Four Great Abbeys and Priories of Yorkshire
by Dawn Copeman
Before they were dissolved by King Henry VIII, the abbeys and
priories of Yorkshire were some of the most imposing buildings in
the land. When you visit them today, they are beautiful,
peaceful, atmospheric ruins, either colorfully overgrown with
wild flowers or a mass of carefully planted, traditional gardens.
They are used as the settings for outdoor performances of plays,
concerts, and proms. But there are thirteen ecclesiastical ruins
in Yorkshire, so what makes these four so special?
Well, one of them was instrumental in the development of a food
industry that is still in business today. One spearheaded the
establishment of nineteen monasteries in just over 100 years and
demonstrates the animosity between the various orders of monks.
One is a rare example of an unusual monastic order, and one of
them played an important part in the preparations for D-Day, a
role so clandestine that has only recently been revealed.
Oh, and just for the record the largest monasteries were called
abbeys, as they were ruled by an abbot or abbess. The smaller,
daughter houses of these abbeys were usually, but not always,
known as priories.
Kirkham Priory was founded on the banks of the River Derwent by
Walter L'Espec in 1120. Walter L'Espec was also the original
owner of nearby Helmsley Castle and later went on to donate the
land for Rievaulx Abbey. Legend has it that he founded Kirkham
Priory for the Augustinian canons at the place where his only son
had died after falling from his horse.
Unfortunately, we do not know from which abbey the canons
came, but we do know that the Augustinians lived a life of
service to the local community and took over the running of the
parish churches. We also know that when Rievaulx was built some
twelve years later the canons had to fight for their survival, as
it was suggested that they move elsewhere and let the Cistercians
take over Kirkham. They managed to come to an agreement with the
Cistercians that permitted them to stay, but we don't know what
the terms were.
We know that the priory flourished, however, because you enter
Kirkham Priory through an elaborately carved gatehouse that dates
from the 13th century. The gatehouse is decorated with
sculptures of George and the Dragon, David and Goliath and
heraldic shields, amongst them the arms of Espec and de Roos --
de Roos being the family who built most of Helmsley Castle
following the death of Espec.
Inside the priory we can see the remains of a vaulted cloister,
the lavatorium and the church. The rest of the priory is in
rubble, but it still gives us an impression of the layout and
size of the priory. The priory was used until its dissolution in
December 1539, but the buildings were often knocked down and
re-used as the needs of the priory changed. An example of this is
the 12th-century doorway that was later used as the entrance to
the 13th-century refectory.
The church was originally a small, cruciform, stone building,
which was rebuilt in 1180 and then gradually extended. There
were towers to the west of the church, and we can see the remains
of the southwest tower, complete with steps to the nave, near the
vaulted cloister. Excavations have shown that towers were planned
for the eastern end too, but these were never completed.
The most impressive structure here, however, is in the cloister:
the lavatorium. Built in the 13th century, the lavatorium is
where the monks washed before meals, and it is in remarkable
condition. Its carved, arched bays give us the best impression
of the splendour of this priory and you can even follow the
drainage pipes around the monastery to the river.
We do not know much of the history of Kirkham, or what happened
to Kirkham after the dissolution of the monasteries until 1944,
when it played a covert but vital role in the preparation for
Nestled as it is between a tree-lined hill and the Derwent,
Kirkham Priory was the perfect, secluded place for the British
army to test its landing craft. Soldiers climbed the priory's
ruined walls to gain practice in using the clambering nets they
would need to use in the destroyed towns and villages of France,
while the Derwent itself was used to test the waterproofing
compounds for tanks and other vehicles. The 11th Armoured
Division was just one of the many units stationed there. Kirkham
was so important that it was visited by both King George VI and
William Churchill. Visitors today can see a new exhibition on
Kirkham Priory's role in the war as well as the results of recent
excavations of the site including artistic impressions of the
Rievaulx Abbey was founded by St. Bernard of Clairvaux in 1132 on
land donated by Walter L'Espec. Rievaulx was the first abbey for
the Cistercian monks in the north of England and was used as
their headquarters for the colonisation of England. The
Cistercians, known as the White Monks because their habits were
made of undyed wool, believed themselves to practise a purer form
of the rules of St. Benedict than the existing Benedictine, or
Black Monks. In fact, even before arriving at Rievaulx, the
first twelve monks who were to set up the monastery caused an
upset whilst visiting the Benedictine abbey of St Mary's in York
when they inspired a group of monks to challenge the leadership
of their monastery. These rebellious monks later founded the
Cistercian Fountains Abbey.
The Cistercians had simple clothing, simple, unadorned
churches and a simple diet. They believed in doing lots of manual
labour, and each abbey was self-sufficient. Unlike the
Benedictines they rejected income from the church or manorial
rent; instead, they farmed lands through their 'lay brothers.'
At Rievaulx, they farmed sheep and sold wool. Rievaulx also
produced three saints -- William, its first abbot; Aelred, its
third; and a monk called Waldef. The shrine to Aelred can be seen
behind the high alter in the presbytery, and was a popular
pilgrimage destination for awhile. The shrine to William is in a
window in the chapter house.
In addition to upsetting the Augustinian monks at Kirkham Priory,
the Cistercians at Rievaulx also caused an upset with another
neighbour: the Cistercian Byland Abbey, over land ownership.
This led to the River Rye being diverted to form the boundary
between the two abbeys. Evidence of this engineering work is
still visible today in ditches and channels near the river.
At its peak, Rievaulx housed 150 monks and 500 lay brethren, but
the plague killed many and by the time of its dissolution in
1538, there were only 23 monks living here. The new owner of
Rievaulx, Thomas Manners, the Earl of Rutland, destroyed almost
all the buildings, but luckily for us he left the presbytery or
abbey church, the refectory and parts of the chapter house. The
presbytery is most impressiv, standing almost to its full height,
and so we can walk around its columns, gaze up at its arched
windows and gain an impression of the height of the building.
Rievaulx has recently been the subject of a new archaeological
study and we now know that the monks ate wild strawberries, that
the drains go deep underground, that the monks had an iron
foundry and that they used stained glass in their church. These
recent findings are explained in a new exhibition.
Jervaulx, another Cistercian Abbey and a daughter abbey of
Rievaulx, was founded by John de Kinstan in 1156 in the
countryside near Ripon. According to manuscripts from the 12th
century, de Kinstan claimed that the Virgin Mary came to him in a
vision when he and twelve other monks who were travelling from
Byland Abbey to an abbey at Fors got lost in a forest.
Apparently she told him to found an abbey at Ure vale instead.
More mundane reasons for the move involve the fact that the abbey
at Fors was in an exposed position, which made it hard to grow
crops, so Roger de Mowbray, their landowner, gave them permission
to set up a monastery in a more sheltered position on his land on
the south bank of the river Ure or Jore. The name Jervaulx is
thought to be a French spelling of Jorevale.
The monks of Jervaulx were famous for breeding good quality
horses and for creating the process for making Wensleydale cheese
-- a process, which, thankfully, they passed on to the local
farmers' wives and which is still being used today.
Jervaulx was almost completely destroyed on the orders of Henry
VIII, as its last abbot was involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace
in 1536. This was an uprising in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire
against Henry VIII's religious policies; its leaders were
executed in 1537.
Despite the efforts to destroy Jervaulx Abbey, we can still
gather an impression of what the abbey was like from the site
today. Most of the church has gone but you can see the
foundations and the remains of a round-headed doorway to the
southwest that is decorated in the Norman dog-tooth style. On
the floor of the church there are several tombstones, including a
stone effigy of one of the abbey's benefactors, Hugh Fitzhugh,
who is portrayed as a knight in armour. The wooden pulpitum
screen was removed to safety in nearby Aysgarth Church where it
can still be seen today.
The chapter house retains five original columns, which give an
impression of the height of the vaulted roof. Large sections of
the infirmary and monk's dormitory remain, including a wall with
nine lancet windows. Finally, at the gate, you will see an
embalming stone, originally housed in the infirmary, and if you
look closely at the house to the right of the entrance, you can
see the stones taken from the gatehouse of the abbey.
Mount Grace Priory
Mount Grace Priory, founded in 1398, is included in our list
because it is the best preserved monastery or charterhouse of the
ten Carthusian monasteries in England. The Carthusians, unlike
the other monks we've looked at, lived a very austere life of
work and prayer as hermits in small, two-storey cells. There
were two rooms on each floor of the cell and each cell had a
garden where the monk could grow some food.
At Mount Grace, the foundations of 23 cells can be seen and one
cell has been reconstructed and furnished to show what it might
have looked like in the 14th century.The church is remarkably
preserved; the tower is intact and most of the walls are still
standing. In the cloister stands the base of the water tower that
was central to the Carthusian monks' water system. The outer
court of the priory is also intact, and much of this has now been
planted with formal gardens and trees and is home to a variety of
To gain entry to the priory you need to pass through a
17th-century manor house, built on the site of the monastery's
guest house in 1654. This building, however, is not what it
seems, as it was itself rebuilt at the beginning of the 20th
century using techniques from the Arts and Crafts Movement.
If the reasons given above haven't persuaded you that these
particular monasteries merit a visit, then perhaps my final
reason might. Between them these ruins cover the development of
the monasteries from the first Norman monasteries to be built at
the start of the 12th century to the 'modern' monasteries of the
14th century. But, to be honest, even without the history, the
beauty of them alone is reason enough for a visit.
- Where Emperors, Kings and Saints Have Walked: York Minster, by Julia Hickey
- The Lingering Power of Fountains Abbey, by Julia Hickey
- Fountains Abbey Photo Gallery
- Hidden Churches of Yorkshire, by Louise Simmons
- Rievaulx Abbey
- Rievaulx Abbey
- Rievaulx Abbey Virtual Tour
- Kirkham Priory
- Kirkham Priory
- Mount Grace Priory
- Mount Grace Priory
- Jervaulx Abbey
- Jervaulx Abbey Photo Gallery
- A great collection of photos from a visitor to the abbey.
Dawn Copeman is a freelance writer and commercial writer who has had more than 100 articles published on travel, history, cookery, health and writing. She currently lives in Lincolnshire, where she is
working on her first fiction book. She started her career as a freelance
writer in 2004 and has been a contributing editor for several publications, including TimeTravel-Britain.com and Writing-World.com .
Article © 2006 Dawn Copeman
Kirkham Priory photo courtey of Wikipedia.org; Rievaulx photo courtesy of Britainonview.com