Digital Archive: Craswall Grandmontine Society Website Archive - Cecil Wright Excavations




Cecil Wright excavations, 1962

In July 1962, supported by ‘a substantial grant from the National Buildings Record’, Cecil Wright, Lecturer in Medieval Architecture at the Liverpool College of Building, School of Architecture, brought 15 of his students to assist him in the examination of parts of the priory so far unexcavated. With this manpower and his own personal expertise, Wright was able to further explore the church, open up the north chapel, Clapham’s ‘sacristy’ which he describes as the south chapel , and the slype. Chapter-house and dorter stairs were also re-examined.

The Church

Wright recorded that ‘the arches to the small north and south doorways of the apse steps had collapsed’ since 1947, and established that the profile of a portion of the mouldings of the sedilia arches found locally matched that on the jambs of the sediliae.

The North Chapel

Plan 4. North chapel from Cecil Wright’s plan of the 1962 excavations, with his manuscript notes

1.               Painted corner

2.               Altar step

3.               Aumbry

4.               Altar

5.               Double piscina

6.               Springing shown on 1913 [Stallybrass] plan, now gone

7.               Pointed barrel vault over, having semi-circular diagonal ribs with plain intersections

8.               Traces of painted plaster

9.               Stone flagged floor

10.           Aumbry of church choir

Excavations revealed that the chapel measured 26’ 5” by 15’2”, with a stone floor and raised area for the altar (4 on plan; Fig 25), behind which were traces of an east window.

Fig 25. Cecil Wright photographing altar in north chapel

In the north wall was the base of an aumbry (3), and in the south a Grandmontine twin piscina (5 on plan; Fig 27). Remnants of vaulting ribs were found with traces of lines in red ochre on a painted white ground (see Fig 13). Wright concluded that the chapel ‘has features alien to the remainder of the site and may be a rebuilding. This could only be proved by complete excavation and re-examination of the foundations on the east.’ Whereas St Michel de Lodève and La Haye d’Angers had north chapels with west doorways giving access to the laity, at Craswall, Alberbury and Grosmont entry was only from the choir. Glimpses of the north chapel can still be seen in the grass-covered mounds outside the north wall of the chancel. (Fig 26)

Figs 26-7.
Left: North chapel today, showing heads of piscina (left) and doorway to church (right).
Right: North chapel piscina. Photo C.Wright, courtesy of Mrs Alison and Martin Wright.

The so-called South Chapel

This chamber, as Wright explains, had ‘hitherto been labelled on plans of the site as “Sacristy” and was only partially excavated by Lilwall whose men cleared a trough almost down to floor level from the door to the church across to the South wall opposite and a little way to the east, exposing an aumbry very similar to that in the north wall of the church apse and probably also that in the north chapel’. Alfred Clapham, in his 1926 Antiquaries Journal article, reported that a south doorway in the presbytery opened into ‘the sacristy which has in the north wall a round-headed locker, rebate for a door’. He used the same term in the 1931 Royal Commission on Historical Monuments. Not prepared to accept Clapham’s conclusion without excavating the structure, Wright soon ‘suspected that the so-called “Sacristy” might in fact be a chapel’. Confirming this was his great achievement. What he called the south chapel is now accepted as Craswall’s first church.

To establish its plan-form, Wright cut along the inside faces of the north and south walls. On the north side, he found the arch of the later doorway from the second church (A on Plan 5), a Grandmontine reveal (B), an aumbry (3), and, most significant of all, the beginning of the curve of the apse – not the straight east wall assumed by Clapham. (Figs 28-30)

Plan 5. South Chapel from Wright’s plan of the 1962 excavations at Craswall Priory, with a transcript of his manuscript notes

1.     Doorway – outer orders of arch collapsed, internal relieving arch intact

2.     Wall surface continues up without break to form soffit of pointed tunnel vault, also with south wall

3.     Aumbry

4.     Probable window splay

5.     Possible posn of altar

6.     Form of vault over apse conjectured from architectural evidence

7.     Double piscina

8.     Jamb faced with large dressed stones for full width

9.     Jamb in random rubble with dressed stone quoins

10. Step down

11. Narrow ledges at bases of walls

[Additional notes: A. later access to second church; B. Grandmontine reveals]

Figs 28-9. South chapel today. Above, showing aumbry in north wall, northern reveal and later doorway to church; below, showing aumbry and curve of apse

 ‘The apsidal wall had almost completely collapsed and was deeply buried in rubble. Its inner face was followed with a trench and vestigial remains of the splayed north jamb of the northern window (4 on plan) were located.’ On the south side Wright found the southern reveal (B), which ‘was taken as confirmation of the chapel theory’. Then ‘a semicircular-headed recess containing the familiar twin piscinae was found and beyond it the beginning of the curve of an apse’. On his plan Wright also noted the ‘possible position of altar’ (5) and ‘form of vault over apse conjectured from architectural evidence’ (6).

Fig 31. South chapel today, showing piscina head and reveal

 ‘No rib voussoirs were found amongst the debris removed but one corbel, very badly weathered, was identified. This was of the inverted pyramid type but formed to fit in a flat wall surface and not in an internal angle as those in the north chapel. The undisturbed debris should yield a boss resembling that found in the church apse by Lilwall (now missing from the site) and this will indicate how many ribs there were over the apse.

Fig 32. Medieval pottery. Courtesy HMR&LC

 ‘It was in this trench round the apse that the only piece of recognisable mediaeval pottery was found ‒ a lug or handle from the shoulder of a crock in a dark greyish brown ware. The surface had a dark green salt-glaze and the ring of the handle was decorated with finger-nail indentations. It is now amongst the Craswall finds in Hereford Museum.

 ‘At the western end of the south chapel’ Wright found the doorway into the cloister (1 on Plan 5); the outer orders of the arch had collapsed, but the internal relieving arch was intact. Along the north wall (2 on plan) he noted that the surface continued up without a break to form a soffit of the pointed tunnel vault; this also applied to the south wall. He noted that it was difficult to determine the precise level of the springing of the vault in view of past movement of the stonework.

The order, Hutchison explains, ‘remained strictly faithful to a nave the width of which was approximately one quarter of the length’. This implies that the original church was substantially longer than the now south chapel, with a smaller, cloister in its customary position south of the nave.

The Slype or Passage of the Dead

Wright next turned to the structure adjacent to the so-called ‘south chapel’, now buried under the consolidation works carried out in 1993-5. He reports that ‘the eastern end … has almost disintegrated and … there is solid debris to a depth of 8-9 ft. above Chapter House floor level.

Fig 33. View across cloister showing, left to right, church south wall, consolidation of south chapel, passage of the dead and chapter-house with dormitory stairs .

The Cloister entrance … is of some interest as the jambs appear to have been built at different times; that on the north being entirely in large dressed stones and the other in rubble with dressed quoins.’ (8 and 9 on plan) This suggests it was rebuilt at the time of the adjacent chapter-house.

Stepping down into the passage (10) ‘the floor and threshold are paved with large stone slabs in the manner of the remainder of the building and along the bases of both walls are narrow stone ledges (11). The purpose of these is not clear.’ Carole Hutchison draws particular attention to the room found above the passage to the cemetery, accessible from the dormitory and remarkable in having a vaulted roof, whereas the dormitory always had a timber roof. She suggests that it was either ‘an infirmary or night oratory’.

The passage of the dead is a fundamental feature of all Grandmontine houses and can still be seen in some 30 French Grandmontine houses. In every case it is situated in exactly the same position. It was the means of access to the exterior of the apse of the church, the burial site of the brethren, where the Grandmontine Rule insisted that services for their dead fellows should be held three times each day by the graves, starting first thing in the morning. Thus there can be no doubt that the so-called ‘south chapel’ was Craswall’s original priory church, ‘the first little oratory erected by the pioneer community’. The ruins of the much grander church we now see are of a later build. If the burial was of Walter rather than his son Gilbert, the rebuilding of Craswall Priory will have taken place not, as previously assumed, c.1230 but after his death in 1241. This is reflected in the rich and mature Early English architectural details of the triple sedilia with credence and piscina in the choir, discovered by Lilwall in 1904, and in the three-bay chapter-house. (See Documentary Evidence; Plan 2; and Figs 9 &10).

Fig 34. Passage of the dead at Comberoumal (Aveyron)

The Cellar

In his 1926 article Clapham labels the structure to the south of the chapter-house as ‘warming house’. However on the standard Grandmontine plan this was the cellar, with a work room for the converts. Remnants still visible include the entrance to the south range.

Fig 35. West wall of cellar, showing entrance to south range

The Dormitory

The dormitory spanned the first floor of the east range. In the Grandmontine houses it was lit by a range of windows in the east wall. There is no trace at Craswall of the dormitory on the first floor above the chapter-house, but at Comberoumal it is well preserved and shows how it accommodated the corrector and 12 brethren. Each had his own bay, lit on the eastern side by a deeply splayed window. At the western end of the dormitory, as usual in monasteries, toilet facilities were provided by a stone or timber structure situated above flowing water. At Craswall traces of the rere-dorter were found at the southern end and can still be seen today (see Plan 1). As the Grandmontines had no transepts, access to the church, day and night, was by a staircase at the end of the east cloister walk, against the west side of the chapter-house.

Fig 36. Comberoumal: external view showing 13 dormitory windows

Fig 37. Comberoumal: internal view of 12 of the 13 deeply splayed dormitory windows, with small window of chamber over passage of the dead at far end

Consolidation of the west wall of the chapter-house and stairs giving access to the dormitory was a major item in the 1993 conservation programme (see Plans 1 and 3).

Figs 38-9. Consolidation work undertaken in 1993

Fig 40. St Michel de Lodève (Hérault): entrance to chapter-house and dormitory stairs

Fig 41. Le Sauvage (Aveyron): entrance to chapter-house and dormitory stairs

It has been suggested that a large unexplored mound ‘was probably the prior’s house, typically located to the south east of the priory’. However, the Rule insisted that ‘even the prior of Grandmont himself sleep in the communal dorter’.

The South Range

The principal structure in the south range was the refectory. The Grandmontine Rule as to meals followed the general monastic calendar, but their diet was more extreme. The kitchen was situated at the western end of the range, where it could serve both the brethren in their refectory to its east and the guests in the west range to its north (See Plan 1).

Wright and his 15 students did not have adequate time to explore such matters in the summer of 1962. However, excavations of the monastic complex of the Grandmontine priory at Pinel in Haute Garonne in the 1980s, under the patronage of l’Association de Recherches Archéologiques de Villaries , have thrown remarkable light on the Order’s methods of supplying water as well as the distribution and drainage patterns. Amongst the Grandmontines, as amongst the other monastic orders, this was a matter of primary importance, due to the general insistence on the washing of hands before all meals. For monks cleansing by water was also a representation of the spiritual cleansing they all so ardently desired. Wherever possible, springs on neighbouring hillsides were used for monastic water supply, as was evidently the case at Craswall, given the steep gradient immediately to the west of the priory.

Fig 42, showing unexcavated south and west ranges, chapter-house doorway, columns supporting vault and position of passage of the dead

The Pinel excavations revealed an octagonal lavabo in the south-east angle of the cloister garth, close to the frater to its south. Octagonal lavabos were used by the Cistercians, as at Much Wenlock, Shropshire, with its fine carved panels. At Mellifont in Ireland the elaborately ornamented and arched superstructure can still be admired. That at Pinel is surrounded by three circular water storage basins; that to its north supplied the lavabo. At Gloucester Cathedral one finds the usual Benedictine stone trough on the wall of the cloister garth outside the refectory, and within the garth a large, elaborate, stone drain. No evidence is given of such a drain at Pinel, where the second and third water storage basins are shown as feeding the kitchen, in the south-west corner, whence a long drainage pipe, shaded on the plan, passes further south-west to the land beyond. One assumes that the lavabo at Craswall, like that at Pinel, was in the south-east corner of the cloister garth. Of the drainage system there is as yet little evidence.

The Western Range

As noted earlier, during his campaign against Richard earl of Pembroke in early September 1233, Henry III rested for two nights at Walter de Lacy’s castle at Longtown on his way from Hay to Abergavenny. Almost certainly Henry visited the priory, in which case he would have been formally received in the guest buildings on the west side of the cloister.

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