Yesterday we braved the typical bank holiday weather (i.e. rain) and visited Roche Abbey, which lies close to Rotherham in South Yorkshire just off the M18. A small site tucked into a sheltered valley, Roche was the first ‘romantic ruin’ to be ‘enhanced’ by Capability Brown in the 18th century.
The inner (great) gatehouse with medieval road beneath
Roche was a Cistercian monastery founded in 1147, a daughter house of the great Fountains Abbey. The first building was made of wood, and over the next couple of decades, the monks tried unsuccessfully to purchase properties in the vicinity. King Henry II held most of the land nearby and was unwilling to sell to the Church, so the Roche monks were forced to buy land in north Lincolnshire with a loan from the Jews of York. Later estates ranged across Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.
The abbey ruins
At its height, Roche supported a community of 175 men, of which 60 were monks and the rest lay brothers. Around half of the lay brothers were resident at Roche; the rest were scattered over the granges and farms on the monastic estates. Following the outbreaks of the Black Death, by 1380 only 14 monks and a single lay brother survived at Roche, and the focus of the monastery changed from a place of devotion to a manager of estates.
The church was complete by 1180, and the extant transepts (built in the 1170s) are the earliest example of Gothic architecture in the north of England. Another innovative feature in Cistercian architecture is the three-storey elevation and paired blind arches in the middle storey. The ashlar cut blocks were also unique at this time, and in 1345 the Earl of Surrey described the stonework as ‘magnificent’! Trendsetting Roche’s architecture was soon copied by a number of other monasteries in the north of England and in Scotland.
Tomb of Peryn and Ysabel of Doncaster, a layman and his wife
The number of lay brothers reduced after 1300, and so their stalls were removed and the space given over to burials of lay people outside of the monastery. Some could afford expensive chantry chapels, while others like Peryn of Doncaster and his wife Ysabel seemed to belong to a confraternity where they paid a fee in exchange for being buried within the church and kept in the prayers of the community.
Looking west from the high altar
Much of the land beyond the west end of the church would have been orchards, stables, guest houses, the brewhouse, the bakehouse, and the almonry.
Remains of the chapter house
The chapter house at Roche was extended during the late 12th century as the community increased in size.
Large brick fireplace in the meat kitchen
In the mid-14th century, monastic rules relaxed to permit the eating of meat twice a week. Previously only elderly and sick monks were allowed to eat that much meat. Most monastic houses in the UK have misericords/meat kitchens dating to this time as either a ‘new build’, as at Roche, or as an extension to the normal kitchen.
Refectory extension over the river
After the church, the refectory was the longest building in the monastery. Roche’s refectory was extended in the early 13th century to accommodate the growing community, and as the original wall ended at the stream of Maltby Beck (used as a lavatory a little downstream), the architect engineered a fine bridge to carry the weight of the extension.
Looking across the lay brothers’ refectory towards the 18th century Abbey House
Roche was dissolved in 1538, with 14 monks and four novices signing the deed of surrender to the Crown. They received a pension and 20 shillings for new clothes, while the abbot received a pension of £33 a year and was allowed to keep his books and some of the abbey furniture. Before the abbey buildings could be put up for auction, a mob of locals stormed in and smashed the place up, carting off stone and melting down the lead from the roofs. An eyewitness account of the looting describes ‘all things of price were either spoiled, carped away, or defaced to the utmost’.
Roche was sold off to a succession of owners until it finally came to Viscount Castleton, an Irish peer, and through his family to the Earl of Scarborough. The fourth earl employed Capability Brown to design a setting with ‘Poet’s Feeling and Painter’s Eye’ that would make the most of the ruins, though there was an outcry when workmen started dismantling buildings and quarrying the hillside to produce a ‘romantic’ effect.
Steps from the cloister into the church
Like all good ruins, Roche has a resident ghost—a monk who roams around the abbey grounds. Apparently he moves at quite a pace! A local paranormal investigation unit has recorded spooky sounds of bells ringing and monks chanting, and even claims to have a photo of the spectral monk. The only problem with the photo is that the monk is wearing the brown of a Benedictine and not the white of a Cistercian!
Location: Off the A634. On Googlemaps here
Entrance: In the care of English Heritage. Adults £3.20, children £1.60, concession £2.70
Opening hours: Variable depending on time of year; check the website for details
Parking: Car park at the bottom of the hill.