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Kirkstall Abbey: 02. Cloister, Yorkshire, West Riding

(53°49′17″N, 1°36′23″W)
Kirkstall Abbey: 02. Cloister
SE 260 362
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, West Riding
now West Yorkshire
medieval York
  • Rita Wood

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A high wall divided the approximately square monks’ cloister from a broad passage on the W side used by the lay brothers. The scars of this wall can be seen on the S aisle of the church and on the S wall of the cloister. The buildings around the cloister: in the E range the church and the chapter house; on the S the refectory and its associated offices, and to the W the lay brothers’ quarters, are all attributed to the first abbot, Alexander, 1152-1182. In the N wall of the cloister, the S wall of the church, are two doorways, one for the lay brothers and one for the monks. See report, Kirkstall Abbey: 01. Church.

See reports, Kirkstall Abbey: 03 to 06 for the sculpted elements in the E wall of the cloister that include: a book cupboard; the sacristy; entrances to the chapter house; the parlour archway; a doorway to day stairs leading to the monks’ dormitory, and an archway to a passage, off which lay the monks’ dayroom. Some of these spaces changed their use over time. A significant sculptural feature of the E wall of the cloister is the series of label stops to the arches over the sacristy, the chapter house and parlour; they are discussed as a group in Comments in report 01 Church, and in Wood (2015). For photographs, see reports, Kirkstall Abbey: 03, 04 and 05.

The S wall of the cloister was altered during the 12thc, when the refectory was turned to run N-S. The following features can be seen from E to W along the S wall of the cloister: blocked entrances; a late 12thc ‘towel cupboard’; remnants of the 13thc lavatorium; a pair of rebuilt doorways leading to 15thc refectories; a blocked doorway to the first refectory; the doorway to the kitchen, and a blocked archway across the lay-brothers’ passage. See reports, Kirkstall Abbey: 07 to 10. The foundations of a 12thc free-standing lavatorium were excavated in the SE section of the garth (Wrathmell 2005).

The W wall of the cloister has a doorway leading through the W range; a doorway at the upper level with a staircase leading upwards from the passage and used by the lay brothers as either night or day stairs, and a blocked doorway into their parlour. See report, Kirkstall Abbey: 10. Lay brothers’ quarters and W range.

A cloister arcade in stone was added probably soon after the death of Abbot Alexander; none of it survives in situ. The cloister arcade had waterleaf capitals, square abaci and round arches. The surviving fragments suggest that these were not in the Bramley Fall sandstone used for the earlier buildings, but in Magnesian limestone. Stuart Harrison has used the loose capitals to make a reconstruction of the arcade (Robinson and Harrison 2006; Hope and Bilson 1907). The capitals make use of squat waterleaf forms in contrast to the upright scallop types found in the church, and they differ also from the few waterleaf capitals on the twin windows on the W front of the church. See Site report Kirkstall Abbey: 12. Museum and Stores; Hope and Bilson 1907; Robinson and Harrison 2006; Fergusson 1984.

For History, Comments and full Bibliography, see report Kirkstall Abbey: 01. Church.


The sculpture on the cloister arcading appears later when compared to the sculptural styles used on the church. The date suggested for the cloister arcade by Stuart Harrison is 1170-75; whereas Leach and Pevsner (2009) suggest c. 1180.


P. Fergusson, Architecture of Solitude: Cistercian Abbeys in Twelfth-Century England, Princeton 1984, 48-51, 130.

Hope, W. H. St. John and J. Bilson, “Architectural description of Kirkstall Abbey”. Thoresby Society, vol. 16, 1907, figs. 21, 92, p.132.

P. Leach and N. Pevsner, Yorkshire West Riding: Leeds, Bradford and the North, London and New Haven 2009, 509.

D. Robinson and S. Harrison, 'Cistercian cloisters in England and Wales', 192-3, in M. Henig and J. McNeill eds., The Medieval Cloister in England and Wales, Journal of the British Archaeological Association 159 (2006), 141, 192-3, fig. 49.

R. Wood, ‘Cistercian sculpture: Kirkstall Abbey and Elland Church in the twelfth century’ Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 87 (2015), 81-89, figs. 13-25.

S. Wrathmell, Leeds, Pevsner City Guide, London 2005, 279.