For almost one thousand years, from the 7th century to the early 16th, there were monasteries in Britain. They did not flourish for this entire period, there were times of decline, for example during the Viking raids of the 9th century, and then there was the sudden and painful end, when Henry VIII closed all the monasteries in the 1530s. However, by the time Henry dissolved them there were already hundreds of abbeys and priories up and down the country and these prospered for long enough to leave one of the most striking and fascinating architectural legacies in Britain. You cannot travel far in England or Wales without encountering some sort of evidence of a medieval monastery. Many are ruins, left to decay after the dissolution; some were converted to a different use – numerous country houses were built by cannibalising the remains of a medieval monastery and some still preserve remnants of the monastic buildings amongst their halls and drawing rooms; others have been rebuilt and their origins survive only in their names. Many farms incorporate former monastic buildings in their barns or cowsheds. Sometimes an abbey or priory church was taken over by the lay population and remains in use as a parish church. Occasionally the buildings have disappeared, but a memory remains in the form of a street name. This huge variety of remains can make medieval abbeys difficult to understand. Apart from the fact that most of these buildings are fragments of what they once were, there are other reasons why they can be hard to fathom. The monasteries were dynamic institutions – life changed as time went on and the buildings changed too; the way of life of the monk or nun is remote from modern experience; and monasteries were among the most complex structures of the Middle Ages. “England’s Abbeys” tries to unravel some of these issues, to help visitors understand the ruins better and enjoy them more.
English Heritage, 2006. Hardcover, 216 pp.