History of Roche Abbey

Roche Abbey, founded in 1147 as a monastery of the Cistercian order, is most notable for the remains of its early Gothic church and for its early 13th-century great gatehouse. At its peak, about 1175, Roche had about 50 monks and 100 lay brothers and servants. The monastery was suppressed in 1538 – an event recorded in remarkable detail by a local clergyman – and many of the buildings were dismantled. Two hundred years later the ruins became the centrepiece of a designed landscape created in the 1770s by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown for the Earls of Scarbrough.

Picturesque view of Roche Abbey across Maltby Bike
The ruins of Roche Abbey, which was founded by the Cistercians in a secluded valley

Origins of Roche

The procedures established by the Cistercian order decreed that a new monastery had to be founded from an existing one.[1] Accordingly, in 1147 an abbot and 12 monks, accompanied by about 20 lay brothers (who were responsible for most of the manual work in Cistercian monasteries), walked from Newminster Abbey in Northumberland to settle in wooden buildings constructed for them in a narrow valley 14 miles east of present-day Sheffield.[2]

The name of the new abbey, Sancta Maria de Rupe (from the Latin rupes, ‘rock’ or ‘cliff’), came from the distinctive limestone outcrops framing three sides of the valley. Two powerful local landowners, Richard de Bully, Lord of Tickhill, and Richard, son of Turgis, gifted the site[3] and served as the new monastery’s patrons and protectors.

The community’s early years were preoccupied with establishing a self-sufficient economy. Arable land was needed to grow food, as well as pasture to sustain the sheep and horses that provided wool and power for the daily work of the monastery. This land and pasture were donated by the founders,[4] and further support came from neighbouring landowners who admired the monks’ devotional discipline and their determination to live in poverty.

As the community grew, it generated the income needed to construct larger, permanent stone buildings. Most were for the community’s own use but others provided visitors and travellers with hospitality, an obligation of all monasteries based on Christ’s words in the Gospels (Matthew 24: 25). Proof that building was under way at Roche comes from its founders’ further gifts in the 1170s of wood,[5] probably intended for the roofing of the stone buildings, including the church.


Bird's eye view coloured reconstruction drawing of Roche Abbey church (cutaway) and cloister in about 1220
Reconstruction drawing of Roche Abbey church (cutaway) and cloister in about 1220, when the monastic community was at its largest © Historic England (illustration by Peter Urmston)

Medieval Decline and resurgence

Roche’s internal history appears to have been unexceptional. Estimates suggest a community that peaked in the early 13th century at about 50 monks and 100 lay brothers, who worked on farm granges or sheep pastures.

External events intruded, however, and resulted in changes. An early example was the decimation of the monastery’s sheep flocks by the murrain (sheep scab) in the 1270s. This disaster, which struck the whole of the north of England, hastened the decline in the number of lay brothers.

Further disasters followed in the early 14th century in the form of raids by the Scots and, in the 1340s, the Black Death. A document of 1380 records Roche’s community as numbering only 15 monks and a single lay brother.[6]

The 15th century brought a modest recovery. Patrons remained loyal, lay people sought out the abbey as a burial place, numbers slowly increased, the economy improved, and the community enjoyed high regard for its religious observance and ordered life.

At the suppression of the abbey in 1538 the document of surrender noted 22 monks and about the same number of servants.[7] An inventory taken at the same time recorded 80 oxen, 5 carthorses, 120 sheep and 40 pigs, and noted that the precinct included 7 orchards, as well as dovecotes, fruit gardens, ponds and ‘other conveniences’.[8]

The Suppression of Roche

England’s monasteries were suppressed by Henry VIII in the late 1530s, and Roche’s monks surrendered the monastery to the king’s commissioners on 23 June 1538. In a brief ceremony in the chapter house they handed over the keys to their buildings and received pensions, and watched the clerks inventory all the monastery’s possessions.[9] Moveable items such as furniture were sold, some at auction.

What began, however, as an orderly process degenerated into pillage. Men from the locality descended on the abandoned buildings, carrying away what they could. The process of destruction was vividly described by Michael Sherbrook, a clergyman at nearby Wickersley.[10]


‘Capability’ Brown

By 1627 the abbey remains were owned by Robert Saunderson of Fillingham in Lincolnshire. When his descendants died out in the early 18th century, the estates were left to a cousin, Thomas Lumley (c 1691–1752), who became 3rd Earl of Scarbrough.

After 200 years as ruins, the remains of the former abbey buildings and the valley in which they lay underwent a transformation in the 1770s. The 4th Earl of Scarbrough (1725–82) contracted England’s most famous landscape designer, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, to bring ‘order’ to the valley by remodelling it to contemporary tastes.

Brown engineered a lake and islands over Roche’s southern buildings, substituted a river for the medieval water channels, contrived a waterfall to cascade from the Laughton Pond, and composed irregular tree groupings in surrounding fields. He also levelled the ruins’ irregular walls to provide a uniform grassed foreground for a banqueting lodge.

The banqueting lodge was built for entertaining the earl’s guests who were staying at his nearby Sandbeck Park estate. Faced with Brown’s Picturesque tableau, they combined dining with philosophical conversation about art and nature. Similar buildings for the same purpose were constructed at the same time at Rievaulx and Fountains abbeys.

The banqueting lodge with arched windows and crenellated roofline at Roche Abbey
The banqueting lodge, built in the 1770s to provide a place to view Capability Brown’s Picturesque landscape

Antiquarian Clearances

In the 19th century later Earls of Scarbrough began undoing Brown’s work. Caring little about picture-like tableaus, they wanted the past exposed as a literal artefact, opened up for inspection and study.

Sweeping away Brown’s enhancements, they began clearing buildings wrecked at the Suppression, recovering what information they could about the ground plan of the medieval abbey and analysing the forms of its buildings. The large-scale clearance in the mid-1880s was largely led in person by the 10th Earl of Scarbrough, with the help of his nephews, his brother-in-law and the scholars JT Micklethwaite (later Surveyor of Westminster Abbey) and William St John Hope.

The process took more than 80 years, and was refocused and professionalised after the First World War, when the state took over care of the medieval remains. Clearance resumed in the early 1920s as a public works programme for the unemployed.

The painstaking exposure in the 19th and 20th centuries of the medieval remains levelled by Brown established a new identity for the site, giving the paradoxical impression of a monastic complex in the course of construction. Strengthening this impression was the decision in the 1920s to employ mown grass as a background from which to view the ruins. Recent replacement of some of these areas by English Heritage, which assumed responsibility for the site in 1984, with wilder meadow grass, has recovered some of Roche’s medieval identity.

About the Authors

Peter Fergusson is Feldberg Professor of Art History Emeritus at Wellesley College, Massachusetts. Stuart Harrison is Cathedral Archaeologist at York Minster and Director of Ryedale Archaeology. They are the authors of the English Heritage Red Guide to Roche Abbey.


1. C Norton and D Park (eds), Cistercian Art and Architecture in the British Isles(Cambridge, 1986, reprinted 2011).
2. Ibid, 318–20.
3. SO Addy, Cartae XVI ad abbatiam Rupensem spectantes: XVI Charters of Roche Abbey (Sheffield, 1878).
4. Ibid.
5. W Page (ed), ‘Houses of Cistercian monks: Roche’, The Victoria History of the County of York, vol 3 (London, 1913, new edn, 1974), 153–6 (accessed 20 April 2014).
6. Ibid.
7. The National Archives, E 322/204.
8. D Knowles, Bare Ruined Choirs (Cambridge, 1976).
9. Ibid.
10. Transcribed in AG Dickens (ed), Tudor Treatises, Yorkshire Archaeological Record Series 125 (Wakefield, 1959), 123–6.