Heritage or National Trust properties, but I did notice that my favorite ones are either free or rather cheap to visit but are a bit out of the way…

Rievaulx Abbey Nave tiled floor in situ
Rievaulx Abbey Nave tiled floor in situ

Wandering around those formerly deeply religious places made me wonder what life would have been like in the heyday of monastic life – well before the dissolution of the monasteries they tended to decline – in particular after the black death, most Abbey’s lost almost all their lay brothers and had to employ servants and rent out some of their agricultural granges to make ends meet.

Roche Abbey
Roche Abbey

It must have been cold too – usually only one or two rooms had heating and with meals being rather spartan as well. I am guessing live as a monk or canon must not have been pleasant but given the choices that were available at the time probably still better than life of the ordinary folk.

Roche Abbey
Roche Abbey

I must admit that walking around them and admiring the attention to detail that has been paid to every stone I can’t help wondering what if…. oh Henry VIII!

Oh – one last thing – these photos are not the best but the best I can do under the circumstances…

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