Monday, March 13, 2017

The Abbot’s Kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey

by Mary F. Burns

Nearly all the information is this post taken from a printed pamphlet displayed for public education in the Abbot’s Kitchen on the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey, which I photographed while I was there on a research trip in September 2014. Although the kitchen doesn’t play a crucial role in my book, The Spoils of Avalon, just sitting inside it and learning about it helped me imagine how life went on there nearly 500 years ago. While there, I attended a workshop on Gregorian chant which was held in the Abbot’s Kitchen. Nearly 30 people from all around the Glastonbury and Somerset area gathered there all day to learn and sing the Office of St. Dunstan, one of the early abbots of the place. It was an unforgettable experience. Visiting Glastonbury was part of a three-week tour of the places in England in which I had set my novel, the first in a new mystery series, and which is structured to tell two stories: one that occurs in 1877 and a parallel story in 1539, at the very end of the time of Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries and abbeys. You can see more photos and information about my research tour at my mystery blog:

The Abbot’s Kitchen – One of the best preserved medieval kitchens in Europe.

“The kitchen for the abbot and guests should be separate, so that when guests arrive at unforeseeable times…they may not disturb the brethren.” (The Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 53)

The Abbot’s kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey was built in the earlier 1300s to provide meals for the abbot and his guests. As head of the richest monastery in England after Westminster, the abbots lived and dined in great splendour. The kitchen was a statement of his and the abbey’s wealth and influence.

It was part of a wonderful suite of rooms, including the abbot’s house, a great hall, chapel and guest rooms. Other service buildings included a bakehouse, brewhouse and buttery.

This model of Glastonbury Abbey as it existed in 1539 shows the Abbot’s Kitchen, lower right, as it was placed next to the Abbot’s house (on its left) and the Great Hall, above and slightly to the left of the house. The monks’ dining hall (refectory) and dormitory is appended to the Great Church, surrounding a cloistered garden and walk, and looking out to one of many graveyards in the complex. In front of the Great Church is the Lady Chapel, and the blackish spot in the graveyard is the site of the grave of King Arthur and Queen Guenevere, discovered in 1191 by monks digging in the yard.

The monks had their own kitchen and dining room. Their diet was plain and the eating of meat was restricted, but the food served at the abbot’s table was far more elaborate.

Cooking in the Abbot’s Kitchen

“It is all built of stone, and hath not so much as a peg of wood about it, for its better security from fire.” (Thomas Hearne, 1722)

The kitchen is built entirely of local stone. The finer masonry was brought from the abbey’s quarries at Doulting. The four corner fireplaces create an 8-sided interior and the magnificent vaulting rises to a central lantern. The roof outside is stone tiled and each corner hearth would have had a tall chimney. [The remnant of stone walls in the foreground of the photograph is the only remaining corner of what was once the Abbot’s Great Hall.]

The lantern in the centre of the roof was designed to ventilate the kitchen by drawing in fresh air and expelling smoke through air vents. When the famous architect Augustus Pugin measured and drew the kitchen in 1833, he wrote: “The construction of this lantern is exceedingly ingenious, being well calculated for relieving the kitchen from excessive heat or smoke.”

Hospitality was a very important part of Benedictine life. Glastonbury abbots welcomed many high ranking visitors. When Edward III and Queen Philippa visited in 1331, the abbey spent £800 (about £350,000 today) on food, accommodation and ceremonies.

On feast days, special meals and delicacies were cooked for the abbot’s table. Accounts of 1538 record that on Lady Day (25th March), the cook provided six salted salmon with sugar, pepper and saffron, on Easter Sunday six lambs and Easter eggs and at Corpus Christi (a moveable feast in May or June) meat pasties, spices and malted barley.

The Kitchen’s design enabled catering on a grand scale.

Glastonbury Abbey owned huge estates in Somerset and beyond. The abbey’s farms, fishery, orchards, vineyards and deer parks supplied the monastery with all its basic food. Supplies to the cooks were managed by different monastic officers: the cellarer had overall responsibility for food and drink; the granger supplied cereals and beans; the gardener provided herbs, vegetables and fruit.
The abbey’s garden and orchard within the precinct supplied 3 tuns of cider, 4 barrels of wine and 2000 cloves of garlic to the abbot’s kitchen in 1333-34.

The kitchen was designed for mass catering and arranged according to different cooking methods. Each fireplace had a separate function:

• In one corner large cauldrons were hung over the fire to boil liquids. Several parts of a meal could be cooked in cloth bags in the same cauldron.

• Meat was roasted in another corner. Here servants turned the spits, while the fat was caught in pans below.
• In another corner pastries were baked. A long-handled ‘peel’ was used to slide the food in and out of the oven. Bread was baked in a separate bakehouse.
• In the last corner there is a large drain over which all the washing up was done.

The kitchen would have been extremely busy. Meat was carved, vegetables chopped and all kinds of food was prepared at large tables. Servants brought in firewood and carried water in wooden buckets. Lighting on dark days was provided by rushlights or “cressets” burning animal fat.

Conserving and Interpreting the Kitchen

“It is an extraordinary and curious building…a wonder work and has kept entire to this day.” (Sir Stephen Glynne, 1825)

The Abbot’s Kitchen is the only abbey building to survive intact. It escaped destruction when the abbey was dissolved in 1539. It was later used as a fuel store, cider house, animal shelter and for a short time in the 1670s-80s, it became a Quaker meeting house.

In 2013 a programme of archaeological recording was undertaken, before conservation of the building and installation of under-floor heating. Conservation involved the removal of damaging materials used in earlier repairs, re-pointing of masonry and the repair of damaged stonework.

Peter Brears, a specialist in traditional English cookery, visited the kitchen and suggested how it might be better interpreted. He suggested an arcaded gallery once stretched across the kitchen from the evidence of two stone piers in the north and south walls. Here the head cook may have surveyed the work below and shouted orders to his kitchen staff. The modern steel structure shows the position of the former gallery and enables lighting and heating in the kitchen, without damaging the fabric of the building.

Images by Mary F. Burns

This post is an Editor's Choice, and was originally published in January 2015.


First in a series of historical mysteries, The Spoils of Avalon introduces two unlikely detectives and life-long friends—beginning as young people on the verge of making their names famous for the next several decades throughout Europe and America: the brilliant and brittle Violet Paget, known as the writer Vernon Lee, and the talented, genial portrait painter John Singer Sargent.

Mary F. Burns is the author of Portraits of an Artist (Sand Hill Review Press, February 2013), a member of and book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society and a former member of the HNS Conference board of directors. A novella-length book, Isaac and Ishmael, was also published by Sand Hill Review Press in 2014. Ms. Burns’ debut historical novel J-The Woman Who Wrote the Bible was published in July 2010 by O-Books (John Hunt Publishers, UK). She has also written two cozy-village mysteries in a series titled The West Portal Mysteries (The Lucky Dog Lottery and The Tarot Card Murders). Ms. Burns was born in Chicago, Illinois and attended Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where she earned both Bachelors and Masters degrees in English, along with a high school teaching certificate. She relocated to San Francisco in 1976 where she now lives with her husband Stuart in the West Portal neighborhood.


  1. Great post, Mary! I had no idea the kitchen had survived. Must definitely try to visit, though it's at the opposite end of Britain from me! How sensible of them to set up displays to show how each fireplace was used. I loved the model of the whole abbey precinct too.

  2. Yes, I must revisit Glastonbury soon. I used to love The George and Pilgrim Hotel which was a few decades ago as eccentric as Faulty Towers. I always loved the ruined Abbey but have not visited in years. Thank you for a fascinating post.

  3. Hello Ann and Carol! Thanks for the comments. My husband and I had drinks at the George & Pilgrim, very entertaining! We were there in late September which was quite good in regard to a lesser number of tourists in the streets. Quite a few nice restaurants and what we in the States would call "head shops" (lol). The Abbey Museum has a wealth of information! Happy New Year!

  4. I am lucky enough to live very close to the Abbey and being a member, I get to see the Abbey through the seasons!! Love it!!


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