The monks at Westminster Abbey wore the black habit of the Order of St Benedict, who had originally established the Benedictine rules for the monks of his own abbey at Monte Cassino in Italy about 540 AD. According to the Rule they were to take a vow of obedience, lead a simple and self-denying life, be celibate and own no property. The simple celebration of the daily services in praise of God was their first duty, and work (often farm work) and reading took up the rest of their time. At a time when very few people, even kings, could write, monasteries were the main source of education. As they became richer and more monks were ordained priests the tradition of manual work ceased and they were more concerned with administration of their lands and possessions.
The first monks were brought to Westminster in about 960 AD by St Dunstan, then Bishop of London. No trace of the building to which they came has been found as King Edward the Confessor built a new Abbey on the site, which was consecrated on 28 December 1065. It was built on a marshy area called Thorney Island, surrounded by tributaries of the Tyburn river. The numbers of monks at Westminster varied through the centuries from about 30 to 60, although only 24 were left when Henry VIII dissolved the monastery in 1540. But the community also included many lay servants, masons, and almsmen. Only the Pyx Chamber and the Undercroft (now the Museum) in the cloisters remain from Edward’s 11th century Abbey. In 1245 Henry III began rebuilding much of the Church in the new Gothic style of architecture. The monastic buildings from this period, like the magnificent octagonal Chapter House, still survive today, though some are incorporated into later structures. The great dormitory is now divided into the Abbey Library and the Great Hall of Westminster School, and the Prior's residence is now part of Ashburnham House. The garden, where the monks took exercise and grew herbs, can still be visited. Part of the Infirmary now forms the Little Cloister. It was here that the sick were cared for and where the elderly monks lived. They were exempted from the ordinary regulations of the Abbey, and the Infirmary had its own chapel dedicated to St Catherine.
The cloisters were the centre of monastic life where the monks spent most of their time when not at prayer or taking part in the daily services. In the west cloister the novices were taught and for relaxation they played a popular game of marbles called "nine holes". The monks worked in the north cloister, where they were sheltered from cold winds and got most of the sun. At first only the upper sections of the windows were glazed and it was very cold in winter. Later, rushes were strewn on the stone floor and wooden partitions were erected to form individual "carrells" where the monks could read and study. The scriptorium, for those engaged in copying and illuminating manuscripts, was set up elsewhere. In the south cloister was the entrance to the refectory and towels hung in the four (restored) niches which can still be seen by what is now the entrance to the Abbey Song School. The washing place was in the first bay of the west cloister. The monks ate lots of fish (herrings, oysters, sturgeon, whelks, cod etc.) and had beef, mutton, pork and some chicken and duck, with bread, beer, cheese and eggs but very few vegetables. There was a bath house (with hot water) and a shaving house in the precincts but the monks only took about four baths a year. The latrines were at the end of the “dark” cloister (a continuation of the eastern walk). In the east cloister the community met each day in the Chapter House to have a chapter of the Rule of St Benedict read to them and to have any punishments meted out. Next door were the day stairs to the dormitory (now the entrance to the Library). This was a very large room and by the 14th century was divided into cubicles, with curtains to ensure privacy. Only some of the monks actually slept here, as many had private quarters. No fire was allowed and in the early Middle Ages they slept in their day clothes. By the 15th century they had special night coats over their underwear. In this cloister on the Thursday before Easter the Abbot used to wash the feet of thirteen elderly men (although someone else had washed them first to make sure they were clean!), kissed their feet and distributed the Maundy alms in memory of Christ's last supper with his disciples.
The daily round of services usually commenced with Matins at midnight, Lauds at daybreak, and Prime at about 6am. Terce, Sext, and None were said before dinner and Vespers at 6pm. The monks retired to bed at about 8pm in winter and 9pm in summer. The Abbots of Westminster were important and powerful men and were often employed by the king on state business. William of Colchester was so involved in politics that in 1400 he was sent to the Tower of London for a time for his part in a plot to restore Richard II to the throne. John Islip used to entertain Henry VII, serving the king with his favourite marrowbone puddings. Westminster Abbey owned much property in London, such as Hampstead, Paddington and Knightsbridge, and in many parts of England. Windsor was part of Edward the Confessor's endowment but William the Conqueror decided he wanted this for hunting and the Abbey exchanged it for Battersea and Wandsworth and lands in Essex. Henry VIII also swapped property with the Abbey - to the Abbey's disadvantage. In return for the lands of the Priory of Hurley, which he dissolved in l536 and which was already a daughter-house of Westminster, the king received Covent (Convent) Garden (the monks' vegetable garden), Hyde Park and a good deal of property in Westminster.
On 16 January 1540 monastic life at Westminster came to an end when Henry VIII dissolved the monastery and the deed of surrender was signed. Many of the monks retired or went into "civilian" life. However, the Abbot became the first Dean of the new Cathedral Church founded by Henry and the Prior and several monks became clergy in the new church. A bishop was appointed to the new see of Westminster but after ten short years the bishopric was surrendered and the Church became a Cathedral within the diocese of London.
The monks, however, were destined to return just for a short time when Queen Mary I, a Roman Catholic, restored the Benedictine Abbey under Abbot Feckenham in 1556. Monks were brought together from former establishments and at least two monks from the previous Westminster community returned. But Mary died in November 1558 and her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I became Queen and the monks were removed. Elizabeth established the present Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster (the Abbey's correct title) in 1560.
Reconstruction drawing of the Norman Abbey, with the Palace of Westminster, by Terry Ball.
Monks singing from the 14th century Litlyngton Missal.
Photos can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library.
Barbara Harvey: Living and Dying in England 1100-1540. The monastic experience. (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1993).
Barbara Harvey: The obedientiaries of Westminster Abbey and their financial records c.1275-1540. (Boydell Press, 2002).
Barbara Harvey: Westminster Abbey and its Estates in the Middle Ages (Clarendon Press, Oxford 1977).
E.H.Pearce: The Monks of Westminster. (Cambridge University Press, 1916).
C.S.Knighton & Richard Mortimer (editors): Westminster Abbey Reformed 1540-1640. (Ashgate Publishing, 2003).
Emma Mason: Westminster Abbey and its people c.1050-c.1216. (Boydell Press, 1996).
H.F.Westlake: Westminster Abbey. The Church, Convent, Cathedral and College of St Peter Westminster” (London, 1923).
John Blair & Brian Golding (editors): The Cloister and the World (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996).
© Dean and Chapter of Westminster
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