Yorkshire Monasteries

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.