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Layout of a Monastery or Abbey

Monasteries all have more in common than are different, although each new order made some changes and there are variations that are caused by geography.

The Benedictine Monastery is the basic model most in Britain are based on or developed from. The buildings of a Benedictine Abbey were uniformly arranged after one plan, except where geography makes changes essential. We don't now have a complete Abbey in Britain, so most plans we have are of a part of the site, but we do have very detailed information on the Swiss monastery of St Gall, erected about AD820, and its plan is of help when working out both what we can now see and identifying where the missing parts will be located. The following texts are based on, and largely extracts from, works in 1848, a lot of this was based on surviving early drawings.

Much of their arrangement is quite logical, most arranged around a covered cloister allowed movement in effect from building to building without getting wet. Cloisters to the south, so that the church that was far larger did not block the sunlight. Night quarters above and having a staircase into the church, loo block off the night quarters. Chapter house, usually the second most impressive part after the church and located on the east corridor of the cloister, next to the part of the church with the main alter. Often seats in the north of the cloister backing on to the church as this side has no rooms off and is also the lightest for reading. Hand washing area on the opposite side of the cloister or off it, next to dining area.

Visiting Abbots and Bishops would not have found any difficulty in finding their way around these large institutions.

Inside the church, the arrangement would be for two quires, the monks quire at the main alter end where you usually see a quire today, and further down the nave, separated by a screen the lay brothers quire. Both would be arranged with sections on each side facing the central isle. Processions were a major part of the church of this period, and you had a processional route from the great west door down the nave, and second entering through the south door from the cloisters at the point usually where the west isle of the cloisters connects to the church. Most churches today have two impressive entrances that mimic this ancient arrangement.

Benedictine Monastery of St Gall

It is evidently planned in compliance with the Benedictine rule, which enjoined that, if possible, the monastery should contain within itself every necessary of life, as well as the buildings more intimately connected with the religious and social life of its inmates. It should comprise a mill, a bakehouse, stables, and cow-houses, together with accommodation for carrying on all necessary mechanical arts within the walls, so as to obviate the necessity of the monks going outside its limits.

The general distribution of the buildings are:-The church, with its cloister to the south, occupies the centre of a quadrangular area, about 430 feet (130m) square. The buildings, as in all great monasteries, are distributed into groups. The church forms the nucleus, as the centre of the religious life of the community. In closest connection with the church is the group of buildings appropriated to the monastic line and its daily requirements - the refectory for eating, the dormitory for sleeping, the common room for social intercourse, the chapter-house for religious and disciplinary conference.

These essential elements of monastic life are ranged about a cloister court, surrounded by a covered arcade, affording communication sheltered from the elements between the various buildings. The infirmary for sick monks, with the physician's house and physic garden, lies to the east. In the same group with the infirmary is the school for the novices.

The outer school, with its headmaster's house against the opposite wall of the church, stands outside the convent enclosure, in close proximity to the Abbot's house, that he might have a constant eye over them.

The buildings devoted to hospitality are divided into three groups, one for the reception of distinguished guests, another for monks visiting the monastery, a third for poor travellers and pilgrims. The first and third are placed to the right and left of the common entrance of the monastery, the hospitium for distinguished guests being placed on the north side of the church, not far from the Abbot's house, that for the poor on the south side next to the farm buildings. The monks are lodged in a guest-house built against the north wall of the church.

The group of buildings connected with the material wants of the establishment is placed to the south and west of the church, and is distinctly separated from the monastic buildings. The kitchen, buttery and offices are reached by a passage from the west end of the refectory, and are connected with the bakehouse and brewhouse, which are placed still further away. The whole of the southern and western sides is devoted to workshops, stables and farm-buildings.

The buildings, with some exceptions, seem to have been of one storey only, and all but the church were probably erected of wood. The whole includes thirty three separate blocks.

Floor plan of Benedictine Monastery of St Gall
(Showing early design)

In this plan, east is at the top, north to the left, south to the right and west at the bottom. You might think of it in comparison to most churches where the west door would be, at the bottom and on entry you are facing the way the audience would sit facing the alter.

Missing in this plan, but found in most later ones is the chapter house, usually located on the eastern wing of the cloister. This would often be a large very fine room, of some height. A round room in at least some later cathedrals.

The necessary often called a re-redorter is the loo block, its location is usually next to and connected to the main dormitory, and arranged so as to have water flowing under it. The location may change with the geography.

A. High altar.
B. Altar of St Paul.
C. Altar of St Peter.
D. Nave.
E. Paradise.
F. Towers.
G. Cloister.
H. Calefactory, with
dormitory over.
I. Necessary.
J. Abbot's house.
K. Refectory.
L. Kitchen.
M. Bakehouse and
N. Cellar.
O. Parlour. (over.
P1. Scriptorium with library k,
P2. Sacristy and vestry.
Q. House of Novices--
1. chapel;
2. refectory;
3. calefactory;
4. dormitory;
5. master's room
6. chambers.
R. Infirmary--1--6 as above
    in the house of novices.
S. Doctor's house.
T. Physic garden.
U. House for blood-letting.
V. School.
W. Schoolmaster's lodgings.
X1X1. Guest-house for
     those of superior rank
X2X2. Guest-house for
     the poor.
Y. Guest-chamber for
     strange monks.
Z. Factory.
a. Threshing-floor
b. Workshops.
c, c. Mills.
d. Kiln.
e. Stables.
f. Cow-sheds.
g. Goat-sheds.
h. Pig-sties. i. Sheep-folds.
k, k. Servants and
workmen's sleeping-chambers
l,  Gardener's house
m, m. Hen and duck house.
n. Poultry-keeper's house.
o. Garden.
q. Bake house for

s, s, s. Kitchens.
t, t, t. Baths.

Lets look at the plan in detail

The church (D) is cruciform, with a nave of nine bays, and a semi-circular apse at either extremity. That to the west is surrounded by a semi-circular colonnade, leaving an open "paradise" (E) between it and the wall of the church. The whole area is divided by screens into various chapels. The high altar (A) stands immediately to the east of the transept, or ritual choir; the altar of Saint Paul (B) in the eastern, and that of St Peter (C) in the western apse. A cylindrical campanile stands detached from the church on either side of the western apse (FF).

The `cloister court', (G) on the south side of the nave of the church has on its east side the "pisalis" or "calefactory", (H), the common sitting-room of the brethren, warmed by flues beneath the floor. On this side in later monasteries we invariably find the chapter house, the absence of which in this plan is somewhat surprising. It appears, however, from the inscriptions on the plan itself, that the north walk of the cloisters served for the purposes of a chapter-house, and was fitted up with benches on the long sides. Above the calefactory is the "dormitory" opening into the south transept of the church, to enable the monks to attend the nocturnal services with readiness. A passage at the other end leads to the "necessarium" (latrine) (I), a portion of the monastic buildings always planned with extreme care.

The southern side is occupied by the "refectory" (K), from the west end of which by a vestibule the kitchen (L) is reached. This is separated from the main buildings of the monastery, and is connected by a long passage with a building containing the bakehouse and brewhouse (M), and the sleeping-rooms of the servants. The upper story of the refectory is the "vestiarium," where the ordinary clothes of the brethren were kept. On the western side of the cloister is another two story building (N). The cellar is below, and the larder and store-room above. Between this building and the church, opening by one door into the cloisters, and by another to the outer part of the monastery area, is the "parlour" for interviews with visitors from the external world (O). On the eastern side of the north transept is the "scriptorium" or writing-room (P1), with the library above.

To the east of the church stands a group of buildings comprising two miniature conventual establishments, each complete in itself. Each has a covered cloister surrounded by the usual buildings, i.e. refectory, dormitory, etc., and a church or chapel on one side, placed back to back. A detached building belonging to each contains a bath and a kitchen. One of these diminutive convents is appropriated to the "oblati" or novices (Q), the other to the sick monks as an "infirmary" (R).

The "residence of the physicians" (S) stands contiguous to the infirmary, and the physic garden (T) at the north-east corner of the monastery. Besides other rooms, it contains a drug store, and a chamber for those who are dangerously ill. The "house for bloodletting and purging" adjoins it on the west (U).

The "outer school," to the north of the convent area, contains a large schoolroom divided across the middle by a screen or partition, and surrounded by fourteen little rooms, termed the dwellings of the scholars. The head-master's house (W) is opposite, built against the side wall of the church. The two "hospitia" or guest-houses for the entertainment of strangers of different degrees (X1 X2) comprise a large common chamber or refectory in the centre, surrounded by sleeping-apartments. Each is provided with its own brewhouse and bakehouse, and that for travellers of a superior order has a kitchen and storeroom, with bedrooms for their servants and stables for their horses. There is also an "hospitium" for strange monks, abutting on the north wall of the church (Y).

Beyond the cloister, at the extreme verge of the convent area to the south, stands the "factory" (Z), containing workshops for shoemakers, saddlers (or shoemakers, sellarii), cutlers and grinders, trencher-makers, tanners, curriers, fullers, smiths and goldsmiths, with their dwellings in the rear.

On this side we also find the farm buildings, the large granary and threshing-floor (a), mills (c), malthouse (d). Facing the west are the stables (e), ox-sheds (f), goatstables (gl, piggeries (h), sheep-folds (i), together with the servants' and labourers' quarters (k). At the south-east corner we find the hen and duck house, and poultry-yard (m), and the dwelling of the keeper (n). Hard by is the kitchen garden (o), the beds bearing the names of the vegetables growing in them, onions, garlic, celery, lettuces, poppy, carrots, cabbages, etc., eighteen in all. In the same way the physic garden presents the names of the medicinal herbs, and the cemetery (p) those of the trees, apple, pear, plum, quince, etc., planted there.

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey another Benedictine Abbey, identical in its general arrangements, so far as they can be traced, with those described above.

The cloister and monastic buildings lie to the south side of the church. Parallel to the nave, on the south side of the cloister, was the refectory, with its lavatory at the door. On the eastern side we find the remains of the dormitory, raised on a vaulted substructure and communicating with the south transept. The chapter-house opens out of the same alley of the cloister. The small cloister lay to the south-east of the larger cloister, and still farther to the east we have the remains of the infirmary with the table hall, the refectory of those who were able to leave their chambers. The abbot's house formed a small courtyard at the west entrance, close to the inner gateway.

Considerable portions of this remain, including the abbot's parlour, celebrated as "the Jerusalem Chamber," his hall, now used for the Westminster King's Scholars, and the kitchen and butteries beyond.

See Westminster Abbey for a detailed look at what it looks like today.


Image is a 1894 drawing

Later developments

The same basic design is usually able to be seen, but many were enlarged, and had extra chapels added, sometimes shrines, and with the Cistercian Abbeys you have divisions within the nave, separating  the nave, reserved for the lay brothers, and the choir and presbytery at the east end for the choir monks.

There are variations, some caused by geography, but usually only in minor changes, Tintern Abbey is different in that its back to front, with the cloisters to the north instead of the south.

Several of the feature guides have detailed descriptions of the abbey layouts, one that you may like to look at is the later Cistercian Abbey at Netley in Hampshire.

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: monastery_layout Topic: Abbeys Last Updated: 02/2011

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