Yorkshire Monasteries & the Reformation

Yorkshire Monasteries

There were about seventy religious houses, or monasteries, in Yorkshire before the Reformation. These included abbeys, priories, nunneries and friaries, the chief of which are shown on map 59. The first great monastic order, the Benedictine, founded by St Benedict in A.D. 529, established Whitby Abbey in A.D. 657. This is the building associated with the great Abbess-Princess, St Hilda, and with Caedmon, the first English poet. The original building was destroyed by tiè’ Danes in A.D. 867, although some relics from it survive in the local museum near the abbey church. These include the tombstone of St Hilda’s successor, Elfrida, daughter of King Oswy of Bernicia, who died in A.D. 714. Whitby’s fate at the hands of the Danes was shared by other early foundations. A chronicler in 1069 wrote that there was then not a single monk left in Yorkshire. The present abbey ruins, which stand on the cliffs above Whitby, date from the first decade after the Norman Conquest, although building continued until the early 13th century.

Most of the Yorkshire monasteries whose traces survive today are foundations of the post-Conquest period, and belonged to religious orders which originated on the continent. At this time Christendom was an all-European concept, held together by a common allegiance to the Pope in Rome and a common language of devotion, Latin. Monks travelled freely from monasteries in France, Spain and Italy to found new communities in Britain. Often their motivation was a protest against the wealth, easy-going manners and ostentation of their brethren who had forgotten the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience which had been the guiding principles of the founders. Thus, the Cluniacs broke away from the Benedictines and established priories at Pontefract and Monk Bretton, and a nunnery at Arthington. The Cluniac houses were never completely independent of the parent Abbey of Cluny, in Burgundy, and were known as ‘alien houses’. The Cluniacs soon came to outdistance their parents, the Benedictines, in wealth and splendour, and another reform movement, the Augustinians or Austin Canons (also known as Black Canons) was formed. They came to Yorkshire in the early 12th century and founded Nostell Priory (1113-14) and Bridlington Priory at about the same time. A few years later, in 1120, encouraged by Archbishop Thurston (1119-1140), they established a house at Embsay, near Skipton. In 1154 Alice de Romilly, the daughter of Cecily, who had first granted the site at Embsay, gave the canons a piece of land on a bend of the Wharfe at Bolton, where Bolton Priory was founded. During the next few decades Augustinian houses were established at Kirkham, Guisborough, Warter, Drax and Newburgh.

The most important of the monastic reform movements was that of the Cistercians, like the Cluniacs an offshoot of the Benedictines, whose parent house at CIteaux in Burgundy was founded in 1098. Every Cistercian house was independent, and was ruled by its own abbot. There were 20 of them in Yorkshire. Although, with a few exceptions, these were the richest of the Yorkshire monasteries, the monks who lived in them followed a simple, austere way of life. They did not concern themselves with study or scholarship, but believed in plain food and plenty of hard manual work on the land. When the Cistercian Order was spreading in England, monks of the other principal orders were already established on rich lands in the south of England. Partly for this reason, and partly because of their desire for a simple life, the Cistercians chose the fertile valleys amid the barren highlands of Yorkshire, far from the great centres of population. Because of their remoteness many of the Cistercian houses were spared the plundering which those of other orders suffered when local people used them as stone quarries. The ruins of the Yorkshire Cistercian houses are not only the most beautiful but are also the largest and most important monastic remains in England.

The Cistercians were, in a sense, puritanical, in that they distrusted colour and elaborate ornament. The new and very beautiful style of architecture, Early English, the style of the lancet arch, which developed in the 13th century, fitted in very well with their ideas. Many of the Yorkshire houses include beautiful examples of this style. The great Yorkshire Cistercian monastic houses were Rievaulx, Fountains, Jervaulx, Meaux, Kirkstall, Roche and Sawley, all founded 1131-1150. Nowhere else in England is there anything quite like this group of Cistercian houses. Kirkstall Abbey was founded by Henry de Lacy, grandson of the Ilbert de Lacy who had been granted land in Skyrack Wapentake by the Conqueror. Fountains originated from a dispute amongst monks in the Benedictine abbey of St Mary’s in York, one of the richest of the Yorkshire houses, whose Abbot was a great prince of the Church, He was a mitred abbot—i.e. the Pope had granted him the privilege of wearing a bishop’s mitre—and he was later summoned regularly to sit in the House of Lords, along with the Abbot of Selby.

About 1130 a group of monks living in St Mary’s became dissatisfied with the slackness and negligence which they found around them. The idea of reform was gaining ground and it was said that at the newly founded Cistercian Abbey of Rievaulx monks were living as they really should. So 13 of the monks, led by one known as Richard the Prior, attempted to improve the discipline of their own house. They soon came into conflict with Abbot Geoffrey and called on Arch­bishop Thurstan to investigate their complaints. This made Geoffrey more angry than ever, and when the Archbishop paid a visit there was a tremendous tumult in the chapter house, and Thurstan, with Richard and his friends, had to seek refuge in the church. When Thurstan managed to get away he took the 13 with him, and for three months they lived in his palace. All save one (‘whose belly cave to the ground’) refused to make terms with the Abbot, and finally the remaining 12, with one more recruit, after spending Christmas Day with the Archbishop at Ripon, went out on the next day—the Feast of St Stephen—along the river Skell. Here, three miles away, the Archbishop gave them a site on which to build a new monastery of their own. Richard was elected Abbot. He and his monks suffered many privations—in a time of famine they had to eat herbs and leaves—but they survived and established a monastery which became, perhaps, the most famous of all the Yorkshire religious houses.

However, Fountains, like many other abbeys, as it prospered lost many of its early ideals. We learn much of the state of religious houses from the reports of ‘Visitations’ made by the church authorities. Sometimes the charges were trifling. Thus the nuns of Nun Appleton occasionally left their nunnery to visit the local alehouse. Yorkshire villages with names with Monk or Nun in them are usually the sites of former religious houses. Examples include Nun Appleton, Nun Monkton, Monk Bretton, etc. The canons of Warter had been sleeping off the premises, and wearing gold and silver rings. At Egglestone the brethren were ‘full of quarrelling among themselves’.

In 1321 the extravagance of the canons was castigated by Archbishop Melton and the Prior was ordered ‘to abide like a careful shepherd, in the place where he bears rule, without gadding here and there’. There were graver charges of loose living and indiscipline against the nuns of Basedale, the Abbot of Coverham and the Abbot and some of the brethren in York St Mary’s. On the other hand, the nuns at Arthington were praised as ‘being of the good life’.


59 Some of the Yorkshire monasteries


Attempts at religious reform did not always lead to the establishment of new monastic orders, and to the building of monasteries which in due course became centres of wealth and power. Some dissidents became mendicant friars, living simply, begging for alms and ministering to the poor and the sick. The best known of the mendicant friars were the Franciscans, or Grey Friars, who came to Yorkshire in 1258 at the invitation of Ralph FitzRandal, Lord of Middleham. He settled them on a site outside the walls of Richmond, where they built a simple church. Although they later enlarged the church and added other buildings, they never aspired to the magnificence of the monastic orders. The last addition to the Richmond Friary was a bell tower, which was finished towards the end of the 15th century, about fifty years before the Order was suppressed by Henry VIII. The Franciscans built friaries and churches at Beverley, Doncaster, York and Scarborough. Five other orders of mendicant friars operated in Yorkshire between the 13th and 16th centuries. The best known were the Dominicans (Black Friars) and the Carmelites (White Friars). Whitefriar Gate in Hull and the Friarage Hospital at Northallerton are reminders of their presence.

Another reform movement which influenced the religious and social life of Yorkshire in the 14th century was that inspired by John Wycliffe, who was born at Hipswell, near Richmond, in 1320. Wycliffe translated the Bible into English, and advocated radical egalitarian ideas. He was judged a heretic in 1382 for his views on the doctrine, of transubstantiation. His followers, known as Lollards, were involved in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which drew in a number of Yorkshire barons—including Nevilles and Cliffords—and there were disturbances in York, Beverley, Scarborough and Pontefract. These towns were heavily fined when the revolt was suppressed. These events, however, were less to do with religion than with the political struggles against the power of John of Gaunt. Wycliffe’s religious ideas survived his death in 1384 and influenced the course of the Reformation during the next century.

The monasteries were an important element in the social life of rural York­shire. They encouraged sheep farming in the Yorkshire Dales—Fountains Fell, above Maiham, for example, provided grazing land for sheep from Fountains Abbey, which were brought along some 25 miles of green tracks. Bolton Priory, one of the smaller houses, probably employed over 200 craftsmen, shepherds, foresters, etc., in addition to the monks. In addition to their economic activities the monastic houses provided the rudiments of a welfare state for the poor of their districts.

However, the King was determined to destroy the monasteries, partly because he saw them as centres of Papal influence, and partly because he felt that their wealth could be put to better use. The smaller houses were dissolved in 1536, and the larger ones in 1539. Their treasures were confiscated by the King; their estates were granted or sold to his courtiers; and their houses and churches were torn down or allowed to decay, or were converted into mansions for the new Tudor nobles.

For two and a half centuries there were, or were supposed to be, no monks, canons or nuns in Yorkshire. In fact, Bar Convent at York was founded in 1686, less than a century and a half after Henry’s dissolution of all the religious houses of Yorkshire. However, Bar Convent contrived to exist only by remaining very quiet and inconspicuous. Its neighbours were never quite sure whether it was a nunnery or only a boarding school for young ladies. It was not until 1829 that English Roman Catholics were given the same liberties as their Protestant fellow subjects (though various of their disabilities had been removed by a series of ’emancipation’ Acts, dating from one brought in by a great Yorkshireman, Sir George Savile, in 1778). After the outbreak of the French Revolution (1789­1793), the exiled French monks and nuns—like other French exiles—were wel­comed in England. A group of them came to Haggerston, Northumberland, in 1795, and removed to Scorton in Yorkshire in 1807. The monastery of St John of God is still there, where it manages a hospital for 150 incurably sick men. Apart from Bar Convent, this was the first monastic house of any kind to be set up in Yorkshire after the great dissolutions of 1536 and 1539.

The Reformation in Yorkshire

Although Yorkshire people made great contributions to the Reformation—for example, the work of Wycliffe and the Lollards and of Miles Coverdale—there was widespread dissatisfaction with the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1536 and 1539. Even though some of them were not well managed, the monasteries were less unpopular in Yorkshire than in some other parts of Eng­land, and the Reformation was less welcome. Support for the traditional Roman Catholic form of Christianity was strong in Yorkshire, despite the fact that Cardinal Wolsey, who led the harassment of the monasteries during the 1520s, was Archbishop of York from 1514 until his fall in 1530. Many members of the Yorkshire clergy and nobility regarded the attacks on the monasteries, which culminated in their dissolution, as being acts inspired by the doctrines of Martin Luther; although the King remained a nominal Catholic, and had actually been called ‘Defender of the Faith’ by Pope Leo X in 1521 for his writings against Luther. Religious feelings were closely bound up with political sentiments, and one of the issues which concerned Yorkshire folk was the centralisation in London of financial and political power which had been growing under Wolsey and his successor, Thomas Cromwell. This process went back to the reign of Henry VIII’s father, Henry VII, who had broken the remaining powers of the great Yorkshire magnates, partly by burdening them with heavy taxes and partly by forcing them to bear the cost of maintaining royal visits to the county. The Percys, for example, were ordered to pay the costs of the magnificent burial service held at the King’s command in Beverley Minster in 1489 for the murdered Earl of Northumberland. They were further impoverished in 1503 by being forced to support the retinue of Princess Margaret during her progress through York­shire on her way to marry James IV of Scotland.

The religious and political discontents came to a head during the reign of Henry VIII. The immediate cause was the controversy over Henry’s decision to divorce Catharine of Aragon in 1530, and the subsequent declaration that Henry was ‘supreme Head of the Church’. There was the threat of a rising in Yorkshire: ‘York will be in London hastily’. Unrest grew with the suppression of the smaller monasteries in 1536. A few monasteries, such as the Austin Priory at Guisborough, had been active in the education of young Yorkshiremen, and the nunneries (of which Wilberfoss and Esholt were outstanding) had provided the only education open to girls of gentle birth. The close involvement of the monasteries in the social and economic life of the county had built up a fund of goodwill amongst their neighbours.

In 1536 a rising, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, began in Lincolnshire and soon spread to Yorkshire. Robert Aske, a lawyer whose family lived at Aughton in the Derwent Valley, was persuaded to lead the rebels. He received enthusiastic support from the populace in York, Hull and Halifax, but many of the gentry and nobility hesitated. Archbishop Lee of York and the King’s general, Lord Darcy of Templehurst, took refuge in Pontefract Castle, hoping to avoid involvement, but they were eventually persuaded to join forces with Aske. Soon other waverers were brought in, and eventually the list of supporters read like a roll-call of the Yorkshire gentry, with names such as Percy, Scrope, Fairfax, Lumley, Neville, Conyers and Norton amongst them. Of course, the rebels could count on the support of the abbots and priors of the surviving monasteries, like Fountains, Jervaulx and Bridlington.

Hull surrendered and then the rebels marched on Doncaster. By this time, only three great Yorkshire families were still loyal to the King, and only one major Yorkshire castle was in the hands of the loyalists–the stronghold of Skipton, belonging to the Cliffords. The leaders of the two armies met on Doncaster bridge, and the Duke of Norfolk, in the King’s name, promised Aske (if he would disband his army) a free pardon, and a parliament, to meet at York (though he was careful not to promise the restoration of their property to the monks). So the rebels tore off their badges showing the Five Wounds of Our Lord, and swore they would now wear no badge but the King’s. Whether or not the King intended to keep his promises no-one knows. Anyhow, a further outbreak of violence gave him a good excuse for breaking them. The rising was put down, and Aske was drawn on a hurdle through the streets of York, then hanged in chains on a turret of the castle.

The King had already ordered that any monks who gave trouble would be ‘tied up without further delay or ceremony’. Various abbots and priors who were, or were supposed to have been ringleaders in the revolt were to be executed. The abbots of Fountains and of Jervaulx, the prior of Bridlington, the ex-abbot of Rievaulx and the ex-prior of  Guisborough were, in fact, hanged, some at Tyburn, some in Lancaster. When the second wave of dissolution came in 1539, monks and canons went quietly, drew their pensions and accepted the new order of things. Henry’s savage lesson in 1537 had been sufficient. Prior Moone of Bolton, for example, signed the deed of surrender along with 14 of the surviving brethren. He received a pension of £40 per annum and the others received smaller payments. Five canons from Bolton were allowed to retain the livings of village churches in the Craven district which had previously belonged to the Priory. The priory church was spared the destruction which was visited on the other buildings, and was able to continue as a place of worship for the local villagers, as a chapelry subordinate to Skipton. It serves as the parish church of Bolton Abbey to the present day.

Although Yorkshire was thought to be staunchly Roman Catholic, it produced two important scholars of the Protestant Reformation. Wycliffe and his Lollards have already been referred to. The other was Miles Coverdale, who took his name from the valley of that name in Wensleydale. He was responsible for a new translation of the Bible in 1526. The idea that people should be able to read the Scriptures in their own language rather than in Latin was an essential tenet of the new Protestantism which emanated from Luther, and which challenged the right of the Church to be the sole intermediary between man and his Maker.

When Henry was succeeded in 1547 by his son, King Edward VI, it was clear that the Reformation movement would go further still, for Henry himself had lived and died a Catholic, though not a very loyal one. However, Edward and the ministers who would have governed for him (for he was only a boy) were mainly convinced Protestants, hating the Pope and all be stood for. There was then no chance of the monasteries being set up again. Indeed, in Edward’s reign the Reformation, which had already wrecked the monasteries, now went on to affect the parish churches. They were not, of course, destroyed, but they lost many of their treasures, their fine embroidered vestments, often all but one of their bells, and much of their lovely altar plate—silver or even gold, ornamented with precious jewels. The Communion Service (which was to replace the Mass) needed few ornaments of any kind, and the government could do with all the treasure it could lay its hands on for financing its wars with the Scots.

In the west there was tremendous uproar about all this, but there was little sign as yet of rebellion in Yorkshire and the north (still perhaps, remembering the executions after the Pilgrimage of Grace) except at Seamer, near Scarborough. This was a riot, rather than a rebellion, led by the parish clerk and supported by the other villagers, who were mostly tenants of the Percys. Thomas Percy, the 7th Earl of Northumberland, was a whole-hearted Roman Catholic. Moreover he had his father’s death to avenge for Sir Thomas, his father, had been executed at Tyburn in 1537, after the failure of the Pilgrimage of Grace.

When Edward was followed by his Catholic sister, Mary, she undid the work of the Reformation as far as she dared (and seriously thought of moving her capital from Protestant London to Catholic York, after she had earned the hatred of the Londoners).

However, despite her wishes, she was able to do very little in the way of restoring the monasteries. After 1558 when she died and was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth I, there was no hope whatever of this. Like her father, Elizabeth would have no Pope challenging her authority in England, and in any case by this time the property of the monasteries had been very widely distributed among her courtiers. They would never willingly give it up.

The northern nobles and gentlemen who had shared Mary’s religious opinions were soon plotting against her half-sister, Elizabeth. The younger Percy, Henry, was loyal, at any rate at first, but his brother Thomas was not. The north was, however, fairly quiet until Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic and a strong claimant to the English throne, came to England in 1568. Thence­forward she was the centre of constant Catholic plots. In 1569 the Percys, in firm alliance with the Nevilles, broke out into open revolt.

They took Durham, had Mass said in the Minster, trampled on the English Prayer Book and broke up the wooden communion table which had replaced the old stone altar. They then took Ripon and had Mass said in the Minster there. Next, their plan was to capture York, and from there to organise a flying column to rush down to Tutbury, where Mary was imprisoned, and set her free. to marry the Duke of Norfolk, the richest man in England, the only English duke and, though perhaps not then a dec1ared, Catholic, the head of what is to this day the leading English Catholic family. They could not, however, take York without more artillery, and they suddenly changed their plans and retreated into County Durham. The Revolt of the Northern Earls—the Rising of the North—was over.

There is an Elizabethan ballad, The Rising in the North, to be found in any good ballad collection, which gives some picturesque local details. The rebels are referred to by the names of the badges (not usually coats of arms) on their banners. The Dun Bull is Neville, the Half Moon is the Percys’ silver crescent, the ‘three doggs with golden collars’ (the Three Greyhounds) seem to be the arms (not badge) of the Mauleverer family. All these are to be seen in Yorkshire today, in church buildings, monuments and windows, and very often in inn signs.

Though the Percys were the most famous family involved in the rebellion, the Nortons of Norton Conyers are perhaps the most interesting. There is a thrilling story told of how old Richard Norton (who had been in arms in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536), although he was a grey-bearded old man, rode out to battle at the head of eight of his nine sons, and risked and lost all for the sake of his Queen (Mary) and his Catholic faith. Actually he had 11 sons, not nine, and two of them did not take part in the rebellion. Of those who did, not all were executed. (Nor was old Richard, for he escaped safely overseas.) One of Wordsworth’s best poems is about it—The White Doe of Ryistone. The Nortons rode, as Richard had done in 1536, under a banner showing the Cross and the Five Wounds of Our Lord. It was this banner, embroidered by his daughter, which in Wordsworth’s version of the story the dying Norton begged his last remaining son to carry through the Queen’s forces and to lay on the ruined altar of Bolton Priory. In placing it there he also was slain, and there his sister, coming to meet him, found instead a newly-made grave.

When the revolt collapsed, some of the Nortons were taken prisoner, tried for treason and executed. Neville escaped to Flanders and lived there on a pension given to him by England’s deadly enemy, the King of Spain. Percy fled over the Border into Scotland, where his first hosts, although they were border robbers and bitter enemies of the Percys, refused to give him up. In 1572 the Scottish Douglases sold him to Elizabeth for £2,000. He was beheaded at York, in the ‘Pavement’ (the marketplace). With his last breath he declared his Catholic faith and boasted proudly, ‘I am a Percy, in life and death’. His head was placed on a pole on Micklegate Bar. With him on the scaffold he had his greatest treasure, given to him by Queen Mary, a gold cross, in which was set a thorn said to be from Our Lord’s Crown of Thorns. (This relic is still preserved in the famous Roman Catholic school, Ampleforth College.)

This was the last Percy rebellion. However, it was not the end of Catholic plots, or of trouble with the Percys. Elizabeth was now firm on her throne. Foreign support of her rebellious subjects naturally enough made her more popular than ever. Indeed, although Acts of Parliament were passed, punishing Catholics merely for being Catholics, the majority of the Protestants remained loyal to her. In any case, by this time she had established a very efficient secret service, through which she knew all about plots almost as soon as the plotters had met. She had very little serious trouble with Yorkshire in her later years, and when she died in 1603 it seemed as if the North was quiet at last. Then, only two years after she had been followed by her chosen successor, James I, son of her old enemy Mary Queen of Scots, there was yet another Catholic plot. As usual, the Percys were involved. The leader was another Yorksbireman, Guy Fawkes (an old boy of St Peter’s School, York). Of the 13 chief conspirators, four or possibly five were old boys of St Peter’s School. Five more had Yorkshire associations of one kind or another. Henry, the ninth Earl of Northumberland, had no great taste for politics, but his second cousin, Thomas Percy, was a born conspirator. It was Percy who actually hired the house next door to Parliament and installed Guy Fawkes in it as his servant, John Johnson. After Parliament had been blown up there was to have been a great Catholic rebellion. When the revolt came, Percy was to supply the rebels at Doncaster with 10 galloping horses from the Earl’s stables and £4,000 of the Earl’s rents to help the revolt. Of course the rebellion never came, Percy was killed resisting arrest; the Earl was shut up in the Tower from 1605 to 1621; and Guy Fawkes was tortured and finally executed.

From then onwards neither Yorkshire nor the Percys were seriously involved in later Catholic plots.