Prior Wibert’s Waterworks

One subject that always seems to raise a lot of interest on the courses I run about the history of gardens is the mediaeval garden.  Although most of us will have a vague picture of what we think they were like, the quest for the reality of mediaeval gardens and green open spaces is tantalising.

When I ask  what might be the best source for finding out about them  given that unsurprisingly, there are no actual mediaeval gardens left,  most people say illuminated manuscripts.  Unfortunately these really only begin to show details of daily life such as gardens from the late 14thc onwards. Next on the suggestion list is archaeology which is increasingly sophisticated and these days  can indeed reveal all sorts of things that would never be recorded by documentary sources. Analysis of the contents of rubbish pits and sewers, pollen and soil samples add a huge amount of detail to the physical remains of buildings and hard landscaping.  Other options offered are literature, poetry,  account books and even evidence from the countryside where many mediaeval practices were perpetuated long after the end of the Middle Ages, and can still be identified.

The one thing nobody has ever replied is a drainage plan. Yet today’s post is about just that.

To be more precise it’s a 12th century plan of the water and drainage systems of a Benedictine priory.  I can already hear the yawns, even when I tell you it is unique and a mine of information on gardens as well as waters and sewers. The piped and pressurised water and drainage system was the amongst the first, if not the first to be installed in Britain since Roman times.   It was probably  commissioned by Wibert, prior  of Christ Church Canterbury in about 1165, and reveals the ingenuity of mediaeval engineers as well as  gardens used symbolically to represent Paradise, as well as for contemplation, medicine, and food.

When Prior Wibert died  in 1167 his obituary was recorded for the Chapter of Christ Church. It included a notice that he built “a watercourse with its ponds, conduits and fish pools, which water it carried nearly a mile from the town into the precinct and thus miraculously through all the offices of the very precinct itself”. That might just have been another one of those interesting little snippets that perhaps one day might be backed-up by some archaeology but in an extraordinary survival there are two plans of  Prior Wibert’s waterworks

Wren Digital Library, Trinity College Cambridge


Eadwine at work

The larger drawing rotated by 90 degrees

They can be found rather incongruously at the end of the Eadwine Psalter. This is  a lavishly illustrated 12th century  version of the Book of Psalms named after Eadwine, a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury (now Canterbury Cathedral).

The drawings are not part of the original psalter manuscript and were apparently drawn in situ as there is no drawing under the stitching, and some parts do not align perfectly.

Unless otherwise stated all the images in this post come from the psalter which is manuscript R.17.1 in the library of Trinity College Cambridge.



Overall the plans  may look a bit odd to us, used as we are to a completely different style of architectural presentation, but in glorious mediaeval technicolour the  larger plan shows a remarkably detailed birds-eye view of the cathedral and priory estate depicted  in flattened elevation.  The buildings are stylised but not conventionally so. The lack of perspective means that the relationship between them is sometimes a bit odd but each part in general is thought to be fairly accurate and the artist has tried to include details of their actual appearance, including using some of the interior features on the outside!   Luckily  it’s less confusing when looked at in sections or if the map is turned  to look at each building face on, as you’ll see from the extracts I’ve included.

The plan  show that  many parts of the priory had fresh running water. It was provided through underground lead pipes from a spring-fed pond about 10 metres higher and a kilometre north of the site.  A mediaeval conduit house still stands there and was still in use as late as the mid 18thc.  It’s been calculated that this system would have supplied about 10,000 litres of water to the priory every hour.

The lines criss-crossing the plan represent pipes and drains.  They are  colour coded, with green used for the incoming fresh water,  orange-red for what has passed through the central storage cistern in the cloister, and a darker red for the sewage outflow. There is even  evidence of the collection and disposal of rainwater via pipes coloured brown.

The smaller drawing, on a single sheet – half of a double folio – with the left hand edge originally the centrefold- shows a few of the priory buildings but not the cathedral or walled enclosure. Again fresh water is shown in green and used water in red. The missing other half of the sheet is thought to have shown the piscina or fishpond.

It must have been long in the planning and construction, and began with Wibert buying up a whole range of properties  along the northern edge of the priory site, only to knock them down to enlarge the precinct and build a new entry complex. This included the still surviving aula nova [new hall], stables and land  for the new water and sewage system.

BUT interesting though the water engineering is  the plan also includes several gardens and other green spaces,  some of which, although the architecture has changed,  are still discernible today.





So let’s start at the source which is off the map, but fed water into the two circular settling tanks on the top left. The pipes run across wheat fields, through a vineyard and then an orchard before going under the wall and into the priory precinct. It maybe that an irrigation system was run off this pipework, via stopcocks which can seem as small red circles at the bottom of the green ‘uprights’.

The water tower seen against one of the towers of the cathedral

Once inside the priory gates,   the fresh water arrived at the central water tower which amazingly  is still there. Although utilitarian it was heavily decorated as can be seen from the surviving elaborate dog-toothed arches, and  presumably designed like this to impress visitors as well as serve as a symbol of  institutional pride.

The upper level contained a large cistern from where the water was distributed to the various buildings.

The infirmary was the first building  to receive clean water,  for the nursing needs of  patients as well as for the infirmerer’s physic garden where medicinal herbs were grown.  The infirmary complex also included a small cistern, and a  fountain house, with  nearby column and well. The column acted as a standpipe and distributed well water if the main supply failed.  The Infirmary also had a separate small bathhouse as did the nearby priors house.

The infirmary is on the left with a blue roof, its garden is in the centre with the herbarium on the right.

The adjacent  infirmary garden  was in two parts, on the left a cloister garden with a  well, and on the right, divided by a lattice fence, was the herbarium.

The herbarium is quite a small space – perhaps only 50 x 30 feet and the plan actually also shows rows of stylised plants running across it. Pioneer garden historian John Harvey identified the  plants that could be expected to be seen in such a monastic herb garden, which  including 106 plants listed by John Bray the royal physician who died in 1381.   As Sylvia Landsberg discovered when she was designing a recreation of Brother Caedfel’s’ garden at Shrewsbury on a similar scale, there was only room for 1 specimen plant of each of the known 12thc medicinal plants.   As a result she suggested that the herbarium garden was set aside and fenced  because it was specifically used for growing poisonous plants such as hemlock, opium poppy, henbane and mandrake, with other plants being grown elsewhere, perhaps on monastic land away from the site.

The great Cloister garth

The laver the right way up!

Immediately to the right of the herbarium was the monks parlour, with an arcaded walk, and on the other side of that was the priory’s great cloister which lay directly north of the cathedral’s nave. This was gracefully arcaded around  an enclosed garden.  The arches stood on a low plinth which acted as a bench but also a boundary wall for the internal garden space – known as the cloister garth. The garth was also edged and crossed by channels which collected rainwater from the surrounding roof.

It was not just the centre of the priory complex but the focal point for daily life.  On one side was a large basin – or laver – housed in a roofed portico where the monks would wash their hands before and after eating.  [seen upside down in the large detail above]

fragment of the decoration of the laver

Until the end of the last century the Eadwine drawing was the only record of Wibert’s cloister and the laver which were destroyed in the late 1300s when a later prior remodelled the whole area. Major repair work in the 1990s revealed that the earlier stonework was smashed up and used as rubble infill for the new cloister. A detailed analysis of this can be found in Peter Fergusson’s account of the priory [full ref at the end].

Cloister garths  were, as far as I can see, never planted with anything other than turf or  very rarely with a symbolic pine or juniper.  Why plain grass was preferred  might need some explanation. It’s partly to do with the psychology of the colour green which was the seen as a symbol of rebirth and everlasting life.

Hugh of Fouilly, a 12thc cleric believed that   ” the green turf that is in the middle of the cloister refreshes encloistered eyes and their desire to study returns. It is truly the nature of the colour green that it nourishes the eyes and preserves their vision.”  Another monk, William of Auvergne, who was later Bishop of Paris,  commented that the tranquillising nature of green is due to its physical effect – being halfway between black which dilates the eye and white which contracts it.” 


On Wibert’s plan there is a line of flowering trees, probably an orchard, on the cemetery’s perimeter. This ties in with the first written description we have of an aesthetically pleasing monastic garden – that of Ely in around 970 where the abbot was “skilled in planting gardens and orchards around the church….. he planted choice fruit trees in regular and beautiful order…In a few years the trees which he planted and ingrafted appeared at a distance like a wood, loaded with the most excellent fruits in great abundance and they added much to the commodiousness and beauty of the place.”

The cistern or fountain the aul nova or new entrance hall

Such an orchard, and all the other food crops would  have been grown under the jurisdiction of the cellarer who was probably also responsible for the supply of utilitarian plants such as hay/straw and rushes for floor covering, and those like mint, rushes and meadowsweet for strewing on top to keep down the smells.   

Water was also supplied to the various bath houses  around the priory, despite bathing, unlike washing, being regarded as an unnecessary luxury by the Benedictines.  Only two a year were prescribed,  at Easter and Christmas. Nevertheless the priory boasted an enormous monastic bathhouse, now almost entirely vanished,  and a separate one for visitors.

Once the various buildings and service areas had been provided,  any waste or surplus water was used to feed into the large piscina or fishpond in the court. Fish were central to the monastic diet – Canterbury had 160 “fish days” a year –  but having such  a fishpond so close to  the church and  and cemetery is unknown in other monastic precincts, where normally they would be outlying areas  or near the kitchen.  At Canterbury there was no such available space.  Instead Wibert seems to have turned necessity into an ornament.  The fishpond is oval with 12 projecting niches and has a central island ornamented with  whatlooks like sculptures of sea monsters.

Peter Fergusson in his article on the pond argues it was more than a foodstore, and indeed that it wasn’t large enough to supply the priory’s needs anyway. Instead he believes it was partly ornamental but more importantly a religious symbol based on Chapter 47 of the book of Ezekiel, which is all about “living waters”. In this theory which is too complex to included in even a long blog post such as  this,  the fishpond forms with the cemetery, other green space and the flanking buildings a symbolic “paradise” deliberately planned by Wibert around the prophets vision. [For more on this see Fergusson’s  article in Anglo-Norman Studies 2015]   Unfortunately Wibert’s piscina did not last long and by the end of the 13thc it was filled in. 

But the water’s job was not finished yet. Pipes led water from the fishpond to the necessarium or latrines, where it joined rainwater  collected from the cathedral roof in flushing away sewage and other waste into the city ditch. Since most people seem fascinated by sanitary arrangements you might like to know that the necessarium was another huge building 170ft long, x 30 wide and two stories high, with a lower level for daytime use, and an the upper one accessible from the monks dormitories for nighttime use. There were 53 screened-off seats each 2ft 7″apart .They sat over stone-lined drains at least 4 ft deep. At the dissolution the building was converted to residential use, but it was  demolished in mid-19thc.

Wibert’s water system rivals anything else to be found anywhere in Europe but like the fishpond it did not last as long as might be expected. By around 1300 the cathedral archives have  Archbishop Winchesley recording the poor condition of the laver and enjoining the monks to keep it clean and not blow their noses or spit in it. By 1400 Prior Chillenden noted the whole system was “ancient ruined and forgotten”.

So how significant is this?  When architectural historians first reassessed the drawings in mid-19thc it was assumed that the drawings were a record of mediaeval water engineering and bore no relation to the Eadwine Psalter. Fergusson’s research has convinced me it is much more than that. It seems much more likely that while the monks  undoubtedly felt the benefits of the water system and needed its route recorded for maintenance they would also have implicitly understood its symbolism.  Running water would have been equated with the living waters decribed by Ezekiel and so  served to make the cathedral gardens an earthly version of Paradise.


There is a lot written about Wibert’s plan, and the archeology of the priory precinct at Canterbury.  One or two things, including the plans themselves  are available on-line but others are only in more specialist printed sources. Here are some starting points if you want to know more:  Peter Fergusson, Canterbury Cathedral Priory,  2011, his articles on the baths and  fishpond in Anglo-Norman Studies, vol.37, 2105,  and  on the Fountains Houses in The Four Modes of Seeing edited by Evelyn Lane, 2009;  Margaret Sparks  Canterbury Cathedral Precincts – A Historical Survey, 2007;  articles by John Hayes on “Prior Wibert’s waterworks” in Chronicle 1977  and by Tim Tatton-Brown “The Precincts water supply” in Chronicle 1983;Tessa  Morrison, ‘Architectural planning in the early medieval era’, Journal of the Australian Early Medieval Association, 2009;, Monastery gardens; A much longer bibliography can be found at Canterbury Archaeology

About The Gardens Trust

Email - Website -
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Prior Wibert’s Waterworks

  1. There’s something about the layout and Friar Wilbert’s reconstruction of the grounds, which echoes the instructions in Ibn Luyun’s treatise. Sadly, it has never received an English translation so far as I know, though it has one in Spanish (re-issued, I think, in 2015).

    Here’s the quotation of one passage – I have it from the description of the manuscript ( Escuela de Estudios Arabes GR-E.Ara Ms. vol. XIV

    “On the subject of what must be taken into consideration in order to successfully find a location for a garden, a house or a farm: If you are considering a house surrounded by gardens, it should be situated on raised ground in order to facilitate guarding the house. The house should face the midday sun and be situated on the edge of the plot of land. The well and pond should be placed on the highest ground and even better just a well should be built, with a narrow canalisation flowing through the shaded parts of the land. The house should be equipped with two doors in order to better protect it and to make the everyday life of the inhabitants easier. Near the pond, a stand of trees should be planted and maintained green for the pleasure of the eyes. A little further away, square plots of land should be reserved for flowers and evergreen trees. The property should be surrounded by vines and along the pathways arbours should be planted. The garden should be bordered by one of these paths in order to separate it from the rest of the property. Apart from vines, other fruit trees should be planted such as the Celtis, as its wood will be found very useful.”

    As I say, it’s just an echo, but given the unprecedented style of those works in England, and the usual use of green for fresh water (the Latins’ custom was to use blue, though Matthew Paris does the same), I thought it might be of interest..

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.