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The Architecture of Cleeve Abbey in Somerset
by Edward Foord

C L E E V E
A B B E Y

Domestic Buildings in Good Preservation

The approach to Cleeve abbey is by an ancient stone bridge over the babbling Roadwater rivulet. The first building reached is the gatehouse, a structure apparently of the 13th century, with a Perpendicular doorway and window. Above the window is a figure of the Virgin flanked by two empty niches and,over the doorway, appears a Latin inscription:
Porta pateni esto
Nulli claudaris honesto.

Which may be Englished thus:
Gate, be thou ever open -
Closed to no honest man.

On the rear face is the name of the last abbot, William Dovell, who presumably restored the gatehouse.

The principal buildings are disposed, according to the rule of Citeaux, round three sides of a quadrangle, on the fourth side of which is a wall, the last remnant above ground of the church. The western side contains what remains of the cloisters. Opposite, on the eastern side, is a range of Early English buildings, comprising on the ground level the chapter-house and a number of other chambers, one of which seems to have been the sacristy, while another was unquestionably the common room of the monks. This room has graceful Early English windows with lias shafts. The columns which supported the floor of the dormitory have disappeared, only the bases remaining.

The chapter-house opens into the cloister by a somewhat broad and squat Early English doorway, flanked by two most charming and graceful windows of the same period, still retaining their centre-shafts and tracery. The three together form a really delightful triad, probably the most beautiful feature in the whole abbey.

On the upper floor is the dormitory. It once extended for the entire length of the block, but over the common room the floor has fallen in. The day staircase descends to the cloister beside the chapter-house. Of the night stairs, by which the monks went to the church for the first service (at 2 am), nothing remains but the doorway. The dormitory is an apartment simple in detail, as became the ascetic Cistercian tradition, but excellent in general appearance and proportions: the Early English lancets are graceful and pleasing. The independent sleeping cubicles are noticeable.

On the south side are, below, the rooms devoted to the everyday life of the monastery - kitchen, storerooms, cellar, etc. While above is the refectory, a splendidly proportioned chamber, fifty-two feet long and twenty-two feet wide, with nine well-designed Perpendicular windows, which retain intact their mullions and tracery. The roof is, also intact. It is of walnut wood, its beams resting upon corbels sculpted with angels. The recess of the pulpit, from which the brethren were edified by pious reading as they took their meals, is to be seen in the south wall with the steps which led up to it. The eastern wall has, sadly, completely lost its wall-painting of the Crucifixion still discernible in early photographs. At the west end are what were originally the abbot's lodgings. Close to the refectory is a small chamber decorated with wall paintings of female saints - Thekla, Margaret and Katharine - which was presumably the superior's private sitting-room or perhaps his oratory.

Poor though Cleeve was, it must have possessed a very fine or, at all events, a large church, for, judging from its ground-plan which has been laid bare, it was more than one hundred and sixty feet long. To all appearance, it dated from the earliest period of the abbey: the five bays of the nave had cylindrical Romanesque or Transitional piers. The transepts had each two chapels and there was a short choir without aisles - a typically Cistercian arrangement. The disappearance of this church, interesting as it no doubt was, is the less to be regretted when there is considered the remarkable, almost unique survival of the domestic establishments of the monks.

Edited from Edward Foord's "Wells, Glastonbury & Cleeve" (1925)

Click for Cleeve Abbey History


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