Explore our History

The Cloisters

The Cloisters were one of the busiest parts of the Abbey where the monks spent much of their time.

A fire in 1298 damaged much of the area of the cloisters of the Norman church so they had to be substantially rebuilt.

Early history

Each of the cloisters is about 100 feet in length. They date mainly from the 13th to the 15th centuries and were used for meditation and exercise by the Benedictine monks of Westminster. They provided a route to the main monastic buildings, such as the refectory and dormitory.

Cloister North, Gentleman Drawing Of Monks

Reconstruction drawing of monks in the cloisters

They would have been much cosier than they seem today. The upper parts of the windows were glazed, with the lower parts open, although shutters were used for protection against bad weather. Hay and straw in winter and rushes in summer covered the stone floor and benches, and the walls were covered with paintings, with lamps hanging from the roof. The north cloister was used for studying and reading.

East Cloister.jpg

The east cloister

Maundy ceremony

In medieval times, it was in the East Cloister that the Abbot held his Maundy on the Thursday of Holy Week each year. Thirteen elderly men were seated on the wide stone bench while the Abbot washed their feet, wiped them dry and kissed them. He then gave each man three pence, seven red herrings, some ale and three loaves of bread.

The entrances to the Chapter House and to the dormitory (now the Abbey Library) are in the east cloister. The refectory was reached from the south cloister. This walk has been restored in modern times. The niches in the wall at one end were places to hang the towels which were used for washing in the water trough nearby before they entered in to eat. The west walk was where the novices (children) were taught and played games.

Cloister Garth

The cloister garth

Memorials and burials 

A memorial fountain in the cloister garth commemorates Lancelot Capability Brown. The cloisters contain the graves of several Abbots of the Norman church and also some clergymen and officials of the church, including organists, and workmen. Also some actors and actresses who were not allowed to be buried in the main church. In one corner of the garth are some stone coffins which were found in the precincts.

Gas lamps replaced the oil lamps around the cloisters in 1816.

Dark Cloister 

A barrel-vaulted passage, called the Dark Cloister, leads into the Little Cloister and its small garden, and also to the main Abbey Garden. The Little Cloister was once the area of the Infirmary during the monastic period. The houses of the Abbey clergy are now found here.