Gisborough Priory

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Gisborough Priory

North Riding

Gisborough priory snow portrait.jpg
Gisborough Priory
Grid reference: NZ617160
Location: 54°32’11"N, 1°2’53"W
Village: Guisborough
Order: Augustinian
Established: Around 1119
Founder: Robert de Brus, 1st Lord of Annandale
Disestablished: 8 April 1540
Condition: Ruin
Owned by: Chaloner family
(in the care of English Heritage)
Website: Gisborough Priory

Gisborough Priory is a ruined Augustinian priory whose remains stand in Guisborough in the North Riding of Yorkshire. The priory was founded in 1119 as the Priory of St Mary by the Norman feudal magnate Robert de Brus, also an ancestor of the Scottish king, Robert the Bruce. It became one of the richest monastic foundations in England with grants from the crown and bequests from de Brus, other nobles and gentry and local people of more modest means.

Much of the Romanesque Norman priory was destroyed in a fire in 1289. It was rebuilt in the Gothic style on a grander scale over the following century. Its remains are regarded as among the finest surviving examples of early Gothic architecture in Britain.

The priory prospered until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Guisborough being surrendered to the Crown in 1540. The priory buildings were demolished and the stone re-used in other buildings in Guisborough. The east end of the priory church was left standing with its great window forming a distinctive arch, a well-known landmark used as a symbol for Guisborough. It became part of the estate of the Chaloner family, who acquired it in 1550. The east window was preserved by them as part of a Romantic vista adjoining their seat, Gisborough Hall, from which the priory takes its idiosyncratically spelled name. It is owned by the Chaloners but is in the care of English Heritage as a scheduled monument.

Since the 19th century archaeological excavations have taken place in the priory grounds, though a substantial part of the site has not yet been investigated. In addition to the east window, surviving visible fragments of the complex include the lower courses of the west range, a vaulted undercroft, a gateway and a 14th-century dovecote still in use today. The adjoining Priory Gardens, laid out by the Chaloners in the 18th century, are under restoration by a volunteer group. The priory ruins and gardens are open to the public throughout the year.



The village of Guisborough long predates the priory. According to the priory's founding charter, Robert de Brus "founded a certain Monastery of a religious order in Gysburne sic, to the honour of God, and the holy Virgin Mary". He gave "to the same Church and the service of God in it, all Gysburne, with all things pertaining thereto it".[1] The gift included lands amounting to twenty carucates and two oxgangs (roughly equivalent to 2,500 acres), churches, mills and other possessions, and grants from others. The charter started that the endowment was to provide "material for ever for their buildings, and all other necessities of their house".[2] The foundation was authorised by Pope Calixtus II and Thurstan, Archbishop of York. De Brus may have been emulating his peers in Yorkshire, who had founded monastic institutions for their religious obligations.[3] The date of the foundation is unclear. The 14th-century canon and historian Walter of Guisborough gives it as 1129, but a charter of confirmation from Pope Calixtus dates to the period of his pontificate between 1119–24.[4] The priory may have had two foundation charters, a shorter one dating possibly to 1119 and a detailed one dating to 1129 that may have been the definitive document.[4]

Chapter seal of Gisborough Priory, 1538

The rights and privileges of the prior and canons grew over the centuries added to by royal grants: Henry III granted the rights of soc and sac, thol and theam and infangtheof. He established a Monday market at Guisborough and the right to hold an annual three-day fair to mark the feast of the Assumption (15 August), the proceeds and fees supporting the priory. The prior and canons were granted free warren in the lands around Guisborough and several nearby villages which was extended to more demesnes by Edward III, who permitted them to convert 80 acres of land into a deer park (now Park Wood). Henry IV gave them the twice-yearly right of frankpledge, the right of waif and stray and the return of briefs and writs which gave the priory a steady income from rents, fines, licences and other fees. The canons of Guisborough owned 4,000 sheep, mostly in Eskdale, in the 13th and 14th century.[5]

The priory became known for its strict observance of the Augustinian rule and religious precepts. Its reputation for ducentes canonicam vitam ("living a canonical life") attracted Saint Malachy from Ireland who, as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux had a long and close involvement with Gisborough.[6][7] The canons were closely associated with the Cistercians and one Gisborough canon, William of Newminster, moved to become the Abbot of Fountains Abbey, a Cistercian foundation.

On 16 May 1289, the priory suffered a catastrophic fire. According to an account by Walter of Guisborough, a plumber soldering the lead roof forgot to put out his fire, causing the roof timbers to catch fire and molten lead ran down into the church below. Much of the building was destroyed and many effects, costly books, chalices and vestments were lost. The canons sought to raise funds for rebuilding. They petitioned the king to grant them the advowsons of the parish churches of Barnham, Easington and Heslerton, and in 1309 and 1311 the Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Durham raised funds for Guisborough by selling indulgencies promising remission of sins.[8] Most of the nave and chancel was rebuilt with the support of the de Brus family, whose coat of arms was displayed on its buildings.[9]

Rebuilding probably took around a century to complete, delayed by high costs and raids from Scotland. Its wealth was tapped by Archbishop Melton of York to make good his own losses in 1319, and in 1320 it had to take in refugees from monastic houses that had been forced to disperse to escape the raiders.[10] In 1344 it was granted permission to fortify its buildings. By 1380 its staff had diminished to 26 canons and two lay brothers.[11]

Dissolution and after

Robert Pursglove, the last prior of Gisborough

In 1535, King Henry VIII ordered a comprehensive survey of the church's property, the Valor Ecclesiasticus, which found that Gisborough Priory had an annual net value of £628.6s.8d., which made it the fourth wealthiest monastic house in Yorkshire. A second survey carried out by the king's commissioners, Thomas Legh and Richard Leyton, provided for the final suppression on charges of a lack of quality of religious life.[12] Prior James Cockerell of Guisborough was forced to resign and was replaced by Robert Pursglove, who was loyal to the king and co-operated to surrender the mionastery to the Crown.

The priory's dissolution was not welcomed by locals, who derived economic benefit from its presence – in 1536, around 500 families depended on it for their livelihood.[13] The strength of feeling was recorded in a letter from Lord Conyers and Sir John Bulmer to Thomas Cromwell: "On Sunday, 11th  July [1539], at Gysburn in Yorkshire, when the parish priest was declaring the articles [of dissolution] directed by the King to the Archbishop of York, one John Atkeynson alias Brotton came violently and took book forth of the priest's hands, and pulled it in pieces."[14] Popular discontent sparked the Pilgrimage of Grace, in which Prior Cockerell was implicated. When the revolt failed, he was hanged at Tyburn with the Prior of Bridlington, the Abbot of Jervaulx and the former Abbot of Fountains.[13]

The priory was formally dissolved on 8 April 1540 and surrendered to the king's men on 22 December 1540, making it one of the last monastic houses in England to be suppressed.[13] A proposal to found a secular college there came to nothing and the priory buildings – with the exception of the gatehouses and the great east window – were demolished. On 21 November 1541 Thomas Legh was granted a lease "of the buildings with the site and precincts of the Priory to be then demolished and carried away."[15] Demolition was carried out by collapsing its central tower into the body of the church, crushing it in its fall and reducing it to rubble.[15]

The site and lands were re-let in 1550 to Sir Thomas Chaloner, who later purchased the property outright.[15] The Chaloners occupied the former priors' quarters in the west range before moving to their new mansion, Old Gisborough Hall, on Bow Street in the late-17th century. The priory remains were cleared and the fallen stonework looted or sold. The grounds were redeveloped as formal gardens within the grounds of Old Gisborough Hall.[13] John Walker Ord, a local historian in the mid-19th century, described how the priory's stonework could be seen in many buildings around Guisborough. He deplored the profane uses to which it had been put:

I have seen with my own eyes broken pillars and pedestals of this august pile desecrated to the vile uses of gateposts, stands for rainwater casks, and stepping-stones over a common sewer. A richly ornamented doorway of the venerable priory forms the entrance to a privy. I have beheld with sorrow, shame, and indignation, the richly ornamented columns and carved architraves of God's temple supporting the thatch of a pig-house.[16]

Some fragments of the priory travelled further afield. At Hardwick Hall near Sedgefield (County Durham), a mock ruin was built incorporating sculptured stones brought from the priory.[17] The priory's wealth became the stuff of local legends, one of which claimed an underground passage led from the priory to a cave under the hills in which a raven stood guard over a chest of gold.[18]

The priory's lands around Guisborough were a source of wealth for the Chaloners. Around 1595, Sir Thomas Chaloner's son, also called Thomas, established England's first alum works at Belman Bank south of the town. Alum was an important product with a variety of industrial uses. It was especially important to the cloth industry as a mordant.[19] This broke the Spanish-Papal cartel controlling foreign alam.

The ruins in 1709

The only substantial part of the priory to survive was the eastern gable of the presbytery with its great east window. Its survival owed much to the rise of Romanticism in the 18th century. The portrayal of ruined buildings in idealised landscapes by J. M. W. Turner and his contemporaries inspired a fashion for the nobility and gentry to produce paintings of monasteries providing an incentive for landowners to preserve them as romantic ruins, rather than using them as quarries. Gisborough Priory's east window was one of the first examples of a monastic ruin to be retained for its visual qualities. It was incorporated into the grounds of Old Gisborough Hall as a romantic ruin and the sill of the great window removed to ensure an uninterrupted view.[20][21] Fittingly, given his role in inspiring the east window's preservation, Turner himself sketched it in 1801 during a visit to Yorkshire.[22]

East Lawn was laid out in front of the east window and was used for grand bazaars and fêtes until the early 20th century. A ha-ha was installed behind to keep cattle out of the grounds.[23] To the south of the priory buildings the Long Terrace ran almost the full length of the grounds. It afforded access to the ruins via a flight of steps flanked by two carved demi-sea wolves, reflecting the coat of arms of the Chaloners. They were thought to be dragons by local people and the steps were referred to as the Dragon Steps.[24]

Old Gisborough Hall was demolished around 1825 and the Chaloners built a mansion house, Gisborough Hall, about half a mile to the east in 1857.[13] In 1932, Thomas Chaloner, 2nd Baron Gisborough transferred control of the priory to the Office of Works, whose responsibilities have been inherited by English Heritage.[13] It remains the property of Lord Gisborough, while English Heritage is responsible for maintaining the ruins.[25]

Description of the priory buildings

The ruins of Gisborough in 1801 (Thomas Girtin)

Gisborough Priory is characterised by a few highly visible remains. The priory church survives in a fragmentary state, dominated by the east wall of the presbytery that stands to its full height. Several of the priory church's column bases can also be seen, as can a number of excavated graves within the presbytery. Elsewhere on the site, the outline of the cloister is visible but is largely unexcavated, while the ruins of the west (or cellarer's) range constitutes the largest area of other remains above ground. A ruined gatehouse and a still-intact dovecote (the latter off-limits to visitors) stand on the western edges of the site.

The remains of the priory church are dominated by the eastern gable wall of the presbytery that still stands to its full height. Its great east window is regarded as one of the finest examples of late-13th-century church architecture. The design is so close to that of the eastern arm of Ripon Cathedral, built around the same time, that it is thought to have been modelled on Ripon. The window's tracery has disappeared, as has its sill, but from the stubs and surviving fragments it can be deduced that it had seven major lights (the glazed openings in the window). At its centre was a great circle of tracery filled with trefoiled lights.

Little remains above ground of the rest of the priory, but much can be deduced from the surviving stonework. In its final form the priory church had a nave of eight bays and a quire and presbytery of nine bays, with a total length of 351 feet. The roof's ridge line probably stood 97 feet above ground.[26]

The presbytery's high vault was executed in stone with bosses decorated in red and white paint and gold leaf, traces of which were still visible when several of the bosses were found in the 19th century. The eastern bay of the presbytery was divided into several chapels and the remnants of parclose screens are visible on the main aisle's north and south responds.[27]

Several burials (presumably of high-ranking benefactors and clergy) were made within the priory and 19th-century archaeologists found stone coffins during excavations. They are visible against the east wall, but their original location was not recorded. Two centrally placed grave slabs are visible below the east window.[27] The priory once housed the Brus cenotaph, a memorial to its founders erected in 1521. It was removed in 1540 and dismantled. Most of its parts were recovered and reassembled in the 19th century, and the reconstructed cenotaph is displayed in Saint Nicholas' Church next to the ruins.[28]

The priory church housed a shrine to the Virgin Mary which one of the most significant Marian shrines in the north. It was destroyed during the Reformation along with the priory.

Fragments of the west range – the cellarer's range – are extant. It was entered from the west by an outer parlour, projecting from the north end of the range, where members of the community received visitors. The prior lived on the upper floor which comprised a hall, chamber and chapel dedicated to Saint Hilda. The prior's rooms were probably located above the outer parlour, as was the pattern at other monasteries, accessing the cloister and the outside world.[29] The largest surviving fragment of the range comprises a cellarium or storehouse where supplies were kept. It is a vaulted undercroft of nine bays constructed from stone ashlar with its floor level below that of the cloister. It is relatively well-preserved and believed to have been divided by timber partitions which were later replaced in stone.

The remains of the outer porch of the great gate

The priory buildings stood at the centre of a walled precinct arranged in two courts, inner and outer with gatehouses at the entrances to both; the remains of the great gate of the inner court are extant but the outer gatehouse no longer survives. The gate comprised an outer porch, an inner gatehall and a porter's lodge on the ground floor with chambers above the arch. It survived intact into the early 18th century but only the outer porch remains.[30]

The canons built an octagonal dovecote a short distance to the west of the west range, which is extant, though it cannot be visited and is not part of the priory grounds. Built in the 14th century, it was modified in the mid-18th century with the addition of a pyramidal roof tiled with slate and capped with an open-sided timber cupola. The original nesting boxes have been removed and the dovecote is used as a garden store.[31]

Priory Gardens and Monks' Pond

The Monks' Walk in the Gisborough Priory Gardens

Land immediately south of the priory was used by the Chaloners for formal gardens attached to Old Gisborough Hall. In the early 18th century they planted an oval-shaped double avenue of trees, the Monks' Walk, where stonework recovered from mid-19th century excavations was deposited. In between the trees was a manicured lawn used to hold musical and theatrical productions.[24] The Monks' Walk fell into disuse and became overgrown but is under restoration by the Gisborough Priory Project.[32]

In the late 19th century, Margaret Chaloner, wife of the first Lord Gisborough, laid out formal gardens of a typical late-Victorian and Edwardian design with elaborate bedding schemes and gravelled paths.[33] There was a rose garden and a sunken Italian garden with an ornamental pool at its centre. They were open to the public for a small fee and could be entered through a gateway on Bow Street.[34] The gardens are now freely accessible.

Further east, off the Whitby Road, is the Monks' Pond, the canons' fish pond. It presents a dramatic vista in which the priory arch is reflected and has often been photographed and painted. In 1908, the pond was the scene of an elaborate water tableau organised by Lady Gisborough to raise funds for the restoration of St Nicholas' Church.[34] The pond was home to a number of exceptionally large fish, but pollution in 2000 caused by a sewage leak led to the death of more than 5,000 fish.[35]

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Gisborough Priory)


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  2. Ord 1846, p. 177
  3. Blakely 2005, p. 122
  4. 4.0 4.1 Coppack, p 21
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  6. Watt 2005, p. 26
  7. Flanagan 2010, p. 122
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  10. Leyland 1892, p. 38
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