Whilst the roots of the Benedictines grew from the Italian countryside, they established some of their monasteries as key centres in England. The Benedictines played an integral role in society, culture, learning and the economy of England from the 7th C through until the Dissolution in the 1530s. This post examines some of the ideas behind the Benedictines in England.


In the 5th C the Roman Empire began to fall apart. This was due to many complex reasons still debated today. Rome had been founded in 753 BC and the Sack of Rome by the Visigoths under their king, Alaric, took place in 410 AD. It was a period of 12 centuries from the beginnings until the fall. There was a belief from the origin of Rome myth that Romulus saw 12 vultures above the Palatine Hill to win the contest for Rome over Remus, who had only seen 6. The Romans believed these 12 vultures represented 12 centuries and that the fall of Rome was predestined by the Fates.

Whilst the wealthy patricians of Rome possibly believed in the fatalistic idea, they did experience the lack of safety in the city. Many retreated to their rural farms. This wealthy rural life concept was taken up later by Palladio in the 16th C with his building beautiful villas which were essentially on farming estates for their owners. In the US the plantation mansions of the 18th C follow this idea of the wealthy and cultured farmer. There is the long-standing culture of the English country house in a similar vein. At times of stress there is always the country house to retreat to and to live well there.

The Romans had 2 appropriate concepts: (a) otium – is the concept of leisure time and retirement from service to enjoy the fruits of one’s labour, and (b) negotium – is engaging in the business of the city. For the Romans the city is about wealth, power and status. The wealthy rural villa is about retreat or retirement, enjoying the fruits of wealth and labour, entertainment, displaying wealth and taste, creating the experience of procession – which was different from city dwellings – enjoying gardens, reflecting and learning, engaging in leisure and sport (such as hunting), order of the landscape and experience of nature. There did not need to be an absence of culture and elite society in the country.

After the fall of Rome, the foundation of monasteries began. This was another form of rural life. Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th C AD. Rural life could provide sanctuary from the uncertainty of peace. Benedict of Nursia founded Monte Cassino (in the mountains about 90 miles south-west of Rome) circa 530 AD. Rural living was something that embraced life in a different way and enabled a monk to be closer to God. It was at Monte Cassino that Benedict developed the Rule of Saint Benedict that was to have a significant impact in monasticism in Western Europe.

Icon of St Benedict at Tewkesbury Abbey. He holds the Tau (a teaching staff) and a scroll on which is written the opening words of his Rule. Painted by Peter Murphy.

The actual reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire are complicated. The life of Gregory the Great (b. 540) provides evidence that there was a sort of suburban life for some patricians that stayed in Rome – his father was a senator and for a time Prefect of the City of Rome. But they lived separately from the city on the Caelian Hill in a villa suburbana. The family also had estates in Sicily where they could retreat in times of trouble and plague (such as the plague of Justinian – 541-549 AD).

Monte Cassino was attacked by the Lombards in 577 and the community fled to Rome. Pope Gregory the Great (Pope from 590 to 604) was a Benedictine monk and this gave the Benedictine movement and mission a status and impetus that would enable the order to spread. When Gregory the Great was looking for someone to lead a mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons in England he chose St Augustine. He was prior of the Benedictine monastery of St Andrew, Rome. Arriving in England in 597 Augustine founded a monastery at Canterbury.

After the Romans left England, the Anglo-Saxons were able gain their foothold and migrate into England, displacing and culturally dominating the Romano-British. They were pagans but eventually became Christians. Being Christian was not just about belief it also meant you could trade with Christian Europe and been seen as a serious nation. And Christians needed monasteries to ensure that they were connecting with God with the right rituals, prayer and words. They were power houses required for a nation’s spiritual, intellectual, artisitc and moral health.


A significant aspect of the Benedictine monastery was the plan of the complex. The Plan of Saint Gall dates from circa 820 AD. It was made in the scriptorium of the monastery of Reichenau of a scheme worked out during the 2 reform synods held at Aachan in 816 AD and in 817 AD at the palace of Louis the Pious.[i] This plan represented the thinking of leading bishops and abbots in the Carolingian Empire (800 – 888) on how a monastery should hang together and work. It is the plan of an entire compound of Benedictine monastic church and buildings.

Pianta dell’abbazia di san gallo, 816-830, san gallo, stiftbibliothek.jpg, Wikimedia Commons <https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5e/Pianta_dell%27abbazia_di_san_gallo%2C_816-830%2C_san_gallo%2C_stiftbibliothek.jpg> [accessed 15 May 2021]

If the monastic complex of St Gall had been built, it would have looked something like this:


Johann Rudolf Rahn nach Lasius; upload by sidonius (talk) 12:57, 1 March 2009 (UTC), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=saint+gall+plan&title=Special:MediaSearch&go=Go&type=image> [accessed 15 May 2021]

The plan was never constructed. It has been calculated that if it had been built it could accommodate up to 110 monks, 115 lay visitors and around 150 agricultural workers and artisans.[ii] The plan rationalises and divides the spaces for the different functions and users. The monastic enclosure of the community kept the monks cloistered to live and do their sacred work of prayer, ensuring that they make their mind and souls receptive to God. They operated on behalf of the spiritual health of the nation.


Tonsured monks in black robes – Benedictines – at the feet of the effigy of William of Wykeham (Bishop from 1366 to 1404).  Unfortunately, my photo only shows 2 of the 3 in profile but there are 3 acting as weepers on his tomb. Winchester Cathedral Priory was a Benedictine Monastery. Athelwold replaced the minster’s secular priests with Benedictine monks in 964 as part of the 10th C Benedictine reform..

The Benedictines established a presence in England during the 7th and 8th centuries. Monasteries such as Malmesbury and Monkwearmouth-Jarrow were great cultural centres. They housed spectacular libraries and received many visitors came and went. The Venerable Bede was able to write his Historia ecclesicastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People) at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow.

Malmesbury Abbey

The Viking raids on monasteries, starting in the late 8th C (raid on Lindisfarne in 793), significantly disrupted the monastic system. The idea of safety in the countryside or by the sea was no longer a reality. By 865 the Vikings had become more organised into an invading army. This disruption combined with monasteries reverting back to the minister system, ended up in the mid-10th C with secular priests, who were often married.

Mulcheney Abbey in the Somerset Levels, South Somerset. Founded in the late 7th C (possibly by King Ine). Raided by the Vikings circa 878 and refounded as a monastery monastery (possibly by King Athelstan) circa 939.

In the second half of the 10th C, the English Benedictine Reform took place. The process was to replace the secular priests with Benedictine monks. King Alfred (r. 886-899) had started the process of a religious and intellectual reform. However, it took the motivation and collaboration of key ecclesiastical leaders of the 10th C to fully realise the aim. They were Dunstan (Archbishop of Canterbury), Aethelwold (Bishop of Winchester) and Oswald (Archbishop of York). The impetus was supported by the Benedictine reform in Europe. In the early-9th C the Carolingian Holy Roman Emperor, Louis the Pious had started his reforms. In France the large and influential Abbey of Cluny was founded in 909-10. Whilst England did not have strong associations with Cluny it did look to Fleury Abbey in the Loire. This abbey possessed the relics of St Benedict.

14th C Lavatorium at Gloucester Cathedral

The Benedictine monks were not just praying and following the Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Office) in their monasteries. They also performed practical work such as writing or copying manuscripts in the scriptorium, metalworking (St Dunstan (c. 909 to 988) worked as a silversmith at Glastonbury Abbey), domestic tasks, artistic skills (illumination), teaching, carving, working in the infirmary, etc. The principle upon which the Rule of Saint Benedict was formulated was ora et labora’ – pray and work. In Chapter 66 of the Rule of Benedict it states that:

The monastery should, if possible, be so arranged that all necessary things, such as water, mill, garden, and various crafts may be within the enclosure, so that the monks may not be compelled to wander outside it, for that is not expedient for their souls.[iii]

St Dunstan defeating the devil by going to grip his nose with his smith’s tongs

A key building, besides the church, was the monk’s cloister. Its design has been inspired from potential earlier structures.

Gloucester Abbey – Late 14th C. The cloisters are enclosed with magnificent fan vaulting. Earlier cloisters are open.


Cloister at Monreale Abbey (Benedictine). Completed c. 1200.

In describing the origins of the cloister, Horn wrote that: ‘The cloister has been connected with the peristyle court of the Greek house, the colonnaded atrium of the Roman house, the   monumental galleried atria of the large Early Christian churches, and certain semigalleried courts attached to the flanks of Syrian churches. In one way or another, all these forms may have shared in its development.’[iv]

Reconstruction of a Roman villa urbana (or Roman town house) at Wroxeter

Through the Anglo-Saxon age and into the medieval period, land was wealth. The Roman cities were neglected and building in stone was not something the Anglo-Saxons did for many years. Timber was their preference. They were warriors, farmers and artisans. An agrarian society with towns and cities began to develop slowly throughout the early medieval period alongside transport and trading links. When the Normans conquered, their feudal system relied on manors and estate management. Their feudal society, led by a king and nobles, classed their subjects into one of the following 3 orders: bellatores, oratores and laboratores (those who fight, those who pray and those who work).

By the 14th C England was a significant trading country, mainly in wool and broad cloth. By now key cities and towns had developed, although the countryside was still a key part of the economic landscape. A rural industry was key to woollen-cloth production – pastureland for sheep, mills, fulling, dye houses, drying out the cloth and weaving. However, urban centres were also growing as this industry and the mercantile economy grew. Part of the Benedictine Rule was to offer hospitality to travellers, education and alms to the poor. Monasteries were often founded and funded by secular patrons who could direct where they were built. The demands of patronage and society caused tension and conflict between the claims of the sacred work and those of the secular. An urban setting became more appropriate to their ‘social work’ than a remote, inaccessible rural setting.

With the arrival of the Normans the Benedictine Abbey began to change. It became less of somewhere that was rural and secluded. Gloucester Abbey (a cathedral since 1541) was founded in the 7th C. However, Abbot Serlo, who was Abbot at Gloucester from 1072 to 1104 laid the foundations of the present church. St Mary’s at York was founded just outside the city walls in 1088. The Benedictine Priory of St Cuthbert at Durham was founded in 1083. Paul of Caen, abbot of St Albans, rebuilt the Saxon abbey (completed 1089), incorporating Roman brick, into a large cruciform church with a daring crossing tower that has stood up to the test of time. These abbeys and priories became part of urban life engaged with not just prayer but the functioning of society and supporting the economy. It would be the Cistercians that sought out the remote and isolated places when they set up in England in the 12th C (e.g., Rievaulx Abbey founded in 1131), promoting themselves as better positioned than the Benedictines to connect to God.

Gloucester Abbey

St Albans Abbey

Teweksbury Abbey




Monastery or Nunnery Date founded/refounded Founder
Muchelney Abbey Before 693

Possibly destroyed by Vikings c. 878


950 Benedictine

King Ine



King Athelstan

Glastonbury Abbey c. 705

c. 960 (refounded)


St Dunstan

Athelney Abbey c. 888 King Alfred
Bath Abbey c. 963
Bruton Abbey c. 1005 Algar, Earl of Cornwall
Dunster Priory c. 1100 Willliam de Mohun



Monastery or Nunnery Date founded/refounded Founder
Shaftesbury Abbey c. 888 King Alfred – his 2nd eldest daughter, Aethelgifu, became its 1st abbess.
Milton Abbey 964
Sherborne Abbey c. 993
Abbotsbury Abbey c. 1044 Orcius or his widow Tola?



Monastery or Nunnery Date founded/refounded Founder
Exeter Monastery 932 King Athelstan
Tavistock Abbey 961/74 Ordgar, Earl of Devonshire
Buckfast Monastery 1018 initially Benedictine

Became Cistercian in the 12th C

Abbey founded – 1902 and church rebuilt




Monastery or Nunnery Date founded/refounded Founder
Malmesbury Abbey c. 675?

Before 865 – destroyed by Danes 1010 – rebuilt

Refounded before 1143




William of Malmesbury

Bradford-on-Avon – monastery c. 705-10 St Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne
Wilton Abbey – nunnery c. 830
Amesbury Abbey – nunnery c. 979 Alfrida, widow of King Edwin



Monastery or Nunnery Date founded/refounded Founder
Gloucester Abbey c. 681 – double house – monks and nuns


c. 1022 – Benedictine Monks

c. 1058 refounded

Wulhere, King of Mercia
Deerhurst Abbey c. 715?

Refounded c. 970

Dodo, Saxon lord

St Oswald

Teweksbury Abbey c. 715

Became abbey in 1102

Dodo, Saxon lord
Winchcombe Abbey 798 King Ranulph



Monastery or Nunnery Date founded/refounded Founder
Lammana Priory, Looe Island 6th C
St Michael’s Mount Priory Saxon Benedictines? – 8thto 11th C

Founded 1087-90



Alien house (under the control of a foreign religious house) dependent upon Mont-St-Michel, Normandy



[i] Walter Horn, ‘On the Origins of the Medieval Cloister’, Gesta, 1973, Vol 12, No. 1/2 (1973), pp. 13-52. p. 13 https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/766633.pdf?ab_segments=0%252Fbasic_search_gsv2%252Fcontrol&refreqid=excelsior%3A6cbac9bcd1ea23170ad5e6490009c0ac [accessed 25 May 2021].

[ii] Lynda L. Coon Dark Age Bodes: Gender and Monastic Practice in the Early Medieval West (Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania, 2011), p.170.

[iii] Horn, p. 19.

[iv] Horn, p. 13.


Coon, Lynda L., Dark Age Bodes: Gender and Monastic Practice in the Early Medieval West (Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania, 2011), p.170.

Horn, Walter, ‘On the Origins of the Medieval Cloister’, Gesta, 1973, Vol 12, No. 1/2 (1973), pp. 13-52. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/766633.pdf?ab_segments=0%252Fbasic_search_gsv2%252Fcontrol&refreqid=excelsior%3A6cbac9bcd1ea23170ad5e6490009c0ac[accessed 25 May 2021].