- relating to monks, nuns, or others living under religious vows, or the buildings in which they live.
Monastic sites help tell the story of English Christianity through fourteen centuries. Here we explore the stories behind six different sites across England.
1. Hinton Priory, Freshford, Bath
The Carthusian priory at Hinton was founded in the early 13th century by Ela, Countess of Salisbury, a wealthy heiress who was married aged 9 following the inheritance of her father’s estates. It is said that, following her father’s death, Ela was imprisoned in a castle in Normandy by her uncle who wished to take her wealth and title for himself. Ela was rescued by a knight who, in his search for Ela in France, sang ballads under the windows of castles to encourage her response.
Between 1536 and 1541 Henry VIII disbanded Catholic Monasteries and reappropriated their funds and people, in a legal process often referred to as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In March 1539, Hinton Priory surrendered to the Crown.
2. Waverley Abbey, Surrey
Atmospheric Waverley Abbey was the first monastery founded in Britain by the Cistercian religious order, which emphasised manual labour and self-sufficiency, often through brewing ales.
The site is on one of the natural routes up the River Wey to South London, and surrounding the ruins are numerous WWII defensive remains including anti-tank gun emplacements, pillboxes and anti-tank roadblocks and ditches. The nearby ‘Mother Ludlam’s Cave’ is said to have once been home to a white witch.
It has been frequently used as a film set, for such blockbusters as 28 Days Later, The Huntsman and Elizabeth, The Golden Age.
Featured Image also Waverley Abbey © English Heritage
3. St Catherine’s Chapel, Dorset
St Catherine’s chapel stands in a dramatic coastal location on top of a hill overlooking Chesil Beach in Dorset. It was commissioned during the late 14th century, and is a notable sea mark: a structure visible from long distances when on board a ship at sea, and is thought to have operated as a lighthouse during the Middle Ages. The site was maintained by the monastic community and designed to warn seafarers of the treacherous steeply shelving beach and strong currents.
As St Catherine is the patron saint of spinsters and virgins, until the late 19th century the Abbey was used for a local tradition in which young women would pray for a handsome, rich and kind husband. Not much to ask then.
4. Meare Fish House, Somerset
Meare Fish House, Meare, Somerset. Historic England Archive.Associated with the nearby and more famous Glastonbury Abbey, said to be the final resting place of King Arthur, the listed Meare (or Abbot’s) Fish House is an unusual and rare survival of a monastic industrial site.
The medieval Fish House is believed to have been the home of the chief fisherman, constructed in 1322-35 with the purpose of supplying fish to the abbey. Fish was a staple food of the Monks, and a freshwater supply signified high status, understandable since Glastonbury Abbey is considered to be the home of the first Christian community in England.
5. Denny Abbey, Cambridgeshire
Denny Abbey is unusual in having housed three very different religious orders successively: The Benedictine Monks, Knights Templars (who were imprisoned in the 14th Century for alleged heresy), and the Franciscan Nuns.
The Domesday Book records that the site was once owned by Edith the Fair, who was the consort of King Harold in 1066. Edith is remembered for having identified Harold’s mutilated body at the Battle of Hastings, by marks on his chest known only to her.
6. Castle Hill, Thetford, Norfolk
Castle Hill is an unusual example of a medieval monastic site (an Augustinian friary) that includes the remains of a motte-and-bailey castle and Iron Age earthwork enclosure. The castle remains in particular is one of the most impressive examples of this type of monument in the region; the motte is the highest in the county of Norfolk, and the surrounding earthworks, including those parts which have been levelled, are second only to those of Norwich Castle in extent.
There are several legends associated with the site, one of which links the sizeable mound with nearby Devil’s Ditch. When the devil had finished creating the ditch, he made Castle Hill by scraping the excess dirt from his boot. It is said that you can summon the devil by circling the mound at midnight.
Have you visited any unusual monastic sites? Make your mark on history, and help us to Enrich the List.
By Joe Flatman.