I have already written about Mellifont Abbey, which was the original Cistercian Abbey in Ireland, in much more detail. The post can be found here:
Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 13th: Glendalough
St Kevin’s House dating probably to the early 1100s.
Round Tower dating to 900 to 1200 for more on round towers see
Cathedral dating to 900-1000.
The name for Glendalough is from the Irish Gleann de Loch which translates as a valley of two lakes. The name really exemplifies the quiet, isolated beauty of the place.
The settlement in County Wicklow Ireland was founded by St. Kevin in the latter half of the sixth century. This was a period of great religious change in Ireland and there was still tension between the older faiths and Christianity. Christianity was still the Celtic rather than Roman form and there was a tradition at the time of small and very isolated communities living lives of asceticism to sacrifice themselves to the love and worship of God. It was in this tradition that St Kevin founded Glendalough. He probably lived there alone for roughly seven years, but word eventually spread and he was joined by others so he founded his first actual settlement. The original site of the settlement was on the lake but as the community grew the space became to limited and they moved to their present site.
Life as Glendalough was not always calm and isolated, there were Viking raids in 790, 834, 889 and 938. But while they would have been damaging they did not affect the overall longevity of the settlement. The monks would not have been the only inhabitants of the settlement, there would have been craftsmen, pilgrims and students. The monks educated the children of the aristocracy. Glendalough was a centre of learning.
The first major change to Glendalough came with the invasion of the Anglo-Normans in 1169. The Anglo-Normans were keen to absorb Glendalough into their version of a religious community and in 1173 Richard Strongbow gave the cathedral and parsonage to his clerk Thomas. By 1214 Glendalough was incorporated into the Dublin Diocese.
Over the years Glendalough became a symbol for Celtic resistance, and it found itself in a territory that was openly in rebellion against the English. It was in fact sacked by an English force 1398. Glendalough began to fall into decline over the next two hundred years and the Flight of the Earls (which was the departure of the last of the great Gaelic chieftains) in 1601 spelled the end for the community and the churches fell into ruin until they were renovated by the Board of Works in the 1870s.
Glendalough: A guide ISBN: 9181905487462
The photos are all mine, bar the first one which I have permission to use.
Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 12th: Hore Abbey
Hore Abbey in County Tipperary Ireland is often overshadowed by the awe inspiringly spectacular Rock of Cashel which looms right over it. It is, however, a very interesting abbey in its own right.
The Abbey was founded by the Benedictines in 1266. However in 1269 it is said that the Archbishop of Cashel David McCarvill had a dream that the monks attempted to decapitate him so he violently threw the Benedictines out. It is definitely true that he evicted the Benedictines, though it was probably for a more prosaic reason.
He remade the abbey as a Cistercian foundation and imported monks from Mellifont Abbey to populate it. It was the last Cistercian abbey to be founded in Ireland. The majority of the ruins you see today date from the 13th century though some changes were made in the 15th century. The most obvious change was the addition of the tower in the middle of the transept. The remains of the cloister arcade are positioned to the north of the abbey itself, which is unusual. It is possible that the location of the Rock of Cashel might be the reason for this odd positioning.
The buildings are actually quite substantial. The remaining choir is twenty-nine feet long and twenty feet wide. The nave is fifty feet long and twenty three feet wide.
The Abbey was dissolved as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and only the Abbot and one monk were granted a pension. In 1561 Elizabeth I gave the abbey and its grounds to Sir Henry Radcliffe along with a portion of ale, called the Mary-gallon, out of every brewing in Cashel.
Site visit 2012
Grosse, The Antiquities of Ireland, Volume I, Kilkenny: Wellbrook Press, 1982.
The photos are all mine.
Advent Calendar of medieval Religious institutions: December 10th: St Mary’s Abbey Ferns.
The town of Ferns in County Wexford, Ireland stands at an important strategic site as the area was historically the capital of the Kings of Leinster. The first christian community roughly on this site was founded by St Aidan in about 600.
The legend is that whilst he was building his monastery his followers were complaining that water couldn’t be found. So St Aidan ordered them to dig in a certain spot. Beautiful clear water then emerged from the hole and became known as St Mogue’s well (Mogue being another name for Aidan). The well is now under the road next to the abbey, but it is still accessible from a more modern structure just to the side. It is said to have curative powers, including the ability to reduce baldness.
The abbey you see today was founded by Diarmuid MacMurrough King of Leinster in 1158 as an Augustinian Abbey. The foundation charter of the abbey included a portion of all the beer brewed in Ferns. Not much of the abbey remains today; only parts of the church and the vaulted chancel survive sadly. The bell tower is the most unusual feature, the base is square shaped and then it tapers into a round top as it reaches higher. Stairs to the top of the tower still survive.
The abbey’s founder MacMurrough holds the dubious distinction of being the Irish king who invited the Anglo-Normans to Ireland (they never left again). MacMurrough lost his kingdom in the late 1160s and he sailed to England to invite the Anglo-Norman lords to come and help him reclaim it. Richard Strongbow Lord of Striguil (now called Chepstow) was the key lord to answer his call and MacMurrough promised Strongbow his kingdom on his death and marriage to his daughter Aoife if he would help. Strongbow agreed and MacMurrough took sanctuary at St Mary’s in 1167/68 while his waiting for his Anglo-Norman allies to arrive.
MacMurrough died in 1171 and is buried in the abbey’s grounds.
Strongbow had married Aoife by this point and he became the ruler of Leinster. The Anglo-Norman lords never left Ireland again. Strongbow’s daughter was Isabel de Clare who married William Marshal and inherited Leinster in her own right.
The abbey continued to function under Anglo-Norman rule and it was dissolved in 1539 as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Site visits 2012 and 2015
Ferns: Ancient capital of Leinster book.
The photos are all mine.
Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions December 9th: Strata Florida
I have written about Strata Florida and its amazing medieval tiles before. The link to the blog post can be found here
Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions December 6th: Lanercost Priory
Lanercost Priory was founded in 1169. It was home to a group of Augustinian canons. Augustinians were not monks exactly. Each was a canon, an ordained priest, and they were ruled by a prior. The priory was founded partly as a political act; both to establish a point of Anglo-Norman control and to help demarcate the newly re-established English Scottish frontier. In fact a reasonable portion of the stone used to build the priory was probably reclaimed from the nearby Hadrian’s Wall.
The priory was founded by Robert de Vaux. As well as political considerations de Vaux also probably wanted a site to endow perpetual prayers both for himself and for the souls of his parents. The priory was endowed with both churches and lands and it was both dedicated and founded in 1169. The original buildings would have been largely wood, but due to the proximity of Hadrian’s Wall, and thus a steady supply of already cut and dressed stone, the buildings were built in stone comparatively early in the building process. There was also significant rebuilding works in the mid 13th century.
Lanercost is a small priory, but it found itself at the centre of English Affairs in 1306-1307 when Edward I stayed there. He was in the area to deal with a resurgence in Scottish resistance. He did not intend to stay at Lanercost for a long period of time, however illness confined him there for nearly six months. This meant that the priory was not only host to the king but to a number of leading courtiers and the Queen and Prince Edward. New buildings had to be constructed to house the growing number of attendants, ultimately there was at least 200 people in permanent residence with the king. This is not counting the courtiers that turned up with their retinues. The priory was quite impoverished by having to supply resources to the king for six months, but he did reward them by bestowing the churches on Carlaaton and Mitford on the priory. It took time to secure their claims though, and it was years before they were better off from the king’s visit.
The priory was dissolved in 1537 as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the nave of the church was retained to serve as the parish church which is continues to do today. The remainder was sold as a grand residence. Thomas Dacre was granted the priory in 1542 and converted the west range of the cloister as his residence and the first floor as his great hall. You can see Dacre Hall in the final photo above. It is reputed to be the oldest village hall in England. It was given to the people of Lanercost as their village hall in 1952.
Site visit 2012
Lanercost Priory Cumbria by Henry Summerson and Stuart Harrison. ISBN: 9781873124309
The photos are all mine
Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 5th: Lindisfarne Priory
The elegant and almost ethereal Lindisfarne Priory sits on Holy Island, which is only accessible by a causeway that is completely flooded with every high tide. The priory is one of the oldest religious sites in England. The land was gifted to Saint Aiden by Oswald, an Anglo Saxon King, in 635. Saint Aiden and later Saint Cuthbert used it as a base to convert Northumberland to Christianity. Lindisfarne is known as the cradle of Christianity in England.
Saint Cuthbert became bishop in 685 and when he died in 687 he was buried in a stone coffin on Lindisfarne. When his tomb was opened 11 years later the body was “incorrupt,” which was taken as a sign of his saintliness and a cult sprang up around him. The cult attracted pilgrims and ensured Lindisfarne’s place as a centre of Christian learning. This resulted in what, for me, is the most interesting part of the priory’s history; the famous Lindisfarne Gospels. They were begun at the priory in 698.
Very unusually for a medieval manuscript we know not only that the gospels were the work of one man, but who that man was. A note was added later identifying the artist as Eadfrith, who was bishop of Lindisfarne between 698 and 721. The work is one of extraordinary detail and skill, using a wide variety of pigments, although it remains partly unfinished due to Eadfrith’s death in 721. The Lindisfarne Gospels embodied a sense of Englishness that was growing at the time; the gospels are a mixture of Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Roman, Coptic and Eastern traditions. They symbolise a realm that was beginning to develop an individual identity. It is also truly beautiful.
This image is from the British Library and can be found here
To return to the priory itself. The origins of what you see today largely dates to the early 12th century when the priory was re-founded in 1122. The priory was abandoned in 875 after a series of devastating Viking raids from the 790s onwards led to the decision being taken that remaining on the island wasn’t safe. The church, the remains of which you can see in the first photo, was built around 1150.
The priory continued despite ongoing border warfare until it was dissolved under the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537. It was one of the 200 small religious houses that were the first to be suppressed.
Site visit 2012.
Holy Island of Lindisfarne information booklet.
The photos (apart from the gospel) are all mine
Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions December 4th: Fountains Abbey
A truly stunning abbey with the most spectacular surviving undercroft that I’ve ever seen. Fountains Abbey was founded in 1132. It’s a Cistercian Abbey. Its foundation was rooted in the dissatisfaction of a group of monks from the Benedictine Abbey of St Mary’s in York. A small group of monks led by Prior Robert were unhappy with the comfortable existence in the abbey. They wanted to return to a more stringent observance of their monastic vows.
They were supported by Abbot Thurstan of York. He described the monks at St Mary’s as “the whole chapter house rang with such noise that it seemed more like a group of drunken revellers than humble monks”. When Prior Robert’s group had to flee the abbey, Thurstan looked after them in his palace and then gifted them land in the valley of the River Skell so they could found their own monastery. To begin with they barely survived, building a simple chapel and living off what they could grow in a small garden and the bread that Thurstan sent them. After they only just made it through the first winter they realised they’d need more support. They applied to Bernard of Clairvaux to join the Cistercians. Bernard welcomed them and sent Geoffroi d’Ainai to teach them the Cistercian ways. They were accepted officially into the Cistercian Order in 1135. They almost didn’t survive the first years, with poverty and a bad harvest almost forcing a move to France, but in time Fountains became one of the richest abbeys in Europe with a significant number of daughter houses.
Fountains survived until 1539 when it was another casualty of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The abbey was closed, the abbot and monks pensioned off and the estate was sold to merchant Sir Richard Gresham.
Site visit 2012
The photos are all mine
Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions: December 3rd: St Augustine’s Canterbury
St Augustine’s was founded in roughly 598 by St Augustine, making it one of the oldest monastic sites in the country.
Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory the Great in the late 500s to restore Christianity to Southern England. Christianity had waned in England with the departure of the Romans. In the late 500s England was divided into a number of small kingdoms and Augustine set out with the aim of converting the royal families, deciding that they could then persuade their subjects.
He started in Kent because the king, Ethelbert, was one of the most powerful in the region and his wife, Bertha, was already a Christian. Augustine was successful and Ethelbert converted.
The Abbey was built after Ethelbert’s conversion and it served both as accommodation for the monks that Augustine imported and as a burial place for the kings. It was built outside the Roman and later medieval walls of the town of Canterbury. It also became the burial place for the early Archbishops of Canterbury.
After the Norman conquest the abbey became a standard, though powerful, Benedictine monastery. It remained so until 1538 when it was suppressed as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. After it was dissolved it was used as a royal palace by Henry VIII and as a resting stop on the journey between London and the ports in the South East. It was used as a brewery for a time in the 1700s and 1800s and by the late 1800s a missionary school had been established. Today some of the site is still occupied by King’s School. The abbey is often overshadowed by it spectacular neighbour Canterbury Cathedral, but as the site of the re-establishment of Christianity in England and as one of the most powerful monasteries of the time it is in many ways more important.
References: Site visit 2012
English Heritage book: 9781850746690
The photos are all mine.