Get the Abbey Habit. Most of you will recognise the slogan of the Abbey National Building Society – a slogan of some subtlety, conveying images of both habited monks and habitual savers. The slogan hasn’t been used since Santander took over the Abbey (it lost the ‘National’ earlier) and rebranded it under its own name in 2009.
More recently the ‘Abbey Habit’ has been a phrase much loved by television critics to describe the keen following of the upper-class soap opera that is Downton Abbey. But there’s another ‘Abbey Habit’ that the people of this part of North Yorkshire can easily develop – the habit of searching out and visiting the wealth of ruined abbeys – and priories, nunneries, friaries and preceptories – by which we are surrounded.
You can probably name several without much thought – but fortunately there’s a useful book to help you complete the list. It’s the ‘Collins Guide to the Ruined Abbeys of England, Wales and Scotland’, written by Henry Thorold and published in 1993. Thorold has a great eye for architecture, and an ear for the felicitous phrase that immediately encapsulates the atmosphere of a place.
The guide is to the visible architectural remains of monastic places that have survived in a ruinous state since they were peremptorily shut down by Henry VIII – so if they have disappeared entirely, like some of the York examples, or have their church building still in use, like Beverley Minster, Selby Abbey and Bridlington Priory, they are not included. Even with these exceptions, the book lists 29 sites within the borders of Yorkshire – some well known, others largely off the radar of all but the most determined seekers of ecclesiastical ruins.
Foremost among them, of course, is Fountains Abbey which, as Thorold rightly notes, ‘has no rivals among the ruined abbeys of England’ – and which deserves its status as a World Heritage Site. Fountains was a Cistercian house, as was perhaps its nearest rival in greatness, Rievaulx; Thorold calls the Rievaulx church ‘one of the most beautiful Early English buildings anywhere’.
Both Fountains and Rievaulx are cared for by bodies set up to look after such buildings – The National Trust and English Heritage. Perhaps more loveable – and certainly not as busy – is a third Cistercian house, Jervaulx. A visit there, Thorold says, ‘is rather like the 1930s, when we could visit these divine places without those crowds, without all the ‘tourist’ tarnish, without the conservationists, or all the talk of “heritage”. Thank God for Jervaulx, which is privately owned, and privately loved, not over-organised, and indeed allowed to be itself.’ At Jervaulx flowers are allowed to invade the ruins, signs are minimal – and payment is by an honesty box.
There were other Cistercian houses in Yorkshire, too, including Byland, with its great ruined rose window, and the extensive ruins of Kirkstall, which Thorold describes as ‘grand, austere, forbidding, in the western suburbs of Leeds – an unlikely setting indeed, unlikely and unsympathetic . . . facing the long rows of smug suburban semis, a bitter fate.’ Further south are the ruins of Roche Abbey, in a landscape later remodelled by Capability Brown for Lord Scarborough.
All these are reasonably famous houses for the monks – but do you know of the Cistercian nuns who lived in Yorkshire? There are remains of their priories and nunneries at Ellerton, by the River Swale, at Rosedale Abbey (it was never an abbey, only a Priory), where all that remains is a battered staircase, at Wykeham near Scarborough (a couple of doorways and a wall survive) and at Syningthwaite near Tadcaster, where a few windows and a Norman doorway are incorporated into farm buildings.
The buildings for nuns seem to have survived less well than the richer monasteries; bits of wall at the priory of Benedictine nuns at Yedingham, north-east of Malton, and at Marrick, not far from Ellerton, where the buildings are incorporated in an outdoor centre. Only one monastic order had both monks and nuns; they were the Gilbertines, who had a house at Watton, north of Beverley, where, Thorold notes, little remains apart from the impressive Prior’s House; otherwise ‘it is all grass with an occasional hump or pile of stones to remind us of a great church, two cloister courts, two sets of claustral buildings’ – for, of course, monks and nuns were, supposedly, kept well apart (though the scandal of the 12th-century Nun of Watton tells us otherwise).
The Cistercians were a breakaway group from the Benedictines, who also had Yorkshire abbeys; Fountains was settled from St Mary’s Abbey in York, whose grand ruins are now part of the city’s Museum Gardens. Whitby Abbey – ‘on its cliff top, exposed to wind and storm, dominant and defiant across land and sea’ – was Benedictine, too, when it was refounded in 1078 (as a Celtic monastery under St Hilda it had both monks and nuns). Less well-known Benedictine houses were at Ecclesfield, north of Sheffield, and at Monk Bretton near Barnsley, though that was founded as a Cluniac house. Then there are the Premonstratensian houses at Easby near Richmond; Augustinians at Coverham in Coverdale, at Guisborough and at Kirkham, east of York; Dominican Friars at Beverley and Austin Friars at Tickhill, south of Doncaster; Franciscans in Richmond; and that oddity among monastic houses, the Carthusian Mount Grace, where each monk had a hermit-like existence in his own cell, joining others only for worship.
Most elusive of all among this multiplicity of religious observance, are the scant remains of the Templars; elusive because they disappeared in the very early 14th century, long before Henry VIII’s purge. They had outposts – preceptories – at Snainton near Scarborough, where a timber hall survives within a farmhouse, and at Temple Hirst, not far from Drax power station, where only a Norman doorway, incorporated into a brick Tudor house, is left – a tantalising reminder of the rich religious past of Yorkshire.
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