England in the Middle Ages
A Medieval Tourist Guide


Historical background

The earliest organized form of monasticism in England was the Benedictine order. It was by St Augustine’s mission from Rome to England (597) that the Rule of St Benedict came to be known and spread in England, where, after the foundation of Christ Church (597) and St Augustine’s Abbey (598) in Canterbury, numerous Benedictine houses were founded. The Benedictines remained the most influential order throughout the Middle Ages, both on the continent and in mainland Britain.

However, some monasteries in the north of England, for example Whitby Abbey, had not been Benedictine in their early years. From the 7th century, there was another branch of Christianity that took root in England, especially in Northumbria. It was inspired by Celtic practices and originated from the Scottish island monastery of Iona, which belongs to the Inner Hebrides. On this remote island St Columba, an Irish missionary, had founded a religious community in the middle of the 6th century, which had become the centre of Scottish monasticism and of early Christianization in Scotland.

Some seventy years later, a monk called Aidan started a mission from Iona to Northumbria in order to convert the pagans living in King Oswald’s Anglo-Saxon kingdom. He and his companions settled on a small island on the northern coast of England and founded Lindisfarne Priory (635), which was to become the centre of the Celtic church in England.

Lindisfarne Priory

Its religious importance grew with the cult of St Cuthbert, prior of Lindisfarne from 664 to 685. His body was found undecayed eleven years after his burial, and subsequently he was worshipped as a saint of the Ionan Church. The rich Christian heritage and religious history of Lindisfarne were the reasons why the name Holy Island was attributed to the place.

The two branches of English Christianity came together in the Synod of Whitby (664). Representatives of the Northumbrian Church (Celtic influence) and the southern Roman Church discussed their diverging religious traditions, which were seen as an obstacle for a future religious and political unification of England. King Oswy, brother of Oswald of Northumbria, who presided over the synod, was eager to adopt the Roman tradition and to become a member of the Roman, “European” church.

The synod finally agreed upon imposing essential elements of the Roman tradition on the Christians in Northumbria. The most important issue discussed was the method of dating Easter, for to this point the two Churches had celebrated it up to two weeks apart, according to the respective interpretation of the moon cycle.

After the Synod of Whitby, the Roman method was adopted in Northumbria and all over England.

By the 9th century, the Golden Age of Monasticism, as the first instalment of religious communities and houses in mainland Britain is called, came to an end. Monastic life was nearly extinct, for the Vikings, who repeatedly invaded the country, destroyed and plundered monastic buildings and churches for their riches. There are no historical records of most monasteries from that time.

In the 10th century, there was a movement of reform that aimed at a revival of monastic life. Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury from 960 to 988, initiated the adoption of the Regularis Concordia, the ‘Monastic Agreement of the Monks and Nuns of the English Nation’. This document was based on the Rule of St Benedict and aimed at a re-foundation of the destroyed and decaying monasteries, as well as the foundation of new Benedictine houses. Although not more than 30 monasteries subscribed to the rule, it led to a standardization and unification of monastic life.

After the Norman Conquest, the Benedictine order still remained the norm for religious life in England. However, new orders, the so-called reforming orders, came to the British Isles. These were the Cluniacs, the Cistercians and the Carthusians. All of them originated from France and were founded in order to return to a stricter observance of the Rule of St Benedict, which in their eyes had become too lax in most Benedictine monasteries. Thus, although the new orders were essentially Benedictine, they did not want to be mixed up with the established Benedictine tradition and therefore took new names. The Cluniacs, who wore a black habit (like the Benedictines), were said to be almost constantly at prayer. The Cistercians and the Carthusians wore a habit of rough, unbleached wool and were therefore called the white monks. They lived a life of total poverty, built their houses in remote places and refused any earthly riches. The Carthusians, the most rigid and austere of the three orders, idealized the life of the first desert hermits and spent most of their time at praying in their own private cells.

Organization and daily routine in a Benedictine monastery: the Horarium

The Horarium was a strict timetable based on the Rule of St Benedict of Nursia, which he had written down in Italy in the 6th century. The Rule can be summarized by the words “Ora et labora” and consists of simple rules and directions for the life of a monastic community. St Benedict established it in order to avoid idleness (accidia) in a monastic community, saying that “Idleness is the enemy of the soul”. According to the Rule, the monastic day consisted of three activities, i.e. liturgical prayer, spiritual reading and manual work (in the fields, the library or the cloister garden).

The monastic day was dominated by liturgical or communal prayer, also known as the canonical hours, which took place eight times a day in the abbey church (Nocturns, Matins, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline). Another important moment of the day was the Chapter meeting, when the monks gathered in the Chapter house and discussed the daily business of their community or received spiritual correction. Every day a chapter of the Rule of St Benedict was read out at this meeting, which gave this room of the abbey church its name. The monks living in England would try to make the most of daylight for their reading and working and therefore adapted the Italian timetable to the northern climate. Consequently, in winter their day started in the middle of the night, at 3.00 a.m., and ended at 6.30 or 7.00 p.m.

The members of a Benedictine community

The head of a monastic community was the abbot. He administered the house and was the monks’ spiritual leader. As the representative of Christ in the monastery, he had absolute authority and could take all decisions on his own. From the 11th century onwards, some abbots neglected their pastoral duties, taking over secular functions and becoming figures in public life, e.g. they were sent abroad on royal missions or became landowners. In this case, the prior, who was the second-in-command and usually looked after the less important day-to-day business, got more responsibility and took over the administration of the house. If a community was small in size and was called a priory, there was no abbot, but only a prior who was the head of the monastery.

In bigger communities, some monks had to fulfil special tasks and thus stood above the common monks. They were called obedientaries, i.e. monks with special responsibilities. For example, there was a sacrist, who was responsible for the security and cleanliness of the church, a succentor, who led the chant in church and looked after the library, an almoner, who distributed charity to the poor, a cellarer, who was in charge of all properties and revenues and who supervised the servants, or an infirmarian, who cared for the sick.

A person who wanted to join a monastic community was called a novice. Either it was a boy who was offered to the monastery by his parents, or it was an older novice who deliberately sought admission to religious life. After one year of probation under a novice master, usually an older monk, a novice was professed and made the triple vows of obedience, poverty and chastity.

At the bottom of the hierarchy there was the lay folk and the servants. They fulfilled all domestic duties and profited from a secure life within the walls of the monastery. Furthermore, since a monastery had the duty to provide hospitality, it always was inhabited by some guests or even by permanent lay residents.

Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey, a former monastery with an abbey church, is situated on the North Yorkshire coast and, by the time of its foundation, was part of the kingdom of Northumbria. The first religious community was founded by St Hilda, who was a woman of royal ancestry and had previously been abbess of Hartlepool. Hilda is known as a pioneer of the Anglo-Saxon conversion to Christianity, as it says in the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People), one of the earliest works of English history written by the Venerable Bede. Bede focussed on the conversion to Christianity of the Anglo-Saxons by several missionaries, saints and kings and therefore repeatedly mentions St Hilda’s Abbey in his text. According to him, the mixed monastery of men and women she established at Whitby was renowned for its piety, its scholarship and its emphasis on education, and it is said to have attracted a remarkable community. For example, Bede tells us that Cædmon, the first English religious poet, was a member of Hilda’s community and composed his hymn on creation in the stables of Whitby Abbey.

The importance of Whitby Abbey is reflected by the Synod of Whitby, a church council at which essential traditions and standards of the Roman church were adopted by the kingdom of Northumbria.

The double community existed until the mid-ninth century, when the Danes invaded Northumbria and destroyed Whitby presumably around 867. It lay in ruins until the end of the 11th century, when the monastery was refounded by a Norman knight called Reinfrid. The Norman conquerors brought the continental Benedictine tradition to England, and this is why Whitby became a Benedictine monastery, too. Reinfrid and his fellows had many adherents and planned the construction of a new abbey and church. He did not want to preserve the ruins of the destroyed Anglo-Saxon building, for he was a Norman and wanted to introduce the standards of Norman church architecture. His abbey church would thus have been built in the Romanesque style. But as in the case of the St Hilda’s abbey, there are no more remains of these walls today, and we can only imagine what it may have looked like. The only thing that is still visible of Reinfrid’s church are the foundation lines under the present choir.

The remains of the great choir and the transepts we still see today were laid out by Abbot Roger in the 1220s. Until its dissolution, the abbey church was built and rebuilt several times. We therefore find different architectural styles next to one another, e.g. two different window designs in the northern wall of the nave, which date from the mid 13th and early 14th century. After its dissolution (1539), Whitby was leased to Sir Richard Cholmley, who purchased it 15 years later. His son built Abbey House out of the stone remains of the old abbot’s lodging, but it is not known what happened to the rest of the monastic buildings. The present state of the abbey church is due to several collapses of different parts of the abbey.

Glastonbury Abbey

Glastonbury Abbey gives us an idea not only of the size and architecture of an abbey church, but also of the monastic buildings next to it. Though no more walls of the monastery exist, its different parts can easily be identified by the foundation lines and stone remains in the ground, as for example the cloister, the refectory, the reredorter and the kitchen.

The first stone church on the site dates from 712 and was built by the Saxon King Ine of Wessex, who subsequently helped to increase the income of the newly founded Anglo-Saxon monastery.
In 940, Abbot Dunstan enlarged the church and also built the cloisters. Some years later, he became Archbishop of Canterbury and was one of the major figures in the 10th century monastic reform and the adoption of the Regularis Concordia, to which his former abbey subscribed. Glastonbury was deeply affected by the Norman Conquest. In 1077, the church was partly demolished and replaced by a larger Norman church under Abbot Thurstin. It is said that he added magnificent buildings to it and increased the abbey’s income. Thus, according to the Domesday Book, a medieval chronicle that gives a record of life in Britain, in 1086 Glastonbury Abbey was the richest abbey in the country.

The Norman Church and the cloisters were destroyed by a great fire in 1184. The monks, who were in need of a new place of worship, first reconstructed the nave, where they held their services for more than 30 years. In 1213, the new Great Church was consecrated, but most likely it was not complete at that time and construction work continued while the monks already used it for their services.

In the 14th century, Glastonbury was the second wealthiest abbey in Britain (after Westminster), and its abbot lived in considerable splendour and wealth. This is reflected in two new buildings, Abbot’s Hall and Abbot’s Kitchen.

In 1539, when Henry VIII ordered to dissolve all monasteries, Abbot Whiting refused to surrender and therefore was hung on Glastonbury Tor. This is the sad ending of a prosperous and flourishing monastic community.

For a map of Glastonbury Abbey follow this link: http://www.glastonburyabbey.com/map.php.



Greene, J.Patrick : Medieval Monasteries. Leicester University Press: Leicester, 1992.

Life in a Monastery, Pitkin Guides. Jarrold Publishing: Norwich, 2004.

Whitby Abbey. English Heritage: London, 2002.