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Roche Abbey: the gatehouse(20)

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The gatehouse at Roche Abbey
©Ray Thompson
<click to enlarge>
The gatehouse at Roche Abbey

The entrance to the abbey precinct was via an outer gatehouse, which no longer survives. This stood to the north of the monastery and controlled access to the precinct. Once visitors to Roche had passed through the outer gatehouse at Roche they would have proceeded about sixty metres along a lane to an inner gatehouse, which was built into the rocks. It was here that the porter of the house, a monastic official (obedientiary) of some standing, officiated between Lauds and Compline each day receiving visitors and administering alms. In the early days the porter would have returned to the cloister after Compline and slept in the dormitory with the rest of the community, but later on he probably slept in a chamber in the gatehouse.

The porter's duties
The porter, or his helper, manned the abbey gate from Lauds to Compline each day. He wore the scapular while working and whenever the Offices were sung in the church he was to pull up his hood and remain in silence. At the end of Compline the porter closed the gate and returned to the cloister. The porter represented the abbey to the outside world and mediated between outsiders and the community. He welcomed visitors (the exact procedure that he should follow is detailed fully in the twelfth-century customary of the Order), he announced their arrival and communicated their requests to the abbot; moreover he ensured that they did not disrupt monastic life within. Whereas the Benedictine houses appointed an almoner to dispense charity on behalf of the community, this was the task of the Cistercian porter – he distributed food and clothing to the poor and at Beaulieu Abbey, Hampshire, it was the porter’s responsibility to select thirteen poor people to be fed and lodged in the abbey’s hospice each night. The porter was also to exercise discretion and was not to give alms to women of the neighbouring villages – except in times of famine – or to those who were too lazy to work.

The inner gatehouse at Roche is now regarded as one of the earliest and finest Cistercian gatehouses in the country. It was a two-storey building, with a high-pitched roof; nothing remains of the roofing but some of the original paving survives. The gatehouse comprised two parts: the gateway and the gatehall. Visitors entered the porch of the gateway through inward-swinging wooden gates and were received by the porter, whose chamber was on the right. On passing through an archway visitors entered the gatehall, a rib-vaulted building with two arches, the larger of which was intended for vehicles, such as carts, the smaller for those on foot. Once in the gatehall visitors either proceeded straight on to the inner court or passed through a porch to the right, which led to the outer court.

The upper floor of the gatehouse could be accessed either from a circular staircase in the north wall of the gatehall or by an external stairway. It seems that this level contained a large rectangular room and three smaller chambers. The former had wall benches along three sides and probably functioned as a business centre, where the abbot could hold his court. There may also have been a chapel here where visitors could pray.

The actual dating of the gatehouse remains rather unclear. Recent architectural analysis suggests that the gatehouse dates from the fourteenth century and is not, as is generally held, a fourteenth-century rebuilding of a twelfth-century plan.

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