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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

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.

Kirkham Priory

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 D-Day.

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 infirmary.

Rievaulx Abbey

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.

Rievaulx 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 Abbey

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 birds.

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.

Related Articles:

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

More Information:

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


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