Research on Roche Abbey

Current research at Roche is concentrated in four areas: historical documentation, architectural history, local history and precinct examination. The site has never been subject to modern archaeological excavation or investigated through geophysical surveys.

The remains of the kitchen block serving the abbot's house, Roche Abbey
The remains of the kitchen block serving the abbot’s house. Buildings such as this outside the cloister require further investigation

Antiquarian Investigations

In the late 19th century the single-minded antiquarian focus on the recovery and accurate plotting of the medieval plan of the monastic nucleus left the site skeletal and denuded. Much of the collapsed masonry was regarded as superfluous and later removed.

The Victorian antiquarians also overlooked other features of Roche’s history, such as the identification of the inner and outer courts with their buildings, and the exploration of the overall precinct.

Historical Documentation

Charters and charter witnesses were first examined by SO Addy and TW Hall.[1] More recent research by Janet Burton and Julie Kerr for the University of Sheffield research project on the Cistercians (1998) found mentions of Roche in court documents, but these are mainly on matters relating to the monastic community and have no information about the architecture. From the charter evidence it should now be possible to reconstruct the home estate of the monastery and also the extent of the granges and more distant landholdings.

Michael Sherbrook’s late 16th-century account of Roche Abbey during the Suppression[2] reveals the attitude of the local community towards the monastery. Recent research by Tom Beastall[3] shows the potential of further work on this aspect of Roche’s history, as does the work of Alice Rodgers on the land and mills belonging to the monastery and her archival research at Sandbeck Park.[4]

A carved stone head found at Roche Abbey
A carved head found at Roche. Research has shown that the Roche master mason was familiar with the Gothic architecture of north-east France

Architectural History

Architectural historians have focused most attention on the analysis of the church’s transepts and architectural detailing. This work was initiated by JR Aveling in the late 19th century, and in the 20th century continued by Peter Fergusson, enhanced by Christopher Wilson and enlarged by Stuart Harrison.[5]

Their research has convincingly refined understanding of the background and sources of the Roche master mason, who was clearly familiar with work in north-east France (as judged by comparison with mouldings and other decorative detail). Study of the surviving loose stonework by Stuart Harrison has enabled a reconstruction of the nave bays of the church, the cloister arcades and the chapter house vault.[6]

Jacques Henriet’s study of Cherlieu, a contemporary Cistercian church in eastern France, reveals the development of Cistercian architecture in France in the same years as Roche. It demonstrates striking parallels in the handling of structure and massing. This unprecedented study could inform research into the development of Cistercian architecture in England in the period around 1180, when strikingly new work was taking place in the order’s English abbeys.[7]

The relationship of Roche to Kirkstead has been further explored by Glyn Coppack and Stuart Harrison.[8]

Local History

Drawing on the archives in Sandbeck Hall, new material has advanced understanding of  Roche’s post-Suppression history and the antiquarian clearances of the 19th century. Tom Beastall has tracked the lives of the last monks ejected at the Suppression.[9]

Aerial Survey

Aerial photography, particularly in dry summers, has revealed the extent of ‘Capability’  Brown’s landscape work. Among other things it has identified his dismantling of standing parts of the monastery, levelling off of wall heights, and covering in of buildings with more than a metre of soil to even up the site and ‘improve’ the vista from the banqueting lodge.

Areas for further research

Only about 30% of the Roche precinct has been investigated. Field surveying of earthworks[10] has verified its extent and suggested direction for future study on such subjects as the water supply, starting with the likely medieval damming of the Laughton Pond and the upper parts of the Maltby Dike.

The severely overgrown condition of the precinct has limited the examination of earthworks, but in better maintained areas geophysical surveying could yield new information in such areas as:

  • the inner court
  • the outer court
  • the eastern parts of the site
  • the monks’ infirmary
  • the walls of the abbot’s residence (which extend south and east of the area in guardianship)
  • the ground to the west of the banqueting lodge.

Virtually nothing is known about the land within the precinct used for gardens and orchards, the uses of the main water channel for purposes such as mills, or the pipes that supplied drinkable water to the brewhouse, kitchen and laver (basin for washing) at the entrance to the refectory.

Similarly, little is known about the first wooden buildings used by the community, which probably lie under the cloister, and the sequence of development of the first stone buildings. A tantalising series of sockets for timber joists in the south transept outer wall may indicate the former presence of an earlier timber dormitory.


1. SO Addy, Cartae XVI ad abbatiam Rupensem spectantes: XVI Charters of Roche Abbey (Sheffield, 1878); TW Hall, ‘Roche Abbey charters: transcripts with introduction and notes, by Sidney Oldall Addy’, Transactions of the Hunter Archaeological Society, 4: 3 (1935 for 1932–4), 226–48.
2. Transcribed and discussed in AG Dickens (ed), Tudor Treatises, Yorkshire Archaeological Record Series 125 (Wakefield, 1959), 123–6.
3. T Beastall, ‘An abbot in retirement’, in Aspects of Doncaster: Discovering Local History, vol 1, ed B Elliott (Barnsley, 1997), 39–48.
4. A Rodgers, ‘Lifting the dark veil of Earth: Roche Abbey excavations, 1857–1935’, Aspects of Rotherham: Discovering Local History, vol 2, ed M Jones (Barnsley, 2000), 95–114.
5. JR Aveling, The History of Roche Abbey from its Foundation to its Dissolution (Worksop, 1870) (accessed 10 December 2013); P Fergusson, ‘Roche Abbey: the source and date of the eastern remains’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 34 (1971), 30–42; C Wilson, ‘The Cistercians as missionaries of Gothic’, in Cistercian Art and Architecture in the British Isles, ed C Norton and D Park (Cambridge, 1986, reprinted 2011), 86–117.
6. British Archaeological Association (forthcoming).
7. J Henriet, A l’aube de l’architecture gothique (Besançon, 2005).
8. G Coppack and S Harrison, Kirkstead Abbey, Lincolnshire: Charters, Earthworks and Architecture of a Large Cistercian House (forthcoming).
9. Beastall, op cit.
10. British Archaeological Association (forthcoming).

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