‘The venerable and interesting Abbey of Roche’

This weekend one of our archaeologists took a trip to Roche Abbey, and we thought you might be interested to see some of the site!


Roche Abbey was founded in 1147 by Richard de Bully, Lord of Tickhill, and Richard FitzTurgis, with the mother house of Newminster Abbey in Northumberland. The abbey sits in the bottom of a valley which forms a boundary between Maltby and Hotun (Hooton Livett). Roche, like all Cistercian abbeys, was dedicated to St Mary, with its title being derived from the rocky site the abbey was constructed on, in particular a rock formation which resembled a cross which later became a pilgrimage site. Other Cistercian abbeys were also named after landmarks in this way.


Roche was in many ways similar to other Cistercian abbeys of the time, described as a ‘very fair builded house, all of freestone; and every house vaulted with freestone and covered with lead’. Within the valley there are steep limestone cliffs, housing caves which are part of the magnesian limestone belt which runs below Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottingham, and joins the same cave system which runs underneath Nottingham castle. Vital for the abbey, a tributary stream runs through the valley, which was dammed into a lake above the monastery, and eventually reaches the river Trent.


The Cistercian order followed the teachings of St Benedict of Nursia, and demanded a strict adherence to his rules. From 1120 in just 40 years the order expanded from 10 abbeys to over 300, based all across Europe. Each of these houses were self-sufficient, and this was key to their success. Lay brothers carried out much of the manual work. Choir monks would have been more educated and included a number of priests. Life at Roche centred on church duties and biblical reading.

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The abbey itself was constructed using stone from the local area, and very closely resembles a smaller version of Fountains Abbey. Both the church and cloister are on the North bank of the stream, with the infirmary and other buildings are placed further West. To gain access to the site, you would first have had to pass through the gatehouse situated at the North West corner of the site, and although it has now lost its roof, the vaulting from a 14th century rebuilding still remains today. There are no remains of the almonry, where visitors to the abbey would be fed and sheltered, or of a smaller chapel that would have been used by those not able to use the abbey church. The granaries, brew house, bake house and other guest houses are also no longer present.


The abbey church at Roche was the most heavily used building in the monastery, and follows the familiar plan of other Cistercian sites, with a square ended chancel, both North and South transept arms with chapels in each and an aisled nave. Unusually the chapels in each transept form aisles rather than being separated by thick walls. This indicates that the church’s construction was completed before 1170. The altar would have been on a platform, raised by a step, at the east end, however this has now been destroyed and exists as a stone lined depression instead. The monks cemetery was located behind the outer wall of the North transept.


The architectural style of the church demonstrates the simplicity of the Cistercian order at this time. In some areas, the destruction of the church has resulted in a chance to see Medieval construction techniques in greater detail. Where walls have fallen away, it is easy to identify the outer layers of well dressed, faced stone that would have been very expensive, and then the rubble which was used to infill the cavity created. In other areas, the vaulted ceilings have been left with only half the materials, and it becomes clear that the vaulted ceilings were corbelled, then filled with rubble before constructing a roof above.

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Next to the church there was a typical arrangement of other abbey buildings, including the cloister, chapter house, refectory and lay brothers refectory, both infirmaries, the dormitories kitchens, as well as the abbots lodgings and separate kitchen and bake house. It is these buildings that have been damaged most severely, with the remaining walls rarely reaching a height above a single story. The kitchens were one of the few areas permitted to house fireplaces, and there are remnants or several extensive hearths as well as bread ovens. These were later replaced by a large central hearth. In the North East corner is the opening into the refectory where a turn table would have been used to serve food. In the warming room fires were burnt constantly between All Saints Day to Good Friday. Above this was the muniment room, where all the abbeys legal documents would be kept. The refectory itself was used by monks to eat their meals, even if they only had one meal a day for much of the year. They were mostly vegetarian, only consuming fish on feast days, which they would catch from Laughton Pond, but they would often drink beer.

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There are also the remnants of the library, a chapter house and a day room. The library (also called the sacristy) was originally two rooms, and housed the abbeys book collection, aside from those kept in the church or refectory. This building would probably have had large windows to make the best use of the natural light. The chapter house was the administrative centre of any abbey, and the monks would meet here daily to discuss the business of the abbey and their religious life. Some of the bays in the chapter house are uneven, suggesting that alteration was carried out in the 12th or 13th century. The day room at Roche is unusual as it is quite large; at other abbeys it is typically no more than a passageway. The dormitory was above.


On the South side of the river are the infirmary and the Abbots lodgings. The infirmary was altered in the 14th century, with passages being added and new buildings constructed to the south to extend the capacity of the infirmary. Next to the infirmary hall was an infirmary chapel, which was used by monks who were too sick to attend services in the abbey church. Above the chapel was the infirmarers lodging. Although none of this remains. Behind the infirmary were the Abbots rooms. Although little of the standing structure remains, there are still remnants of hearths, as the abbot was allowed to have fireplaces as well as the kitchens, and the presence of staircases show that there would have been at least a first floor. The Abbot also had his own private kitchens and offices, however they did also serve the infirmary.


At the dissolution of the monasteries under the rule of Henry VIII, Roche Abbey was valued at just £224 2s. 5d. and the abbey was surrendered to the crown on 23 June 1538, when only 14 monks and 4 novices remained at the site. Following the expulsion of the abbot and monks, the deconstruction of the abbey began; the roof was dismantled, all furniture and fittings were removed, apart from choir stalls which were set on fire to melt the lead from the roof. There is extensive evidence of the destruction of any religious imagery and artwork, or iconoclasm, and evidence of this can still be seen today. Iconoclasm was a common occurrence during the dissolution of the monasteries, as such imagery was seen to represent the old ways that were a part of Catholicism. Any carvings, statues or paintings were ‘either spoiled, carped away or defaced to the uttermost…’ The site passed through private hands following this, and in 1921 care of the ruins was passed to the Office of Works. Roche Abbey is now managed by English Heritage.


Roche Abbey is a stunning site, with the trademarks of landscaping by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. The ruins had been neglected, and this was very fashionable in the romantic period. Roche was the first landscape devised by Capability Brown that was based on the presence of a ruin, and the remains of the abbey were set off by extensive terracing, waterfalls, a lake and new trees. Unfortunately, some of their methods led to further damage to the abbey, with walls being quarried to build others elsewhere on the site, and extensive levelling of the site was carried out to create terraces.


In the 1870s, antiquarians worked on the site, exposing previously covered walls and graves, although this was slow work. Some of the workers carved their names into the windows; this was quite fashionable at the time. Today in the window of the gift shop you can still see Mortimer Wheeler’s name! In 1921 a programme of consolidation was established, and now the site is both a beautiful landscape and a record of abbey life at Roche.


This site is well worth a visit, and more information about the site and how to visit can be found on the English Heritage website here.



Ellis, H, Sir. 1825. Original Letters, 3d. ser. III. Harding, Triphook & Leonard: London.

English Heritage. 2015. Roche Abbey [online] Available from: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/roche-abbey/ [last accessed 03.05.2015]

Ferguson, P. 1996. Roche Abbey, South Yorkshire. English Heritage: London

Hamilton Thompson, A. 1954. Roche Abbey, Yorkshire. Her Majesty’s Stationary Office: London

The Heritage Trail. 2015. Roche Abbey, South Yorkshire [online] Available from: http://www.theheritagetrail.co.uk/abbeys/roche%20abbey.htm [last accessed 03.05.2015]

Hobson Aveling, J. 1870. The history of Roche Abbey, from its foundation to its dissolution. Robert White: Worksop


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