The Monastic Orders in Yorkshire

Yorkshire in the 12th and 13th centuries provided an ideal environment for the growth of monasticism.  In the 11th century the region had suffered terribly from the invasions of the Vikings, and William the Conqueror's 'Harrying of the North' in 1069/70 had caused further devastation.  York itself had been burned by the Normans, destroying the old Minster, as well as its famous school and library.  There was very little left in the county to suggest that it had once been home to some of Britain's most famous monasteries during the 'Golden Age' of Northumbria in the 7th and 8th centuries.

By the end of the 11th century, however, the region was beginning to revive.  Under Archbishop Thomas of Bayeaux, the great Benedictine houses came into being.  Selby was probably the first in 1069.  Whitby was re-founded on the ancient site of St Hilda's Saxon monastery by the Norman knight, Reinfrid, who became its first abbot.  That was in 1077, and the monastery soon developed small off-shoots, know as cells, at Hackness and Middlesborough.  The Whitby community would also bring about the foundation of the third of Yorkshire's Benedictine houses at York.

St Mary's Abbey would eventually be the richest and most influential Benedictine monastery in the north of England.  The history starts with the gift by Count Alan of Brittany before 1086 of St Olave's Church and four acres of land to a group of monks who had been driven from Whitby Abbey.  Both Whitby and St Mary's tell the story in their foundation chronicles, but their versions do not agree.  The Whitby story suggests that the monks had left the monastery because they were unhappy that their benefactor, William de Percy, had forced his brother upon them as abbot after the death of their founder, Reinfrid.  They wanted to follow a man named Stephen, and so they departed.  The York version, however, says nothing of this, offering instead the explanation that frequent attacks at Whitby by pirates and brigands had caused Stephen and his monks to leave.  What we do know is that after a sojourn at Lastingham, another important site in the earlier history of Christianity in Northumbria, they were attracted by Count Alan's gift to the city of York.  The very substantial Norman crypt preserved in the later parish church suggests, however, that the community had intended to establish a full-scale monastery at Lastingham. The original grant at York was greatly extended in 1088 by the Conqueror's son, William Rufus, who also granted the monks a charter exempting them from attendance at certain courts.

From the same period dates the foundation by Ralph Paynell of the alien Benedictine Priory of Holy Trinity on Micklegate in York.  The Norman Priory is one of a series of monasteries referred to as 'alien' because the monks came from overseas (in this case the Poitevin Abbey of Marmoutier) and the Priory remained the property of the foreign monastery until the later Middle Ages. 

In the early years of the 12th century new orders, which had grown out of the reform movement within the Church, began to arrive in England.  The most important of these were the Augustinian Canons.  Technically priests rather than monks, their communal way of life was in fact very similar to that of a monastery.  Firstly at Bridlington and Nostell, and then in 1119 at Guisborough, the Augustinians established themselves in Yorkshire.  A little later, in 1122, Walter Espec, the Lord of Helmsley, established the canons at Kirkham.  In the first half of the 12th century the Augustinians were very popular with benefactors, that is until the arrival of the Cistercians.

Walter Espec, already patron of Kirkham, wanted to establish this austere new order on his lands, and in 1132 a group of Cistercian monks arrived to occupy a specially selected site at Rievaulx.  Originally from Burgundy, the Cistercians sought to recapture the essence of early monasticism.  They established their houses in remote locations, 'far from the haunts of men', and adhered strictly to the Rule of St Benedict.  It was the Cistercians' belief that the large and economically prosperous Benedictine houses of Europe had long since deviated from the original purity of the monastic way of life.  In particular, the Cistercians emphasised the importance of manual labour, and abjured ostentation and display in the architecture and decoration of their churches.  They wore a simple, un-dyed woollen garment which caused them to be referred to as 'White Monks'.

Before reaching the site at Rievaulx, the monks had visited York, causing unforeseen mayhem at the great Benedictine house of St Mary's.  Inspired by their zeal, a movement arose within that community demanding a return to a more austere way of life along the same lines as the Cistercians.  Unable to resolve the issue peacefully, the old Abbot of St Mary's had the reformist trouble-makers (including the Prior) forcibly ejected from the monastery!  They were taken in by Archbishop Thurstan, himself a keen advocate of reform, who housed them temporarily in his palace.  Within the year he found a site for them on which to found a new community based on the principles of simplicity and austerity.  That site came to be known as Fountains, and in 1135 the community was accepted into the Cistercian Order.

The Cistercian love of remote location and their insistence on developing their own economic specialisms, made Yorkshire a prime location.  A great deal of the specialism of Fountains and Rievaulx concerned the production and export of wool, a trade which reached its zenith at the end of the 13th century.  In all, there would be eight Cistercian houses in the historic county.  In particular, the Cistercians' system of managing their lands by means of installations in the countryside known as granges would be imitated by other orders.  The Cistercian way of life also profoundly influenced the organisation of other religious communities, and many of Yorkshire's small nunneries (founded mostly from the mid twelfth century) followed Cistercian customs.