Visit Monk Bretton Priory
Until further notice, Monk Bretton Priory is open (except Christmas Day) from 10:30 am to 3 pm.
Visitors from the Cluniac Federation of France said this priory had the clearest overall site plan and best-preserved Cluniac drainage system of any they had seen in Europe. Its fishpond and herb garden are now overgrown, but its medieval water mill, serving the priory farm called ‘Burton Grange’, survives across Grange Lane from the priory site as The Mill of the Black Monks restaurant.
Gatekeepers, or porters, allowed only welcome visitors to the priory through this gatehouse. It is mostly a 15th-century building.
The north gate arch has a stone hood with corbels of carved faces on both sides. Above is a figure holding a shield that was painted black with three silver cups – symbols of St Mary Magdalene, for whom the priory was named. Above this is a hollow niche that may have held her statue. This front wall is topped with battlements that are more for show than for defence.
A stone base for a wooden garderobe (toilet) from an upper room lies near to the long, outside wall.
The gatehouse was built around a long, walled passage, barred halfway by a heavy gate. To the left (east) side of this passage was a large room, whose wall is now missing. It may have been an almonry – where poor visitors could ask for help. To the right was a porter’s lodge, whose wall still carries inner and outer doorways and a deep gatepost slot.
There were fireplaces on both floors. Over the south arch is another stone hood with corbels. Alongside the early 15th century south lobby there is a stair tower to reach upper rooms, roofs and battlements.
This building was lived in until it became a barn and store for the grange (priory farm) around 1700, with new rooms built inside and out.
Monks began this 60m long church shortly after founding in 1158. They soon built more on to its east end, and then made other changes in the later Middle Ages. Inside were graves for Adam Fitz Swain’s family, priors and rich patrons.
The nave was a wide room stretching from these west door steps to four columns that held up a bell tower. It had a flagstone floor and stone benches along its west and north walls; most likely misericordes – seating for tired worshippers.
Along the north and south nave walls were two side aisles, about 10 feet (3m) wide. Each was made by an arcade of four arches on columns that ran from their west wall buttress to the bell tower and held up a clerestory – a row of high windows. On the south side are some stones from later, private chapels built into these aisles.
North and south of the bell tower were transepts – hallways that gave the church its cross shape. Each transept led to two more private chapels. A door at the north end led to the monks’ cemetery. In the south transept there are traces of a stair from the monks’ dormitory for night services. There is also an arched window and a newel stair that reached to the roof.
At the east end was a raised platform, or presbytery, with a high altar where the monks said Mass. A large east window was built in the 15th century.
South of the church was a closed square of monks’ buildings known as a cloister. A lean-to roof linked the monks’ buildings around this square. 13th-century arcades held up the roof, and there is still a stone base from the low walls that carried them.
The east side began with the church book cupboard and night stair to the monks sleeping room, or dormitory, above their day rooms. The first day room, with graves in its floor, was a chapter (head) house. Monks met here for prayer and their daily orders. Next was the inner parlour, where monks were allowed to talk about priory business. A day stair came down inside the parlour wall from the dormitory, and a walk way led out to the monk’s grave field. Lastly came a warming house with a hearth for fires in winter.
The south side had a late 13th-century warming house and monks’ dining hall, or refectory. In the refectory wall was a later day stair, basins for hand washing and a doorway. Straight ahead was a hatch in the south wall from the kitchen serving-lobby. To its left was a cupboard for knives and spoons, then a row of high windows and a pulpitum where, during meals, a duty monk read from ‘The Rule of St. Benedict’.
The west side was the Prior’s range, a 13th- and 14th-century building of three storeys. Upstairs, from the south, end was a service lobby, a dining hall and the prior’s chamber. This chamber, a room where he slept, studied and met visitors is marked by its wide, well-carved fireplace, book cupboards and a high door, straight into the church nave. Downstairs from the south end was a service stair, a ground floor storeroom with a draw well, and the outer parlour – a room, below the prior’s chamber, for meetings with businessmen.
Next to these rooms was some late16th- and 17th-century housing. The Talbot and Armyne families had this built into the old priory walls after Henry Talbot’s father, the Earl of Shrewsbury, bought the site in 1589.
The kitchen rooms are late 13th-century. Their stone floor drain, fed by a water channel, or leat, washed away kitchen waste to a deep drain under the toilet building. These may be the best remains of Cluniac drainage in Europe.
South of the refectory was a walled kitchen garden. The first kitchen room was a serving lobby, with a hatch into the refectory. Next was their kitchen, then a scullery for pots and pans. There were wooden roofed walks between the kitchen, dining halls and a 14-century guesthouse for wealthy travellers.
Waste kitchen water went to a water storage tank, called a penstock with a wooden sluice gate. When lifted, this let water flush through the main drain to a reredorter – a two-storey building with rows of toilet chutes. This main drain curved south between the guesthouse and infirmary, where monks and wealthy locals were given medical care.
This late 13th-century building stood in the outer court, where monks mixed with visitors.
Although it was big and double gabled, this building had neither fireplaces nor toilets. It was most likely the monks’ manorial courthouse, where they would rule over and take rent from their tenant farmers, who worked on the monks’ land – their manor.
Downstairs was a flagged floor with stone columns and a 15-meter oak beam that held joists for the upstairs floorboards. The earlier ground floor wooden doors have been renewed. The medieval upper floor was changed to five window frames and a doorway in the 17th-century.