Home Newsletter Locations Diary


Abbey Section Abbey Index Featured Abbeys Full List (a) Cathedrals and Major Churches


The Development of Monasteries and Abbeys in Britain

Abbey is the general term for both a Christian monastery holding men and a convent holding women. The  Abbot or Abbess was the spiritual father for most of the community. It comes from Latin 'abbatia', derived from Syriac 'abba', meaning father.

A Prior is the equivalent to an Abbot, but of a satellite establishment, many of what we now know as Abbeys were Priories for most of their active existence, only becoming Abbeys when they became independent.

Similar institutions existed prior to Christianity, and the first known Christian one followed the same style of a cluster of huts around a common centre.

Early Christian monks lived on their own near to a church, worked the land to produce all they needed and gave the surpluses to the poor. Some of these gained followers or disciples, from this the monasteries developed with monks having cells and collected around a central figure.

These monasteries were often given rich gifts, and then the need to put security walls around become necessary.

Wealth and power has a habit of corrupting and this was the pattern of the Abbeys and Priories, they started out with good intentions but over time accepted lower targets, and then a new order was developed with higher ideals, but in time they too would follow the same pattern, leading to new orders or paths. Existing orders did not disband but just went on living better and forth from their founding ideals. At the beginning you had a solitary hard working monk, working to feed himself and giving surpluses to the poor and later bishops with a number of magnificent palaces living the life of a prince.

Often the change in designation of the order brought about architectural changes while within an order as near as the geography allowed, all establishments followed a common design.

One of the first and most spectacular of the  orders was the Benedictines. Developing from Italy, this spread throughout Europe, and by 1415 they had built 15,070 Abbeys. Most built to a common design, but Durham and Worcester changes slightly to allow for the geography. Westminster Abbey, and St Mary's Abbey, York were two of the most notable in Britain.

The Clunic order came about through the feeling that Benedictines had lost their calling, with its first Abbey about 909 in France. By the 12th century there were around 2,000 clunic monasteries across Europe, most were priories. The first English Clunic house was at Lewes, established in 1077. The best preserved Clunic houses in England are Castle Acre, Norfolk, and Wenlock, Shropshire. All Clunic houses in England were French colonies, governed by priors of that nation. They did not secure their independence nor become "abbeys" until the reign of Henry VI. The Clunic revival, with all its brilliancy, was but short-lived. The celebrity of this, as of other orders, worked its moral ruin. With their growth in wealth and dignity the Clunic foundations became as worldly in life and as relaxed in discipline as their predecessors, and a fresh reform was needed.

Next we have the Cistercians, they arose in the last years of the 11th century and had a wider diffusion as well as a longer and more honourable existence, owing its real origin as a distinct foundation of reformed Benedictines  in 1098. The defining architectural characteristic of the Cistercian abbeys was the most extreme simplicity and  plainness. They had very fixed rules, no turrets or decoration, one tower only, no stained glass, crosses must be of wood and candlesticks of iron. They also tended to favour practical rather than showy locations so well watered valleys were popular locations.  Fountains Abbey  (NT) in North Yorkshire, founded 1132 is one of the largest and most complete in Britain, less complete now is Strata Florida Abbey (CADW) in Wales. Others include Kirkstall Abbey, Leeds, Rievaulx Abbey North Yorkshire, Tintern Abbey South Wales and Hailes Abbey Gloucestershire. Hailes provides a good example of the problem of the abbeys, it was established with a lot of support, built in just 5 years from obtaining the land, and its opening was attended by 13 bishops, the King and Queen, and all the major barons of the realm, but after 20 years it was not prospering, until it acquired what was said to be a phial of the blood of Christ, built an extension to its eastern end of the church, and became one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the country.

Another order was that of the Austin canons or Black canons (so called from the colour of their habit), its first house in England was in Colchester established 1105. They were an order of regular clergy, a bit like a community of parish priests, part way between monks and secular canons. They had large congregations so built churches with very long naves. Bristol Cathedral, originally the Abbey of St Augustine's is a good example.

The Premonstratensian regular canons, or White canons, had about 35 houses in England, of which the most perfect remaining are those of Easby, Yorkshire, and Bayham, Kent. The head house of the order in England was Welbeck. This order was a reformed branch of the Augustinian canons, founded, AD1119. Stern Premonstratensian canons wanted no congregations, and cared for no possessions, therefore they built their church like a long room. Three houses of this order still survive and continue today.

The Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller and the Teutonic Knights, were all Christian orders. Of these the Knights Templar are best known. They were a monastic order with some places in England, but most of the activities and building was in or near the Holy Land. The red cross that the Templars wore on their robes was a symbol of martyrdom, and to die in combat was considered a great honour that assured a place in heaven. With their military mission and extensive financial resources, the Knights Templar funded a large number of building projects around Europe and the Holy Land. Many of these structures are still standing. Many sites also maintain the name "Temple" due to centuries-old association with the Templars. For example, some of the Templars' lands in London were later rented to lawyers, which led to the names of the Temple Bar gateway and the Temple tube station. Two of the Four Inns of Court which may call members to act as barristers, are the Inner Temple and Middle Temple. Pope Clement absolved the Templars of all heresies in 1308, before formally disbanding the Order in 1312. It is currently the Roman Catholic Church's position that the medieval persecution of the Knights Templar was unjust, that there was nothing inherently wrong with the Order or its Rule, and that Pope Clement was pressured into his actions by the magnitude of the public scandal and the dominating influence of King Philip IV. Legends around this order, are numerous, and many recreated rites exists, including some used in Masonic tradition. They are probably looked at more favourable than many others as they were disbanded when highly successful and powerful rather than when the numbers had fallen off and the order was failing.

See Also:

Abbey and Religious Buildings Section for all articles, lists and location guides on Abbey's, Cathedrals, Churches, Holy Wells etc.


By: Keith Park Section: Abbey and Religious Buildings Key:
Page Ref: development_of_abbeys Topic: Abbeys Last Updated: 02/2011

This page:

Link directly to this page, with text or the button on right.

Text linking: The development of Monasteries and Abbeys in Britain    on Photographers Resource

Linking Instructions                            http://www.photographers-resource.co.uk/

Photographers Resource, all the information for the photographer