Fortifications might seem like something of an architectural oddity for a monastery: why would men and women (usually) devoted to peace and learning surround themselves with the trappings of war?
But take a closer look and the answer becomes obvious. Just like Europe’s Fortress Churches, fortification is actually a central feature of many monastic ruins. Some were built that way, while others evolved over the centuries to protect those inside from everything from bloodthirsty invaders, to religious crusaders, to very irate villagers. Either way, the results range from the bizarre to the spectacular. Here’s eight of the world’s most heavily fortified monastic ruins:
1. Lerins Abbey had to withstand the Saracens
Lérins Abbey is on a small island overlooking the French Riviera. Built in the 5th century, it’s seen its fair share of violence; the abbey was attacked several times by Saracens who on one such raid massacred the monks. Between the 11th and 14th centuries, the monastery was fortified to offer refuge from attack. It’s builders added imposing 1 metre thick walls and huge cistern to store fresh water so that it could withstand a siege for quite some time. The abbey is still inhabited by Cistercian monks today.
2. Tatev monks overpowered local populations
Built during the 9th century upon the edge of a basalt plateau in Armenia, Tatev Monastery’s history is as brutal as the scenery is stunning. It operated as a feudal entity, controlling great swathes of land and many villages. The local population rejected the monastery’s authority, attempted many social protests, at least two of which turned into open uprisings, until 990 when the reigning king destroyed a local settlement.
3. Mont Saint Michel held a VERY strategic location
Just look at that view! Monastic buildings are often perched over spectacular vistas that only somewhere remote and inaccessible can bring. Take Abbey Mont Saint-Michel. Originally built as a small church in the 8th century, it was slowly added to over the centuries. Its just 600 meters from mainland France, but its position gave it such great strategic importance that it was fortified during the Hundred Years’ War by Charles VI.
4. The Monastery of the Cross got attacked… a lot
The Monastery of the Cross lies within a valley in the heart of Jerusalem. Originally built in the 5th century, it was abandoned and then restored in the 11th century by Georgian monks. Given the region’s tumultuous history, it’s hardly surprising that it resembles a fortress more than a monastery.
5. Tangyud’s monks painted stripes to make their walls look taller
Dhankar, Key and Tangyud Gompas are Buddhist monasteries in India’s Himachal Pradesh (‘Snow-cladden Region’), all of which are built like fortified castles. Repeated destruction and rebuilding has created temples with narrow corridors, difficult staircases and hidden weapons rooms. Perched at 15,000 ft on the edge of a deep canyon, Tangyud’s giant slanted mud walls and battlements are cleverly painted with vertical red and white stripes, making them look much taller than they really are. That’s some clever 14th century military trickery!
6. Putna monks protected their wealth
Surrounded by thick walls and towers, the picturesque Putna Monastery was built in just 3 years in 15th century Romania by Stephen the Great, who intended the monastery to be his tomb. The monastery has been the victim of earthquakes, several fires and invasions throughout the centuries. Having undergone extensive restoration, the only original feature left is the fortified treasury tower.
7. Gatekeepers controlled who came in and out
Actually, just like castles, fortified gatehouses were a key feature of many medieval abbeys and priories. Partly monumental, partly defensive, they usually accompanied a moat or earthwork surrounding the institution’s outer precinct. This one at Thornton Abbey is one of the most elaborate.
8. Soldiers used Leiston Abbey’s ruins to camouflage their defences
Leiston Abbey isn’t what you’d typically consider to be a fortified monastery, but we couldn’t help but add one of our own excavation sites to the list. If other Premonstratensian abbeys are anything to go by, it promises to have an impressive gatehouse (if we can find it). But there’s something else too. Originally built at Minsmere, the ruins that were left behind when it was later moved to Leiston eventually found a new lease of life when WW2 soldiers decided to disguise their pillbox inside it. A medieval monastery turned into a defensive feature nearly 700 years after it fell out of use? That’s impressive.
Support great archaeology
DigVentures crowdfunds archaeological projects that everyone can be part of, in the UK and overseas. With help from people all over the world, we investigate the past and publish our discoveries online for free. Support one of our digs and you can choose to excavate alongside our team, or watch our discoveries online!