Keys to the Past



A religious community of men, as monks, or women, as nuns. (Very occasionally both men and women). These people devote their lives to religion and the service of others. Abbeys were controlled by an abbot, priories by a prior and establishments of nuns called a convent. In Christianity there were orders on how to organise physically and spiritually the life of the monastery - giving rise to different monastic orders. For both cases an ideal monastery was to be entirely self-supporting, using its granges as the basis for exchanges and subsistence. The earliest monastery in the region was that at Lindisfarne (Northumberland) established by King Oswald around 635AD.

Physically Medieval monastery buildings included a crucifix shaped church of nave, chancel and side arms of transepts. This was to imitate the crucifixion of Jesus and would face east. The remaining buildings were arranged around a courtyard called a cloister. To the south of the south transept were the slype - a passage from the cloister outside, and the chapter house. Other sides of the cloisters were made up of accommodation for the monks or nuns, lay staff and guests, (which might be pilgrims), and stores for produce for sale or use. Sometimes the accommodation was all on upper floors - so the stores were held in places called undercrofts. Other buildings may have included a watermill, hospital, prior's house and prison for the rule-breakers, separated at a distance from the main site. An enclosing curtain wall, sometimes with battlements, may also have been added. Beside a watercourse was a favoured location - so watermill wheels could be turned and waste washed away after being dropped in, from locations such as garderobes. In the case of convents a house for a priest was included, as the nuns could not take all the religious services themselves. In the cases of mixed orders, such as the Gilbertines, the basic plan was replicated - though one divided church was shared.

The community would have been expected to attend several services throughout the day and night. Stairs were provided between the accommodation and the main church, bypassing cloisters at night. These can be seen at Hexham, Northumberland where they remain. Both the plans and style of worship would have had minor differences from one monastery to another. This was because of affiliations to different Orders, which followed different rules. (See the entries for Augustinians, Benedictines, Cistercians and Premonstratensians). Some monasteries acted as private chantries, others were deliberately in remote or urban situations, as teaching colleges and as rest homes for busier monasteries. If the general public were allowed in, (for sometimes they were not), they could not do further than the nave

By the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Reformation some monasteries were well known for their pilgrimage relics and shrines, their wealth, manuscript collections, bells and ornaments. Such decorations would include stained glass and effigies in the various architectural styles. The things of value and the sites themselves were sold for King Henry VIII at Courts of Augmentation at the Dissolution of the Monasteries - though some were taken over as cathedrals and churches by the locals. This upset many and led to the Pilgrimage of Grace. Post-Medieval monasteries have been established - often in country houses, such as Ministeracres, Northumberland, or after the destruction of monasteries elsewhere. Ushaw, (County Durham), seminary is the successor to the monastery at Douai, Northern France, destroyed following the French Revolution (1788AD). It is too early to comment on historically on the monasteries established for other religions in the region, such as the Buddist monastery at Harnham, near Belsay, Northumberland.

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