12. The Cloister Garth

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To go out and explore what remains of the monastery, go through the large door in the long wall. You may want to pause the commentary, and please shut the door behind you.

The ruined buildings around this green square are all that remains of the Priory of St Andrew, founded here in 1083 by Gundulf, the first Norman Bishop of Rochester.

The monks who once lived here have long gone, but this cloister remains a peaceful place for quiet outdoor strolling, reading or contemplation, and you can still make out various parts of the priory today. Can you see where the ruins join onto the end of the cathedral, where two rows of rounded arches are still standing one on top of the other? This was the Chapter House. Walk over there now if you like, just pause the commentary until you’re there.

Here the monks gathered everyday to hear read to them one of 73 chapters from the rule of St Benedict. This book detailed how they should live their lives as a community and how they should fulfill their spiritual potential. This is a small flavour of it: ‘let the brethrin serve each other, so that no one be excused from the work in the kitchen, except on account of sickness or more necessary work, because greater merit and more charity is thereby acquired.

Next to the chapter house was the dormitory at first floor level, where the monks slept, and along the side of the green opposite the cathedral was the refectory where they ate together. Next to that was the lavatorium where they wash themselves. All these buildings now stand in ruins because the monks centuries of quite life here came to an abrupt end in 1540 in a process called the Dissolution. King Henry VIII was breaking up monastic orders and taking over their property. He planned to turn the priory here into a royal palace, although this never happened.

If after your tour you want to get some refreshments, you can go to the cathedral tea rooms from here. It’s just beyond a little doorway through the Old chapter house ruins [please note: the cathedral cafe is now in the crypt!].

The statue was made by the sculptor John Doubleday, as part of the commemoration of the 850th anniversary of the consecration of the cathedral in 1980. The woman and child represent Jesus as a boy and his mother Mary. They’re looking ahead in the same direction as if looking to the future, but a future that is unknown. Mary’s arms, while protective, at the same time letting the boy Jesus go, willing to trust him to his uncertain future.

In the time of Bishop Ernulf, the early 1100s, a monk wrote down a collection of writings known as the Textus Roffensis, or the book of the church of Rochester. It was partly a law book and partly a book of notes about events and records of the cathedral, and contains lots of important information about how Saxon England was changing under its new Norman rulers.

Textus Roffensis also contains possibly the first written record of what we now know as the English language. Compiled from much earlier writings of 604. Here’s an example, the first words from the laws of King Ethelbert of Kent: ‘Godes feoh, and churchen’. This means the property of God and of the church. It doesn’t sound much like modern English but without it, the people of England might actually now be speaking a form of German.