My first post is about abbeys. What is an abbey and what does it represent?
Abbeys are a complex of buildings centred around a church devoted to a religious order and governed by an abbot or abbess, so they are synonymous with the establishment of monasteries and convents. An abbey is a home, a work place and a self-contained community. The first abbey in Europe was established at Monte Cassino by Benedict of Nursia in 529AD (sadly badly damaged by bombing 1944 before being rebuilt). By 1415, over fifteen thousand Benedictine monasteries had been established.
Each monastery was built using a blue print based on the Roman villa and contains the same buildings: church, cloisters, refectory and dormitory. This layout adapted to local situations, but essentially remain the same. As abbeys grew in size and importance, infirmaries and guest facilities were added, and within the abbey church (or monastic cathedral), chapels with altars arranged around the nave and apse were encouraged to enable monks to become priests with their own little chapel. What started out as a small church became an immense construction.
By late Medieval period, monasteries and convents were often wealthy businesses with lots of land and lay workers who lived alongside the monks and nuns.
Religious orders split and diversified but in essence abbeys remained the same whether they existed in cities, towns or the middle of nowhere. However, they weren’t owned necessarily by the order who lived within their walls. Abbeys were mainly founded by wealthy patrons who were keen on displaying their piety. So though an abbey might begin under one order, over the centuries it would ‘change hands’ becoming a different order or even become a convent inhabited by nuns.
By the time Henry VIII took control of the church in England, abbeys were some of the richest communities in the country. Henry dissolved them, believing them to be corrupted by greed and power. Naturally, he took that wealth for himself.
As for the abbeys, what became of them? Those monks and abbots who resisted and refused to swear oaths to the new head of the church, were killed, their monasteries destroyed. Many abbeys were robbed of stone down to the ground, rather like castles in the civil war. Those that survived either became parish churches, a few became city cathedrals and others were turned into private homes, for example, Anglesey Abbey, which is not on Anglesey but in East Anglia.
I’ll be focusing my exploration on abbeys as buildings, especially the churches. The ruined ones and the intact. Over the centuries, as persecution of Catholics lessened, some abbeys came back to life. They were rebuilt and repopulated.
Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about Buckfast, a working monastery that was reborn in the 19th century.