Chapter House

Sep 30, 2010, 02:16 PM, Kirkstall, Leeds, United Kingdom
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leedsmuseums - about 7 years ago

The Chapter House was the second most important building in the abbey. It was a meeting space where every morning the choir monks would gather to hear a chapter from the Rule of St Benedict, hence the name. This meeting was a bit like a modern school assembly, important information would be given by the abbot who was the head of the monastery, there was an opportunity for each monk to confess their sins or another monk could confess your sins to the abbot for your benefit so you could be corrected! Praise and punishments would then be given.

Punishments were usually reflective and gave the monk the opportunity to think about what he had done wrong. They often took the form of social exclusion from meals or worship, or could reflect the sin committed, for example, a reduction in food for greed or less time in the warming house for sloth. Punishments could be physical for serious crimes, there was even a prison cell next to the infirmary but most abbots preferred reflective punishments. One such punishment was to wear a shirt made from horse hair under a habit which would make your skin itch constantly and was intended to remind you of the sin you committed, Abbot Terguis wore this shirt all the time to remind him of man’s sin so he would be constantly itching!

Some times the abbots themselves needed punishing, in 1356 Abbot John Topcliffe was accused of leading a band of monks and lay brothers to attack Thomas Sergeant’s house, to steal his goods and imprison him. In 1377, Abbot John Thornberg was accused of attacking servants, destroying trees and hunting game.

This is also the place where the monks gathered to surrender the abbey to Henry VIII’s commissioners in November 1539 making it one of the last abbeys to be dissolved. The Abbot John Ripley had fought the dissolution from the beginning, even though the Heads of Monasteries were made generous offers. Eventually, Abbot Ripley retired to the Gatehouse, now Abbey House Museum, with a very generous pension.

Today you will be able to see a number of stone coffins at the back of the Chapter House and if you look closely also buried in the walls. It has been suggested that abbots were buried in the coffins in the walls as they were often buried in Chapter Houses, but when people made the holes you can see in the coffins looking for treasure all that they found was rubble! The coffins in the walls were probably just used as a quick stable building material when the Chapter House was extended. There is no evidence that the coffins at the back were ever used either, although people who like ghost stories often disagree!

Frequent checks of the chapter house are made today to monitor the number of bats living here. We have 2 types of bats; Pipestrelles, tiny little bats whose bodies are only 3 cm long and are the most common in England, and Daubentons, water bats which have webbed feet to scoop insects from the surface of the water. The bats live in the cracks in the walls and ceiling and are monitored in this area as the stone floor makes it easier to identify and count bat droppings. Our staff are all trained to know the difference between bat and mouse droppings, if you stand on a bat dropping it will disintegrate as they live on a diet of insects, mouse droppings are much firmer!

Next door is the Library.