Roche Abbey Cistercian monastery, including monastic precinct, gatehouse and 18th century landscape garden


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Rotherham (Metropolitan Authority)
Rotherham (Metropolitan Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SK 54359 89754

Reasons for Designation

From the time of St Augustine's mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597 to the reign of Henry VIII, monasticism formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in the British Isles. Settlements of religious communities, including monasteries, were built to house communities of monks, canons (priests), and sometimes lay-brothers, living a common life of religious observance under some form of systematic discipline. It is estimated from documentary evidence that over 700 monasteries were founded in England. These ranged in size from major communities with several hundred members to tiny establishments with a handful of brethren. They belonged to a wide variety of different religious orders, each with its own philosophy. As a result, they vary considerably in the detail of their appearance and layout, although all possess the basic elements of church, domestic accommodation for the community, and work buildings. Monasteries were inextricably woven into the fabric of medieval society, acting not only as centres of worship, learning and charity, but also, because of the vast landholdings of some orders, as centres of immense wealth and political influence. They were established in all parts of England, some in towns and others in the remotest of areas. Many monasteries acted as the foci of wide networks including parish churches, almshouses, hospitals, farming estates and tenant villages. Some 75 of these religious houses belonged to the Cistercian order founded by St Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century. The Cistercians - or `white monks', on account of their undyed habits - led a harsher life than earlier monastic orders, believing in the virtue of a life of austerity, prayer and manual labour. Seeking seclusion, they founded their houses in wild and remote areas where they undertook major land improvement projects. Their communities were often very large and included many lay brethren who acted as ploughmen, dairymen, shepherds, carpenters and masons. The Cistercians' skills as farmers eventually made the order one of the richest and most influential. They were especially successful in the rural north of England where they concentrated on sheep farming. The Cistercians made a major contribution to many facets of medieval life and all of their monasteries which exhibit significant surviving archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

Roche Abbey is an important and well documented example of a smaller Cistercian monastery. Through partial excavation of the site, its well- preserved remains demonstrate a gradual programme of construction and modification from the late 12th to the 15th centuries, and the selective demolition of the site in the 18th century. The standing, buried and waterlogged remains retain important archaeological, environmental and ecological deposits relating to the use of the monastery and its surrounding landscape. The diverse remains provide valuable information about medieval Cistercian monasticism, particularly relating to the order's use and the accommodation of lay-brothers. It also provides important information about the influence Roche Abbey had on the surrounding physical, social and economic landscape.


The monument includes the buried, standing and earthwork remains of Roche Abbey and an area of landscaped garden, designed by Lancelot `Capability' Brown and laid out partly within the former monastic precinct. The gardens are included in the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest at Grade II*.

The monument is situated in a narrow valley at the junction between Hooton Dike and Maltby Dike approximately 2.5km west of Sandbeck Hall. The abbey is a 12th century Cistercian monastery which was dedicated, like all Cistercian monasteries, to St Mary. The abbey was founded in 1147 by Newminster Abbey, Northumberland, on land donated by two patrons; Richard de Busli, Lord of Tickhill, and Richard FitzTurgis. Roche Abbey's subsequent history is uncertain but, at the time of its suppression in 1538, it was the second poorest of the eight Cistercian monasteries in Yorkshire. It was stripped of materials and plundered at the Dissolution, then in 1545 it was granted to William Ramsden. Subsequently, it passed through several hands before being sold by John Wandesford in 1627 to Sir Nicholas Saunderson. The estate of Sandbeck had already passed to Robert Saunderson, Sir Nicholas's grandfather, in 1549. In 1637 Sandbeck was emparked but Roche maintained its agricultural and industrial function. In 1723 Roche Abbey and Sandbeck estate passed to Thomas Lumley, who became the third Earl of Scarbrough. In 1774 the grounds of Sandbeck Hall and Roche Abbey were landscaped by Lancelot `Capability' Brown and, in order to provide a picturesque setting, the ruins were incorporated into the design. Brown's main contribution was the alteration of the course of both Maltby and Laughton (now known as Hooton) Dikes in order to create ornamental ponds and waterfalls. Laughton Pond was created as part of this alteration and in effect covered part of the monastic precinct wall. At this time the foundations of the cloister buildings were buried beneath turf to provide an uninterrupted view of the church transepts.

It has been suggested that Lancelot `Capability' Brown was responsible for the demolition of part of the cloister buildings. However, the destruction of buildings and the removal and robbing of the stone from the Abbey has been documented since the 16th century. In 1712 it is recorded that local inhabitants petitioned Viscount Castleton for leave to take stone from Roche Abbey to rebuild the steeple of Bawtry Church. Archaeological excavation carried out in 1844 identified a lack of building rubble on the site and led the excavators to conclude that the buildings had been rapidly destroyed and that stone had been removed over many years.

The site has been the subject of many archaeological investigations over the past 150 years, The earliest recorded excavations were carried out between 1857 and 1867 by Dr James Aveling. In 1921, the site was placed in the care of the Secretary of State by the tenth Earl of Scarbrough. In the 1930s the Office of Works diverted both Laughton and Maltby Dikes, returning them to medieval channels. The effect of these works was to dry out previously submerged sections of the ruins and to permit the excavation of buildings now visible to the south of Maltby Dike.

The standing remains of the abbey include the late 12th century church and cloister ranges, the gatehouse which lies approximately 160m to the north west of the church, the precinct wall and an isolated group of buildings south of the cloister which are separated from it by Maltby Dike. The dike runs west to east and bisects the precinct.

The only parts of buildings at Roche to survive to their full height are the east walls of the church transepts and the adjoining walls of the chancel. These demonstrate the typical simplicity of Cistercian architecture in their lack of decoration and their use of plain round headed windows and pointed arches. The church was constructed between the abbey's foundation in 1147 and around 1170 and did not undergo a programme of later rebuilding, as is common at many monasteries. The architecture is therefore all of one style, influenced by that of the Cistercian order's native Burgundy. Internal alterations were carried out in the 14th century when the chancel walls were refaced with decorative canopy work. At about this time, lay patrons of the monastery were allowed to be buried in the nave of the church which previously, in accordance with the rules of the order, had been closed to the laity. As a result there are a number of graves set into the church floor, including that of Peryn of Doncaster and his wife Ysbel.

As was customary within the Cistercian order, the church formed the north range of a four-sided cloister. The chapter house and monks' dorter (dormitory) formed the east range, the kitchen and monks frater (refectory) the south range, and a cellar and the lay-brothers' accommodation the west range. The lay-brethren, who carried out all manual and service work for the monks, were the first to colonise the abbey and were therefore the first to need accommodation. Consequently, the west range and the church, which date to the second half of the 12th century, are the oldest structures at the abbey. The east and south cloister ranges date to the 13th century and would have replaced temporary timber buildings whose remains will survive beneath the later stone foundations. Also included in the east range were the sacristy, where sacred vessels were kept, the parlour, where necessary conversation was permitted, and the undercroft which may have been used for storage. Attached to the south end of the east range, and spanning Maltby Dike, is the site of the reredorter or latrine. This was flushed by the dike which had other drains meeting it from the north west and south east. In the south range, the monks' frater was also partially built across the dike and, contrary to the monastic layouts of other orders, was orientated north to south rather than east to west. Between the frater and the east range is the warming house, which contains two fireplaces, while the kitchen lay between the frater and the west range. South of the dike is a separate group of buildings which have been interpreted as the infirmarer's house, the abbot's kitchen and lodging, and the lay brothers' infirmary. The infirmarer's house and lay brothers' infirmary are 13th century but were altered in the 15th century. The abbot's accommodation dates to the 14th century.

The best preserved building at the abbey is the gatehouse. This structure was remodelled in the late 13th century but is thought to overlie the foundations of an earlier gatehouse. It has large vaulted archways leading into the curia and out onto the approach to the monastery but, inside, it is divided by a cross-wall which contains two arches, one for carts, the other for pedestrians. These were originally closed by gates. There is a porter's lodge beside the gate and, in the opposite wall, a newel stair which leads to the first floor of the gatehouse. This upper storey is no longer extant but may, originally, have been a chapel for lay visitors to the monastery.

In addition to the buildings which formed the heart of the monastery, the inner and outer court were also included within the precinct of the abbey. The inner court, which lies to the south east of Abbey House, would have contained the almonry, where poorer visitors were housed, guest houses, the bakehouse, brewhouse and storage for the convent's foodstuffs. A ruined building adjacent to the gatehouse has been interpreted as the site of the almonry.

Beyond the inner court was the outer court which would have contained the abbey mill, agricultural buildings, smithy, tanneries and a chapel for the use of the laity who were denied entry into the monastery proper. The agricultural and industrial buildings would have been essential to the economic exploitation of the convent's estates.

To the west of Maltby Dike, earthworks are visible in various areas of the woodland but, due to the vegetation growth, these are difficult to define from the surface. However, remains of the buildings within both the inner and outer court are thought to survive beneath the ground surface.

Enclosing the monastery and the inner and outer courts is the precinct wall which originally stood to about 3m in height. In addition to the buildings, the precinct wall would also enclose areas of water meadow and pasture. The wall can be traced around most of the monument, although the remains survive in various forms. On the eastern side of the precinct, the wall is visible as a low grassed covered bank which runs north to south on each side of Maltby Dike. It is most clearly evident on the northern side of the dike. Along the northern edge the precinct wall has been incorporated into modern field boundaries but is visible in the lower courses as regular block construction. The western and southern sides are visible either as low grass covered mounds or, in the wooded areas, as one or two moss covered courses surviving above the ground surface. A small section of the wall in the south west corner of the monument, either side of Laughton Pond, is no longer visible on the surface, but the line of the wall can be projected from surviving remains. It is possible that this section of the wall was removed in the 18th century when landscaping of the grounds took place. It is also possible that part of the wall survives within the pond and may explain the very straight south western edge of the pond. If part of the wall survives beneath the water, silt will have collected along the edge of it creating a straight bank which would contain important environmental and ecological deposits.

A number of features within the area are excluded from the scheduling: these include a pair of Grade II listed bridges immediately north west of Abbey House constructed by Capability Brown in around 1775 as part of his landscaping works; the cascade, and the tunnel entrance and lining, at the north east end of Laughton Pond, all of which are Grade II listed features; the late 18th century Gothic Abbey House, also a Grade II listed building; all English Heritage fixtures and fittings, such as benches and signs, the surfaces of all paths and the store shed. However, the ground beneath all these features is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Astley, Reverend H J Dunkinfield , Roche Abbey, Yorkshire: its history and architectural features
Coppack, G, English Heritage Book of Abbeys and Priories, (1990), 15-18
Fergusson, P, Roche Abbey, Yorkshire: Guide Book, (1990), 1-32
New, A, A Guide to the Abbeys of England and Wales, (1985)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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