Monastic Houses

For four hundred years, monastic houses dominated the farming landscape of the Yorkshire Dales. At the height of their power, up to three-quarters of the land in the National Park was probably owned by them. Their influence began during the Norman era when the great landowners of the north of England began to grant land and rights to the first of the newly founded monastic houses of the region. In doing so they expected intercession for themselves and their families in the next life. By praying for their founders and benefactors, the monks and nuns of these houses were guaranteeing them a place in heaven as well as divine intervention on the earth.


Much hill land in the Yorkshire Dales little valued by its aristocratic owners turned out to be ideal grazing pasture, particularly for sheep and this resource was exploited ruthlessly by a number of monastic houses, some based inside or close to the park, others many miles away. Perhaps the most influential was Fountains Abbey founded near Ripon in 1132. This was a Cistercian house, whose monks followed a strict economic code that renounced all feudal sources of income from their land such as labour service and corn mill taxes. They preferred remote locations for their houses with lands around that could form a self-sufficient farming unit. They recruited lay brothers to run their farms who were supposed to live a simple religious life working the land, but who often became farm managers with paid labourers working for them. Fountains Abbey came to own vast estates in the Yorkshire Dales. With such remote blocks of land, the mother house had to set up administrative centres to run them at a distance. The rich limestone pasturelands of their Craven estates were run from Kilnsey Grange. Here the wool from thousands of sheep was either clipped or gathered for sale to merchants from as far afield as Italy. However, by the 14th century and with the shortage of labour caused by the Black Death, poor harvests, cattle plague and Scottish raids, monastic estates like that around Kilnsey were let out in smaller parcels to tenants.


Bolton Priory belonged to the Augustinian order and housed canons led by a prior. It started life in 1120-21 when Cecily de Rumilly founded a priory in Embsay with gifts of land and churches. The remains of the dependent cell left behind after they moved survived until the early 20th century but the site of the original priory is now unknown. Much of the fabric was supposedly used in the building of Embsay Kirk around 1780. The Augustinian order was one of priests living under a rule or ‘regula’. They carried out normal priestly duties at some of the parish churches they acquired. A proportion of their income came from these churches and they were less concerned than the Cistercians with the direct administration of the agricultural land they were granted.


The canons at Embsay were given permission to move their house to better land at Bolton in 1155 and from then on began to acquire more land and add to their new priory buildings. Like the Cistercians from Fountains, they used lay brothers to run their more distant estates. They also relied on sheep for cash income and they had land on Malham Moor and in the village of Malham alongside Fountains. One of their farm complexes was excavated in the 1950s on Priory Raikes. Although it is described as a sheephouse or ‘bercary’ this term actually applies to the whole farm rather than individual buildings. Furthermore, we know from documentary sources that the priory’s horse stud and goat herd were also kept there. It was founded in the early 13th century and continued in use right through until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the late 1530s. From the 14th century the canons of Bolton Priory gradually leased their estates out to tenants and the landscape of their monastic estates was divided up into individual farms.


Fountains Abbey and Bolton Priory were a major influence on the medieval landscape and economy of the southern part of the Yorkshire Dales, but there were many more monastic houses with a claim to land both here and in the rest of the park. Coverham Abbey lies within the borders of the National Park four miles west of Middleham. It was a Premonstratensian foundation, endowed by Ranulph Fitz-Robert in 1212, after it moved from Swainby 15 miles away. The Premonstratensian order was an offshoot of the Augustinian but with leanings towards the Cistercian lifestyle. Coverham’s move put it in a more convenient position to run its extensive estates at Kettlewell and in Wensleydale. Its main source of income came from agriculture and pasture rights so it was in essence a smaller version of a Cistercian house. St Simon’s Chapel in Coverdale was founded in 1328 and maintained as a chapel-of-ease by Coverham Abbey.


In the churchard of St Oswald’s in Ravenstonedale lie the ruins of a medieval Gilbertine house or cell. Farmland in the area was granted to the canons of Watton Priory (East Yorkshire) in the twelfth century. The tiny building housed a master and three canons from the main priory who managed the monastic estate. There would also probably have been lay brothers who did the actual farm work. The Gilbertine order is unusual as it was the only one founded in England.


Swaledale is unique in the Dales because it had two priories founded for nuns within a few miles of each other. The founders of such houses were usually of a lower social order than the founders of the great male houses. Nuns could not say mass and so their intercession was of a lower order than that of monks and canons. It seems that sometimes these houses were set up for the daughters of their benefactors rather than for more spiritual reasons. Ellerton Priory was founded by Warner, steward of the Earls of Richmond sometime in the reign of Henry II (1154-89). Marrick Priory was already in existence by 1160 and was founded by a grant from Robert de Aske whose daughters were to become nuns there. Ellerton’s nuns were Cistercians while those at Marrick were probably Benedictine. Unlike their male counterparts, both orders employed lay brothers to run their larger farms, while letting off their smaller parcels of land and grazing rights to tenants.


Bolton, Coverham, Marrick and Ellerton all survived until Henry VIII seized their land and buildings in the late 1530s. Fors Abbey near Askrigg had a far briefer existence. It was a Savigniac foundation whose French monks were granted land in Upper Wensleydale by followers of Count Alan, Earl of Richmond sometime around 1145. Count Alan confirmed these gifts and added rights in his hunting forest of Bainbridge. The Savigniac order was taken over by the Cistercians in 1147. The abbey at Fors was called ‘Yore-valley’ after the old name for the river Ure, with its French translation being ‘Jervaulx’. By 1156 the small community at Fors had taken the name and set up a new house in a less hostile spot near East Witton on land given by Conan, Earl of Richmond. In the 19th century, workmen excavating the track for the new Wensleydale railway, uncovered the remains of several skeletons near Askrigg which probably belonged to Fors.


Although it was not strictly speaking a monastic house, the Preceptory of the Knights Templar at Penhill in Wensleydale should be mentioned here as it was a form of religious foundation. The Order of the Knights Templar came into existence in 1119. It originated in Palestine after the First Crusade to release Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim domination. The Knights Templars were a body of soldiers who were also monks, who served God on the battlefield rather than in the monastery. The headquarters of the order was in London, but Templars were soon endowed with estates all over England. On the larger of these estates, dependent houses or cells of the mother house were built. They were called preceptories and from them the land was managed in order to raise money to fund crusades to Jerusalem. Penhill Preceptory, first mentioned during the period 1170-1181, was sited to the north west of Temple Farm. It was rapidly replaced by a new preceptory, in existence by 1202 and lying a short distance to the south. Accounts taken in 1307 show that sheep and pigs were being kept on the associated estates in Wensleydale along with a small number of cows, horses, goats, oxen and doves. Crops were being grown on just under 500 acres of arable land.


With the abandonment of Palestine in 1291, the Templars no longer had a purpose. Their wealth made them independent and powerful and they were soon seen as a threat by the king. Between 1308 and 1312 the order was suppressed, accused of various crimes including heresy and immorality. Penhill Preceptory was passed to the Crown in 1308. The Knights Hospitallers took it over but seem not to have developed the site and its buildings fell into ruin. The extent of the Penhill estate is marked by boundary stones with crosses carved on them. These are likely to be 19th century copies of the medieval originals.


The end of Yorkshire’s monastic houses came about after Henry VIII declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church. The huge wealth of Britain’s monastic houses proved too tempting and the king using a variety of excuses began the process of seizing their assets. The process became known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. He started with the smaller houses in 1536. By the beginning of 1540 all the remaining houses in Yorkshire had surrendered and their monks and nuns sent away with pensions. Lead was stripped from the roofs of the buildings, mostly for its market value but also to discourage any idea of restoration. Many of the monastic estates were bought by the descendants of their original benefactors. The confiscation and break up of the monastic estates proved to be the biggest change in the pattern of land ownership since the Norman Conquest.



Dennison, E (2004) ‘An Historical Landscape Survey: The Swinithwaite Estate, West Witton’ in White, R F & Wilson, P R (eds) (2004) Archaeology and Historic Landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No 2 pp25-37 [‘The Knights Templar Estate’ pp27-30]

Jennings, Bernard (1999) Yorkshire Monasteries Otley: Smith Settle

Martin, E J (1929) ‘The Templars in Yorkshire’ Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol 29 pp366-385

Moorhouse, Stephen (2003) ‘The anatomy of the Yorkshire Dales: deciphering the medieval landscape’ in Manby, T G et al (eds) (2003) The Archaeology of Yorkshire: an assessment at the beginning of the 21st century Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No 3 pp298-362 [‘Monastic landscapes’ pp336-341]

White, Robert (2002) The Yorkshire Dales. A Landscape Through Time Ilkley: Great Northern Books [‘The monasteries’ pp56-62] – History of Embsay Priory and Church