The earliest of the European monastic orders, the Benedictines established themselves in England soon after Christianity was introduced. However, they were not organized as a single order until after the Conquest, but as independent houses following the Rule of St Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-c. 543). The Rule is actually a set of rules meant to govern the lives of monks. As monastic rules go, that of Benedict was more flexible than those of the later orders, for example, the Cistercians. But, as with the ground plan of all monasteries, the Benedictine Rule formed the basis for those that followed.
The principle was that certain men and women turned away from the material world to give their lives to serving God, in prayer day and night. In so doing, they hoped to purify themselves and gain a speedy entry to heaven and to fight the war against the Devil, opus dei. In order to do this, communities needed to be established and supported by wealthy patrons, with enough land and other resources provided so that the monastery could support itself. Patrons were usually keen to have such a community on their lands, the residents offering prayers for them in life and especially in death. Although the intention here was that the monks might keep away from the secular world, eventually their rather successful business dealings outside of the monastery required that at least some of them had to function in that world.
The actual buildings cannot be separated from the spiritual intentions. It is sometimes helpful to consider the monastic plan in terms of concentric circles formed through enclosure to understand the purpose of its design. The high altar is the hub of any monastery, it is the entire purpose of the monastery, its essence. It is enclosed within the sanctuary, which forms the first circle. The cloister, enclosed by its buildings and restricted solely to the use of professed monks, forms the next circle. This is the inner court. The outer court of the monastic precinct, is formed by all those other buildings: accommodations for guests, servants, animals, an infirmary, latrines, bathhouse, workshops of all trades, bakery, brewery, dairy, and so on. The Rule of St Benedict states that the monastery should be self-sufficient so that monks aren’t required to go outside for their needs. The whole is enclosed within the precinct wall. Not all monasteries could afford a wall, this one could, but there would always have been a barrier of some kind. The precinct wall was the point where the enclosed, sacred world met the exposed, secular world. With this in mind, we might be able to better understand the monks’ motivation when they eventually sealed off their part of the church.
We might see the monks’ motives summed up in the cloister and garth. Here in the covered walkways, the monks would pray, meditate, and study, looking at the lush green of the garth and the prospect of paradise after death. No wonder that the pre-existing road was diverted away from the south side of the church in order to maintain quiet for the monks’ contemplations. Anyone who has taken the opportunity to rest in a ruined cloister will know this feeling. Indeed, in the later Carthusian houses (Charter Houses), the garth was usually very large and they would bury their dead there as a constant reminder of the life beyond this one.