Cloisters formed the heart of religious houses, such as the monastery here at Worcester Cathedral Priory. They consist of a closed and roofed rectangular walkway linking the main buildings of the complex, together with an arcaded wall looking inwards on to a grassy court or garden (the garth).
The apertures of this arcade would have originally been shuttered with canvas screens, but were glazed towards the end of the Middle Ages. Typically in monasteries, the cloister was positioned on the south side of the main church building, enabling them to better catch both the light and the warmth of the sun.
Besides providing four walkways (alleyways or panes) for perambulation (meditation) and for use as processional ways during ceremonies, cloisters also gave four distinct areas for work and administration.
Here at Worcester, the north alley was the lightest one of the four, having its arcaded wall facing south. On account of this, it was most likely used as the scriptorium – the room where monks would copy or compose manuscripts. A stone bench is fitted along the wall, and doubtless a line of desks would have run parallel to this bench. Not being a throughway, the north alley was also the quietest part of the cloister, and so it makes even more sense for this to have been chosen as the scriptorium, where difficult and delicate work could be carried out without interruption.
In the northwest and northeast corners of the north alley are doors leading directly into the Cathedral church. The western alley was a busy part of the cloister with a slype (passageway) at the northwest end which led to the infirmary. On the same side a short distance away can be seen the remains of the eleventh century doorway leading to the dorter (dormitory). A short distance further on was the gate to the garth and opposite on the western side the enlarged fourteenth century entrance to the dormitory, which is now closed off. Here we find the lavatorium, which is traditionally situated adjacent to the refectory (Frater).
The southern alley may have contained an area for weekly ritual foot washing (Mandatum or Maundy), being close to the lavatorium and entrances to the refectory. A novice’s school and possibly one for the sons of rich tenants may well have been in this area. In the southeast corner of this alley is the slype leading, under the refectory, to the outside (College Green). The doorways into the refectory are also here.
This slype leads into the eastern alleyway. The passageway would have been fitted with a seat for the guardian of the cloister (porter). This alleyway again would always be busy with important daily religious and administrative activities, particularly as the entrance to the Chapter House – the biggest meeting room in the cathedral priory – was situated halfway along it.
A short distance on is a slype leading off to the east and is of significant importance. Firstly being close to the northeast (prior’s) door into the cathedral church, this passage leads to the Prior’s quarters situated behind the Chapter house and further on to the monks’ cemetery at the eastern end of the cathedral. The main body of this slype is fitted either side with a stone bench and above these the walls are decorated with a blind arcade (Anglo-Saxon pillars). This area was also the parlour, where visitors to the priory would be received. It is now used as the Cathedral Café.
When considering all of the above it should be noted that here at Worcester the layout of the buildings are fairly conventional, and follow the traditions of the Order of St. Benedict. The main difference is in the positioning of the dormitory (now long since destroyed at Worcester) on the western rather than the eastern side of the cloisters – perhaps so that there was space to accommodate the particularly large and impressive chapterhouse.
There were many other reasons to build in variance to the general Benedictine layout, especially where building in a town. An example is at Chester, where the cloister is on the north side of the cathedral church in order to avoid the noise and bustle of the city centre to the south. Of course this meant that slypes also varied in number and position.