A Holy Wander with the Haughmond Canons

Over the summer I’ve been trying to make up for lost time by getting out to as many medieval sites as possible to physically reconnect with the past. Last weekend I fancied a bit of an adventure, so we set off on a journey to deepest Shropshire to explore the extensive ruins of a rather beautiful abbey. It was a trip well worthwhile, because whilst being bathed in some glorious early autumn sunshine I got to connect with a vital part of the medieval world. So come and join me on a wander of discovery around a rather splendid place, and peer through a window into another world of prayer, austerity, and for some, great luxury.

Back in the Middle Ages again, and happy…

Situated on a rocky hillside near Shrewsbury between the Roden and the Upper Severn rivers, Haughmond Abbey can trace its roots back to the 11th Century, when the remote and then thickly wooded rural site attracted a group of hermits keen to escape from the world (I know how they felt). In the twelfth century the community benefitted from the patronage of two local nobles, William FitzAlan and John Lestrange, both powerful marcher lords defending the Anglo-Welsh border for the English crown. Religion was central to life in the Middle Ages, and the fear of one’s immortal soul spending an eternity in purgatory – or worse – drove wealthy people to invest in religious institutions as insurance for the afterlife. The way to do that was to support, enhance, or even to found an abbey or monastery whose inhabitants would pray for your soul and secure your place on the right side of the pearly gates.

After 1130, the community at Haughmond adopted the Augustinian Rule, which meant that strictly speaking they were canons rather than monks. Unlike monks, canons were all priests. They went out into the wider community rather than being an entirely closed order, and they lived less austere lives than some religious houses. For instance, they didn’t believe in wearing scratchy woollen clothing like other monastic orders, so instead they wore linen, a cassock lined with sheepskin or fur for warmth and a distinctive long, black hooded outer cope, earning them the name of ‘Black Canons’.

The Augustinian canon in his characteristic black cope

Although they lived similar lives to monks and were also bound by the rules of poverty, chastity and obedience they weren’t as heavily tied to manual labour, which freed up more time to serve the parishes granted to them by their patrons. They would go out singularly or in pairs to administer the sacraments, preach, teach and tend to the sick and needy. Hospitality for all was another key function for Augustinian canons, and they welcomed guests, pilgrims and travelers as well as caring for the sick. By 1153, the increasingly prosperous canons had assumed the title of abbey, and their house was to be extended and embellished over the following centuries.

The head of the house, the ‘big brother’ if you like, was the abbot. His word was law, but running a community of men under a strict religious rule was no easy task. As well as managing financial matters and estate business, he had to balance fair leadership with discipline and deal with the monks’ self-doubt and crises of faith. He was also expected to entertain important guests and even royalty in a fitting manner, so with all these burdens he needed somewhere to chill out and somewhere to show off. This suite of luxury apartments is our first taste of Haughmond, so welcome to the abbot’s withdrawing chambers and his rather impressive great hall.

Entrance to the Abbey today is through the abbot’s plush rooms

Set over two floors, these comfortable rooms were where the abbot could retreat from his stessful job and relax or meet with important guests. It would have been richly furnished with colourful fabrics, and the large fireplace on the right and fabulously ornate bay window more than hint at the level of splendour he enjoyed. Through a doorway we enter the abbot’s great hall, which is so imposing it could rival that of a castle. The tall, ornate windows would have lit the scene of formal dinners, with the abbot seated on a raised dais at the end nearest his chambers while junior members of the household sat at tables placed along the walls. Guests entered, as did the food and drink, through an internal passage behind a wooden partition at the far end of the hall beneath another vast window, and the whole of the grand room was covered with an open timber roof. In fact, this room was so similar to its castle counterpart that after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th Century it was used without any alteration as the great hall for a fine secular residence.

The abbot’s withdrawing chambers

…and his impressive great hall for formal dining and entertaining
important guests

A rare treat: surviving medieval floor tiles outside the entrance
to the abbot’s great hall

Next we find the kitchen with its substantial fireplaces for the preparation of all the food required by the house and their guests. This is one of several domestic buildings surrounding a courtyard, the opposite side of which houses the dormitory, a long first floor room where the canons slept. I say ‘slept’, but if you’d been a canon, you’d have been turfed out of your bed by a rousing midnight bell – wearing full garb as it was forbidden to lie ‘immodestly’ because it attracted the devil – to attend the great service of Mattins, or Nocturns, followed by another service called Lauds. These formed part of the seven canonical ‘hours’, fixed times of prayer that had to be kept every day. Turning up late and falling asleep on the job were punishable offences, so drowsy canons would sometimes chew on peppercorns to keep themselves conscious, while anyone who did drift off would be rudely awakened by an official’s lantern being shone in his face. Even the loos were checked for craftily slumbering brothers. Then it was back to bed for another few hours’ kip before rising again for the next service, Prime, at 6.00am. So moving swiftly on from the thought of continually broken sleep, we come to the far side of the courtyard, and the refectory.

The kitchen with it’s massive fireplaces

An arched doorway led from the kitchen to the abbot’s great hall

The communal dormitory, where the canons slept (a bit)…

Built around 1180, this is where the canons took their two meals a day, seated at tables set out along the walls and being served from the centre. Accessed from the main cloister, the refectory was at first floor level, and everyone was expected to wash their hands before entering at the ‘Laver’. This was a series of basins fed by running water, often framed by stone arches in the walls. Meals were taken in silence to the sole sound of a devotional reading delivered from a side pulpit, but the brethren developed a sophisticated sign language to communicate with one another over dinner, leading one visitor to a similar house likening these mealtimes to a ‘dumb-show’!

The refectory, where the canons took their meals in silence

The arches that framed the Laver, where monks washed their hands before entering the refectory through a now vanished doorway on the left

The first, and main meal of the day came after the service of Sext at noon and usually consisted of two cooked dishes and a third of fruit. Being canons they ate reasonably well, with moderate consumption of meat and wine permitted, as long as it wasn’t on fasting days, and bread, fish, eggs, cheese and vegetables also featured in their diet. If you were poorly, you were allowed extra meat, but feigning illness to get it was another punishable offence. Supper was a lighter affair taken after Evensong at 5.00pm, and following a brief period of relaxation and perhaps some ale the last service of the day, Compline, was said around 8.00pm before bedtime around 9.00pm.

Although the Augstinian canons were busy for much of their day (and night) at prayer, study and quiet contemplation, they managed to fit in many other occupations such as writing or illuminating books, making their own garments, giving hospitality, carving, painting and other good works. There would have been little time to be bored.

Looking across the main cloister to a beautifully carved doorway
that once led to the abbey church

Beyond the Refectory is the main cloister, which formed the heart of the abbey and around which all the main monastic buildings were arranged. To the right is the superb Chapter House, with its stunning finely carved arches. This is where the canons would meet each day to discuss business following an opening formal reading from a chapter of the rule of the monastery, hence the building’s name.

The Chapter House with its elaborately carved arches

The interior of the Chapter House

The fine arches and their 14th Century carvings of saints

A collection of 13th and 14th Century grave slabs from the abbey site
are on show in the Chapter House

Across the far side of the cloister lie the remains of the most important building, the large abbey church, to which the public had access. Sadly, Henry VIII did a particularly thorough job of pulling down this part of the abbey when he dissolved it in 1539, so only the footings and outline of the building remain.

All that remains of the great abbey church. Well done, Henry…

Today, the extensive ruins of Haughmond Abbey are still tucked away in a peaceful rural setting, and I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around the former house of medieval canons and abbots who once walked the cloisters. But their regulated lives, even if not as austere as other monastic orders, wouldn’t have suited me though. I’d never have made a canoness. I’d have been constantly dozing off during Nocturns and sneaking out to the tavern for a good drink and a natter. And as for the rule of chastity; forget it. Nevertheless, their part of the medieval world was a fascinating one, and I left Haughmond with a real sense of the brethren who devoted their lives to the glory of God and to serving the wider community. So as the sun began to set on a rather special day we made our way back through the Shropshire countryside and headed for home. Via the tavern, of course.