With the recent clear, cold weather of January, I visited Glastonbury Abbey to take photographs. I have been fascinated by the Abbot’s kitchen and wanted to reflect on its form and function.

Abbot’s Kitchen in the Abbey grounds

The building reminds me a Tudor or Early-Stuart conceit. A playful representation of something other than its function. However, this is a 14th-C building and not late 16th or early 17th C. The exterior is reminiscent of a small castle at each of the two entrances (one south and the other north). There is an elaboration of curved buttresses. The lantern or louvre is extravagant and playful. This kitchen was meant to be seen as a statement. Perhaps to lure in high status guests salivating at the dishes that could issue from it.

Abbot’s Kitchen North Entrance

Abbot’s Kitchen South Entrance

The kitchen was placed as a separate building, away from the abbey but convenient to the abbot’s hall. At first glance it could be interpreted as a minor hall with a more elevated function than a kitchen. But a kitchen it is with four hearths in the angles of its square plan. These divide up the interior into an octagon and eight ribs stretch up to the lantern in case one had missed the concept. The smoke from the fireplaces would have been contained and risen upwards from the arched hoods over the hearths. If things got too hot in the kitchen the doors north and south could be opened. These doors also enabled small carts of fare to be carted in and boards of prepared food held by servants to be carried out. If the abbot was entertaining this would have been a cauldron of activity. I am not sure that plain pottage was often of the menu of this kitchen!

Abbots Kitchen: Hearth in the northwest corner

Abbot’s Kitchen: Water container


The octagon lantern or louvre is an interesting feature. There is no central hearth as the four corner fireplaces contain the fires and smoke. The bottom tier of the lantern has two trefoil lights on each face. The top tier has smaller, thin pointed-arch lights. There are what looks like tiny lights in the cap of the lantern. There are crenelations capping the tiers. Internally it provides some light. It is mainly there as a delight to behold, although like baptismal fonts, the eight-sided aspect has Christian meaning.

Abbot’s Kitchen Louvre or Lantern

Abbot’s Kitchen: Interior of Louvre or Lantern


There are windows providing light in the kitchen. The lantern/louvre would provide some and opening the sets of doors would provide more. Lighting is important for food preparation, cooking, and clearing up. This meant that the best light of the day was needed. The main meal of the day was taken around ten in the morning and another lighter meal around four in the afternoon. The gloom of the winter months would provide more of a challenge but there was also the light provided by the hearths. The light flows down to tabletops from the windows/louvre and upwards from the hearths.[i] I visited the kitchen around eleven am on a sunny day in January. There was plenty of natural light in the kitchen, although the windows in the doors are a modern addition.

Abbots Kitchen Interior looking north

Abbot’s Kitchen: Hearth n the southeast corner – bread oven?

Abbot’s Kitchen West Window

Abbot’s Kitchen Stained Glass Fragments in West Window

Abbot’s Kitchen: East Window. Probably the two lights were much larger at one point like the West Window and have been filled in.


There was a separate kitchen with a square plan and probable similar elevation for the monks, but of simpler design.

Glastonbury Abbey Museum Model

This plan of kitchen was not unique in the early-14th C. Caerphilly Castle had three hearths set across three corners of the kitchen. Although the polygonal-planned kitchens were not that common. Examples are St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury (1287-91), Furness Abbey (c. 13th C), Charing Palace in Kent (c. 1300), and Durham Priory kitchen (c. 1366[ii]). Lincoln Palace kitchen (c. 1224) in additional to three corner hearths, also has two lateral ones.[iii]


The kitchen was started in the 1330s for Abbot Sodbury.[iv] The Abbot’s magnificent hall was built by the next abbot John de Breynton (1334-42)[v]. Jerry Samson has suggested William Joy as the master mason.[vi] Joy’s own mason mark along with those of others in his workshop has been located on an ogee arch in the Abbot’s kitchen.[vii]

William Joy flourished from around 1310 to 1346/7. He possibly died of the Black Death in 1348 as there are no records of him from this date. He replaced Thomas Witney as master mason at Wells Cathedral and created the scissor arches there to bolster up the central tower. He also worked at Exeter Cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral, Ottery St. Mary and possibly further afield such as St. David’s Bishop’s Palace, Berkeley Castle, and Tintern Abbey. William Joy was a master of the English Decorated Style.[viii] However, this kitchen design is an innovation as it leans well into the Early Perpendicular Style.


Abbot Sodbury was abbot at Glastonbury from 1323-1334. The kitchen is a symbol of status and separation from the Benedictine monks. St. Benedict’s vision from the 6th C had been that abbots would dine, live, and sleep with the community. The monastic community would guard against gluttony with frugality. Meat from four-legged animals was only eaten by the sick. Pottage, beans, bread, vegetables, fruit, nuts, fish, and fowl were the main diet of the monks. Often monasteries had stew ponds, supplying fresh fish. Fishponds lay to the south of the kitchen at the abbey. The huge lake of Meare Pool near Glastonbury was another source of fish.[ix] In the 9th C, Abbotsbury Abbey on the Dorset coast came under the jurisdiction of Glastonbury.[x] This abbey had access to sea fish which could have been supplied to Glastonbury.


By the 14th C the Benedictines had reinvented themselves as part of the economic infrastructure of England. England was a significant trading force, mainly in wool and broad cloth, and urban centres were growing to support a mercantile economy. Often the new urban Benedictine monasteries were founded and funded by secular patrons who could direct where they were built. They provided services to lay people such as hospitality, medical treatment, distributing alms, and education. They were established as one of the few safe places for pilgrims, travellers, merchants on business, and the travelling nobility. Besides praying the Divine Office, the monks were the hoteliers, doctors, scribes, and the ‘social workers’ of the age.[xi]

At Glastonbury there are buildings still standing that provide a further insight into the abbey’s functions. The 15th-C Tribunal in the centre of Glastonbury town stands as testimony to the Abbot’s court.


The George & Pilgrim Hotel in the town centre housed the pilgrims visiting the abbey. However, Glastonbury had a significant sacred history rather than being strategically positioned. Amongst the 300 saints’ relics it claimed to hold were those of St. Patrick, St. Bridget, and St. Dunstan.[xii] In 1191 it was reported that the monks ‘discovered’ remains attributed to King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. On the 19th of April 1278 in the presence of King Edward I and Queen Eleanor their remains were transferred to the Abbey Church. This was a significant draw for pilgrims.


The abbots of Glastonbury had power and privilege, and this may have been behind the magnificent Abbot’s kitchen. Attracting not just pilgrims, but a network of powerful individuals would have served the abbey. It is also perhaps needs to be placed in context of the age. It was in the decade before the Black Death (1348). Edward III was on the throne and perhaps the wealth of Glastonbury meant abbots could indulge their ambitions. The powerhouse of the Benedictine network had become woven into the political and economic framework of society. This combined with the accomplished skill of master masons like William Joy and his workshop, meant than innovative and spectacular architecture could be made manifest. Glastonbury Abbey kitchen is rare survival of 14th-C prestige and innovation.

VISIT GLASTONBURY ABBEY: https://www.glastonburyabbey.com


[i] Peter Brears, Cooking & Dining in Medieval England, (London: Prospect Books, 2008; repr. 2020), p. 67

[ii] ‘The Great Kitchen’, Durham Cathedral, < https://www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/explore/the-cathedral-building-and-grounds/the-great-kitchen> [accessed 20 January 2024].

[iii] Peter Brears, p. 180.

[iv] Julian Orbach and Nikolaus Pevsner, Somerset: South and West (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014), p. 316.

[v] C. A. Ralegh Radford, ed. John McIlwain, Glastonbury Abbey, (Norwich: Pitkin, 2009), p. 18.

[vi]Julian Orbach and Nikolaus Pevsner, p. 316.

[vii] Emma, J. Wells, ‘Joy, William [Joye] (fl. 1310-1346/7)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, online edn, March 2021, <https://doi.org/10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.013.90000369743> [accessed 19 January 2024].

[viii] Emma, J. Wells, ‘Joy, William [Joye] (fl. 1310-1346/7)’.

[ix] C. A. Ralegh Radford, p. 18.

[x] ‘The History of Abbotsbury, Abbotsbury, Dorset, England, < https://www.abbotsbury.co.uk/abbotsbury-history/> [accessed 19 January 2024].

[xi] Mary Chisholm, ‘The Benedictines from Italy to England – From Order in Rurality to Urban Powerhouse’, Exploring Building History, < https://www.exploringbuildinghistory.co.uk/the-benedictines-from-italy-to-england-from-order-in-rurality-to-urban-powerhouse/> [accessed 20 January 2024].

[xii] ‘Hospitality’, University of Reading, < https://research.reading.ac.uk/glastonburyabbeyarchaeology/digital/the-abbots-complex-c-1150-c-1725/hospitality/#:~:text=This%20remarkable%20list%20included%20relics,988%20as%20Archbishop%20of%20Canterbury.> [accessed 20 January 2024].


Brears, Peter, Cooking & Dining in Medieval England, (London: Prospect Books, 2008; repr. 2020)

Chisholm, Mary, ‘The Benedictines from Italy to England – From Order in Rurality to Urban Powerhouse’, Exploring Building History, < https://www.exploringbuildinghistory.co.uk/the-benedictines-from-italy-to-england-from-order-in-rurality-to-urban-powerhouse/> [accessed 20 January 2024]

Orbach, Julian, and Nikolaus Pevsner, Somerset: South and West (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014)

Radford, C. A. Ralegh, ed. John McIlwain, Glastonbury Abbey, (Norwich: Pitkin, 2009)

Wells, Emma, J., ‘Joy, William [Joye] (fl. 1310-1346/7)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, online edn, March 2021, <https://doi.org/10.1093/odnb/9780198614128.013.90000369743> [accessed 19 January 2024]