St. Bees was a Benedictine Priory from the 12th Century until 1539, when amidst the tumult of the Reformation, Henry VIII’s commissioners finally reached St. Bees. The Priory was dissolved, the monks pensioned off and the Priory’s possessions were sold, leaving only the nave of the monastic church for use by the village.
Worship had been the primary reason for the existence of the Priory and its life revolved around the many daily services, of which the eight “lesser offices” are to be sung today. The monastic day started at midnight with Matins. Roused by bells, the monks would walk silently from their dormitory down the “night stairs” into the body of the church.. When it finished the monks returned to the dormitory until roused for Lauds, which started at sunrise. After Lauds the brethren would again retire, after having drunk perhaps a mug of ale, to be woken again in early morning by the bells for Prime. The night services could be arduous, and the temptation to sleep would be great. To prevent this, a “Circator” passed around with a lamp, looking for any monk who had fallen asleep. If he found one, he could pass on the lamp to that monk, who would in turn have to search for another who had been overcome by drowsiness, before he in turn could hand on the lamp.
The church would be dimly lit by a few candles, and perhaps by a “Cresset” stone. These stones had hollows filled with oil or grease, in which lighted wicks floated. At St. Bees our 6-light medieval cresset stone will be used for the night services. After Prime the monks would read in the cloister, and have further refreshment, typically of a quarter pound of bread and a third of a pint of beer or wine. After this was Chapter Mass, which was said in a low voice, and this was followed immediately by the daily “Chapter”. This was held in the Chapter House, where a chapter, or portion, of the rules governing the monastic order was read. This was when the business of the monastery was conducted, and those monks accused of faults were questioned.
Chapter over, a period of general business and study followed, before Terce. Next was High Mass, the principal divine service, then the monks proceeded eagerly to the refectory, were they had the first proper meal of the day. Regulations governed the meal table. During the meal conversation was forbidden, and one monk would read aloud suitable portions of the lives of the saints or other homilies. There were many rules for good conduct. A monk was forbidden to lean his arms on the table, to cut or wipe the table cloth with his knife, he was to not let his eyes wander, and he was encouraged to sit up straight and eat temperately.
After the meal they washed their hands, then went into the church for Sext. Readings and study in the cloister was followed by None, after this they occupied themselves in transcribing books or reading, though in some monasteries there was a skittle alley or bowling green. This was a time for relaxation. Vespers followed at sunset, then supper in the refectory, which was to consist of at least one good dish, and one “pittance”, or extra dish, of fruit, nuts or cheese. Then the monks assembled in the cloister or the church, depending on the weather, to listen to “Collation”, which was a short reading. They could then have a stoup of wine or beer, before going to the final service, Compline.
Compline over, they walked in silence to the dormitory, and had to follow a strict routine even in going to bed. They could not read or sing, and in getting into bed had to “sit down first, then turn their legs under the coverlet, then to take off their shoes, and to sleep in their shirt, drawers and gaiters”. Today you are hearing just the lesser services of just one monastic day which we hope gives a glimpse of the daily round of monastic life at St. Bees Priory 500 years ago.
From the guide written by Doug Sim for the Midsummer Day of Eight Devotional Services, as done from time to time at St Bees Priory.