The Journal Of Antiquities

Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland

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Grace Dieu Priory, Near Belton, Leicestershire

Grace Dieu Priory ruins, Leicestershire.

Grace Dieu Priory ruins, near Belton, Leicestershire.

    OS grid reference: SK 4353 1835. The sad, crumbling ruins of Grace Dieu priory, a 13th century religious house, lie just to the east of the A512 Ashby Road and Grace Dieu brook – about halfway between the villages of Belton and Thringstone, Leicestershire. Since about the middle of the 16th century the priory buildings have been left to fall into decay and crumble away, with only the walls and gable-ends standing tall at what was, back in the Middle Ages, a large priory of Augustine (Augustinian) canonesses, with an attached hospice for the poor and infirm. The ruins are 500m north-west of Abbey Ford farm and just south of where Ashby Road meets with Gracedieu Lane, south of Belton.

    The priory of Grace Dieu (Grace of God) was founded in 1239 by Roesia (Rose) de Verdon, who was a noblewoman and landowner from Belton, and dedicated to St Mary, God and the Holy Trinity. Agnes de Gresley was the first prioress. It was in essence an “independent” religious house of Augustinian canonesses (also known as the White Nuns of St Augustine), and apparently a ‘strict’ order of sisters. This was probably the only house of the order in England. The walls and gable-ends of the nave (church), chapter-house and south range are still standing, although now roofless and skeletal and with much stonework missing, windows now  gaping holes, and walls only half their original height; the nave (E side) is perhaps the best preserved part and is entered through a stone archway. After the Dissolution and subsequent “late” closure of the house in 1538-9 much of the stonework was used in order to build the attached private residence. There are only scant foundations of the kitchens, infirmary (guest house) and late 14th century hospice for the poor and infirm, which only ever housed 12 local people at any one time. The nearby earthworks are probably the priory’s fishponds.

    After 1539 the priory ruins were sold and then a private mansion house was built beside the ruins, much of the stonework coming from the priory walls. In the mid-17th century it was sold again to a wealthy lawyer of Garendon Abbey. It was he who added to the priory’s destruction. By 1730 the religious buildings were in a very ruinous state, with only two large sections remaining, but with their roofs still intact. In the 1830s the ruins were again sold off. Today the ruins are said to be the haunt of a ghostly figure who has been referred to as ‘the white lady’. This is perhaps the ghost of Agnes de Litherland, the last prioress? The tomb of the foundress Roesia de Verdon was originally in the priory church, but this was taken for safety to St John’s Church at Belton. She apparently inaugurated an annual fair in the village, which is still held in late May or early June, mainly for the sale of horses (Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain).

Sources and other related web-sites:-

Bottomley, Frank, The Abbey Explorer’s Guide, Kaye & Ward Ltd., Kingswood, Tadworth, Surrey, 1981.

Reader’s Digest, Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain, Reader’s Digest Association Limited, London, 1977.

The AA, The Illustrated Road Book of England & Wales, The Automobile Association, London, 1961.

Wright, Geoffrey N., Discovering Abbeys and Priories, (Third Edition), Shire Publications Ltd., Princess Risborough, Bucks, 1994.

St Mary’s Nunnery, Island Of Iona, Argyll And Bute, Scotland

Iona Nunnery (photo credit: Thunderchild5

Iona Nunnery (photo credit: Thunderchild5  – Wikipedia)

    OS grid Reference: NM 2849 2411. On the holy Island of Iona, Argyll and Bute, in the Inner Hebridees are the evocative and tranquill ruins of a medieval nunnery – one of only two such religious buildings of this type in Scotland. It is located opposite the landing stage – some 95 metres to the west of the shoreline in the village of Baile Mor. St Oran’s chapel and burial ground* is 120 metres to the north, and between that and the nunnery ruin stands the 16th century ‘Mclean’s Cross’. But further to the north stands the even more famous Iona Abbey, a Benedictine foundation dating from c 1200, which was founded on the site of St Columba’s 6th century monastery, and near that St Martin’s Cross and the Cathedral. The ruined nunnery is nowadays famous for its cloister garden, but there are a number of interesting architectural features. The Island of Iona can be reached by ferry, across the narrow Sound of Iona, from Fionphort on the Isle of Mull, but better still maybe take the steamer from Oban!

    Today, the nunnery of St Mary is sadly without its roof but ‘nonetheless’ it is an outstandingly beautiful religious ruin. It was founded in 1203, shortly after the Abbey, by King Ragnall (Regnald) Somhairle, Lord of the Islands. Initially it was under the rule of St Benedict, but after a short time it received priory status and its first prioress was one Beatrice (Bethoc), who was probably the sister of King Ragnall . The sisters here took on the mantle of St Augustine of Hippo and were known as canonesses. They seem to have lived austere lives, often begging for alms, indeed the priory itself was a small and poor house – not coming under the auspices of the Catholic church, according to Frank Bottomley ‘The Abbey Explorer’s Guide’.

     The nuns on Iona lived a strict life of devotion, contemplation and prayer. In the 13th century, however, there seems to have been an effort to make the building more liveable, with probably a few minor additions to the building. “The last prioress, Anna Mclean, died in 1543 and was buried in St Ronan’s chapel (originally the parish church) adjoining the nave, then in about 1588 the priory was dissolved and left to become a ruin; the Abbey of Iona succumbed to the dissolution a few years after in 1560-61” – (AA illustrated Road Book of Scotland). At the dissolution in 1558 a few of the nuns retired to a cave at Carsaig on the Isle of Mull. St Ronan’s Church (Teampull Ronain) may date from the 8th century and within there are are some medieval gravestones with the names of the nuns who died here.

Plan of St Mary's Nunnery on Iona.

Plan of St Mary’s Nunnery on Iona.

    Known as ‘An Eaglais Dhubh’ (the Black Church) after the colour of the nuns habits. The nunnery is 25 metres in length, it walls are made of granite, and it is a three-bay building with a passage-way (aisle) at the N side and chapel at the E – and it is probably ‘the most complete remains of a medieval nunnery’ (still extant) in Britain; the construction of the building is ‘typical Irish style’ of the 12-13th centuries. The chapel (E. side) has a very fine triangular-headed window, while the three ‘complete’ arches running down the rib-vaulted nave – separating cloister and chapter-house – are quite exceptional and have equally exceptional carvings. The S wing is the refectory and kitchen, but sadly the W wing is now buried beneath a road, while the ‘completely’ square-shaped cloister at 14 metres across is now a beautiful, tranquil garden to walk around and “contemplate”. A spiral stairway (NE side) leads up to the upper storey and the nuns sleeping area or dorter (Dormitorium). Restoration work took place on the building in 1923 and 1993.

    *And what of St Oran’s Chapel and burial ground (Reilig Odhrain). This we are told: “takes its name from a cousin of St Columba who was buried alive (willingly) in order to consecrate the ground, but was dug-up again and found to be still alive!” says Andrew Jones in his book ‘Every Pilgrim’s Guide To Celtic Britain And Ireland’. Here in this ancient burial ground, according to the legends, up to fifty early Scottish kings were buried.


AA Publication,  Illustrated Road Book Of Scotland, The Automobile Association, London, 1963.

Bottomley, Frank., The Abbey Explorer’s Guide, Kaye & Ward Ltd., Tadworth, Surrey, 1981.            Photo credited to Thunderchild5 Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Jones, Andrew., Every Pilgrim’s Guide To Celtic Britain And Ireland, Canterbury Press, Norwich, Norfolk, 2002.



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Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire, by Edward White

Whitby Abbey B/W.

OS grid reference: NZ 9030 1122. On the headland of the east-cliff (up the famous 199 steps) and above the seaside town of Whitby, north Yorkshire, stand the formidable ruins of Whitby Abbey, which was initially founded as a priory sometime after 1078 by Reinfrith, then in c 1105 it became a Benedictine abbey. It was finally dissolved on 14th December, 1539. On the same site back in 657-58 AD an Anglo-Saxon monastery was founded by Oswy, the King of Northumbria. This ‘then’ became a double monastery for both men and women and was headed by St Hilda (614-680 AD), a Saxon princess who had travelled ‘here’ from Hartlepool at the request of the king; Hilda being the daughter of a prince by the name of Hereic, who was apparently poisoned in 616 AD.

 In 663 AD the famous ‘Synod (Council) of Whitby’ took place at the monastery itself and, was significant in that it brought together both the  Celtic and Roman churches! In 867 AD the Saxon monastery of Whitby was destroyed by Viking raiders. The majestic ruins of Whitby Abbey that we see today date, for the most part, from the mid 13th century. St Hilda (Hild) died on the 17th November (her feast-day) in 680 AD – her passing being mentioned by the Venerable Bede and ‘The Anglo Saxon Chronicle’. In the Dark Ages Whitby was called ‘Streonshall’ and continued to be called that until at least the Viking Invasion in the 9th century, but probably the old name continued to be used long after that.

The following ‘Whitby Abbey’, which I will quote” in full is taken from ‘Stories & Tales Of Old Yorkshire’, 1993, an excellent compilation of work by Edward White – that was first edited by him whilst residing in London (1883) – and then published in the antiquarian work ‘Old Yorkshire’, in 5 volumes. White says:- 

“This famous Abbey was founded by Lady Hilda, whose death took place twelve-hundred years ago, and an enquiry into the special circum-stances which induced her to build the Abbey opens up an interesting chapter in ancient local and general history. This will be seen when we consider what England was when Hilda’s Abbey and College first arose, a lighthouse above the ocean — waters in the seventh century — when it first shone like a Pharos over the old kingdom of Deira, which was one of the chief provinces of the kingdom of darkness.”

“England was, from North to South, along its whole eastern side, and far up in the Midland Counties, a thoroughly heathen country, and had been heathen for 200 years preceding, ever since the departure of the Romans. What makes this fact so striking and terrible is that during the 400 years of the Roman Dominion, nearly the whole country had been evangelized. St Ninian, after whom one of Whitby’s churches is named, was a Scottish nobleman educated in Rome, who became one of the chief evangelists of the ancient races during the Roman times. The British tribes, and their neighbours, the Irish people, had thus early received the Gospel. When the Saxons came and saw, and conquered Britain, they restored heathenism over the whole area of their conquests. It was almost as if any army of Hindoos should now land in England, vanquish the inhabitants, drive the remnant towards the West, and establish Indian idolatry on the ruins of our Christianity. We are the descendants of those Saxon heathens, and we still call our week-days after the names of their impure gods and goddesses, Sun-day, Moon-day, Tuisca’s day, Woden’s, Thor’s day, Freyga’s day—a fearful memorial of the overflow of the ancient British Christianity.”

St Hilda's Statue at Whitby (photo credit Wilson44691 for Wikipedia)

St Hilda’s Statue (photo Wilson 44691 for Wikipedia)

“The conquered Britons retired westward, fighting all the way, into Cornwall, into Devonshire, into Wales, into Cumberland, and Westmoreland, and Lancashire; and they took their Christianity and civilization with them, leaving behind a vast and awful night of  barbarous Saxon paganism—of paganism with its ignorance, ferocity, blood-thirstiness, drunkenness, and lust. Eastern and Midland England for 200 years, from the time of Hengist to the time of Hilda, was full of ferocious tribes, battling all along the west with the remnant of the British aborigines, and battling just as fiercely with each other. When St Hilda was a young woman all central England, or Mercia, was held by a savage Pagan Sovereign named Penda, 80 years of age, a sort of Saxon Cetewayo, master of a powerful army, who for fifty years had made a war upon his neighbours. And it was in consequence of the destruction of this terrible old Pagan warrior by King Oswy at Winwidfield, near Leeds, in 655, that Hilda was enabled in 658 to found her abbey. Penda had previously slain King Oswald in the west, and hanged his mangled body aloft at Oswald’s tree, now Oswestry.” 

“A monastery of the ancient ages is often thought of as necessarily an abode of idleness, and even of licentiousness. Such no doubt many of the religious houses at last became, and even this great Benedictine house at Whitby among the number in its latter days. Its present ruin is, according to Dr. Young, the visible punishment of the sins of its lates inmates. But in the earlier centuries a great monastery was often a stronghold of the good cause against the powers of darkness—and this mighty foundation of Hilda’s was among the noblest in England. Its purpose can hardly be understood, unless we remember that in the first half of the seventh century, there was in all Europe no more awful Aceldama and “abomination of desolation” than this northern part of England. The Saxon Heathen and Pictish Highlanders, had repeatedly laid the land waste in their wars, and made its rivers flow with blood. The country was scarred with the black marks  of conflagrations of farms and homesteads. Deira invaded Mercia, and old Mercian Penda invaded Deira again and again. Bernicia invaded Lancashire and North Wales, and North Wales invaded Bernicia and Deira, or Northumberland and Yorkshire. All the history of these parts that remains is the history of cruelty, wrong, and bloodshed. No power but one could save and civilize Saxon heathenism, and turn this hell of the angles into a paradise. That power was Christianity.”

Whitby Abbey (Line Drawing 1960's)

Whitby Abbey (Line Drawing 1960’s)

“The kings had begun to hear of what Christianity had done for other states  and nations in Europe, and they were growing weary of their own wars and miseries. The monasteries which arose in that age, in the midst of the forests and open countries, were, then, strongholds of Christianity and civilization. A great monastery well placed aloft, like Cassino or Streonshall, and wisely and holily governed, was a Bethesda or Pool of Mercy with many porches. It was (1) a Temple for the worship of the living and eternal God, amidst the grotesque and degrading horrors of paganism, where the light of truth shone on high over the pagan pande-monium. (2) It was a place of education for both sexes. The Princess Hilda, grand-niece of King Edwin of Northumbria, founded here (after the modern American fashion) a college and school for both sexes, for both monks and nuns. Many of these were persons, like Hilda, well on in life and weary of the world; some of these were young, some even almost boys and girls. Her first charge was the little Princess Elfreda, well-born on her mother’s side; for there had been a succession of Christian Queens. First, Bertha, a French Princess, married Ethelbert, the King of Kent, and brought Christianity with her. Their daughter was Ethelburga, who married King Edwin in the great well-built Roman city of York, the capital of his kingdom of Deira. There daughter was Eanfleda, who married King Oswy, still a heathen; and their child was Elfreda, who was educated as a Christian at Whitby. In three cases Christianity came with the wife to a pagan husband. Who could say how great a blessing, or how great a curse, every young woman carries with her in her marriage, according as she is a loving wife and worshipper of God, or a heathen-ish worldling. Thus a monastery was a College and a School, and often had a learned Library. We still possess the catalogue of good books in manuscript, which this Abbey treasured up in the 12th century, beginning with the Bible. Part of the work of the place always was to copy good books, the priceless legacies of elder times, as it is now a good work to give or to lend them. A monastery inspired by such persons as Hilda and her fellow-workers was next a great mission centre, whence educated men went forth on foot to evangelise the neighbouring villages and towns; and many were the cells and village churches which were set up by the godly monks from Whitby College.”

“The noble St Chad, or Ceadda, of Lindisfarne, was often here; and so holy and laborious a worker and walker was he, that the people in after-times fancied that a healing virtue remained in the springs and pools where he baptized the heathen Saxons whom he converted; so that the name of “St. Chad’swell,” or Shadwell, is found over half of England, and has reached as far as London. For long Ceadda’s central abode was at Lastringham, beyond Pickering; and afterwards, in his last days when full of years and honours, he was made the Bishop of Litchfield, the first  of a series of eighty, ending with Bishop Maclagan.” 

3.  A monastery was also a great school of medicine, and place of healing. There were stored up all manner of receipts, wise and unwise, for the medical use of plants and treatment of wounds. And thence went forth elder Sisters of Mercy, to nurse the poor people of Whitby 1200 years ago”

“4.  A great monastery was a fountain of civilization in all the useful arts, such as agriculture and gardening. The best intelligence of the time was frequently brought to bear on the culture of a great abbey’s  possessions. It was also a school of the fine artsof music, singing, painting, and preeminently of architecture. It was likewise a school of  poetry, for here Caedmon sang his inspired song of the creation, and commended to the semi-barbarous Saxons divine ideas in strains that echoed far and wide over Saxon England, and gave prophetic hints of Miltons of the future yet to come.”

“And (5) lastly, a great monastery was a visible monument of all the Past Divine History of the world, as well as a written prophecy of a better kingdom to come.”

“All this was in the design of the Princess Hilda, when she planted her great Abbey upon these heights; and since she was, beyond all reasonable doubt, a devoted Christian, her object was in a great measure realized. For the great church and college of Whitby became to Yorkshire, and far beyond it, a fountain of salvation. Her religion was clothed in the idiom, the ceremonial, the con-ceptions of her own day; and much of that external investure was no doubt the growth of ages of gradual departure from the apostolic model. But what a grand and noble woman was this, who kindled so great a light on that sublime eminence, the memory of whose noble works was powerful enough 400 years after her death, to create another race of men to  rebuild the fallen in new splendor on the very site of her earlier enterprise.”

Now arose the early monasteries of Canterbury, of Glastonbury, of Streonshall—to this last king Oswy assisting  by the gift to Hilda of twelve manors, prompted thereto by the remorseful desires of a heart that repented itself of its previous blood-stained and violent career. Now hence-forth the figure of the Princess Hilda rises on her sacred hill, towering aloft above the desolated villages of Saxon Deira, a true messenger of peace to the troubled people. Her monastery continued for 200 years to be the central light amongst this darkness; and the gleam that shone through the rounded windows of her humble early church was truly a light of life to the Saxons. Then, as you know,  followed in the 9th century the complete destruction of the first modest and mostly wooden fabric by the Danish pirates, and an utter desolation of Streonshall for 200 years, indeed until after the Norman conquest. Then the Norman Percys, moved by the horrors of William the Conqueror’s desolation of Yorkshire—as Hilda had been moved 400 years before by the similar horrors of the Saxon war Desolations—began the re-building of the Abbey and Monastery, of which, and its subsequent additions, we can see the noble ruins to day.”

Whitby Abbey Ruins (old illustration).

Whitby Abbey Ruins (old illustration).

“Now again 400 years followed of growing magnificence, of cease-less worship, of holy song, devout study, of strenuous labour by twenty-five generations of the black-robed Benedictine monks among the surrounding towns and villages; and alas, of increasing superstition, increasing depravation of manners, increasing sloth and forgetfulness of God, until the crisis was reached of the Tudor reigns; when the voice of England, thundering indignantly like a northern tempest against the apostate church, supported Henry VIII in the dissolution and plunder of the Abbeys, then possessed of at least one-third of the cultivated land of the kingdom, and ruin fell upon Streonshall, with its precincts full of the dust of saints and kings, in the just judgment of God.”


Smith, William., Stories & Tales Of Old Yorkshire, (orig. edt. by William Smith, 1882-3. Selected & Edt. by Dawn Robinson-Walsh, 1993), Printwise Publications, Tottington, Bury, Lancs., 1993. [Stories & Tales of Old Yorkshire selected from the work ‘Old Yorkshire’ 5 vols, 1882-3.]



Rosamond’s Well, Blenheim Park, Woodstock, Oxfordshire

Fair Rosamund's Well, Blenheim (Photo Credit: Philip Halling - Geograph)

Fair Rosamund’s Well, Blenheim (Photo Credit: Philip Halling – Geograph)

Os grid reference: SP 4365 1647. At the north-side of the lake in Blenheim Park at Woodstock, Oxfordshire, is Rosamond’s Well, also known as Fair Rosamund’s Well. It takes its name from Lady Rosamond de Clifford who was to become the lover (Mistress), for her sins, of King Henry II, although probably not ‘entirely’ out of her own choosing! Fair Rosamond, it is said, was “supposedly” murdered by a very jealous Queen Eleanor in about 1175, or was she? But back in the 12th century the well was called Everswell, maybe because it was ‘never ever’ known to run dry, even in the driest spells of weather; and in the past the water had some curative properties as pilgrims were wont to come here and partake of it in bottles – in those distant times, but in fact the well has only been named after Rosamond since the 16th century. The village of Woodstock is a quarter of a mile east of the well, while Bladon is half a mile south, and the town of Long Harborough 2 miles south-west on the A4095 road.

Godstow Nunnery Ruin (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Godstow Nunnery Ruin (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Poor Rosamond was buried at Godstow nunnery, a house of Benedictine nuns dedicated to St Mary and St John the Baptist, which is now in ruins beside the river Thames, near Oxford. It was founded by the widow Edith Launceline in 1133, dissolved in 1539, and almost destroyed during the Civil War in 1645 or 46. Today the ruin acts as a pound for local farm animals. There are only fragmentary remains of the precinct wall and chapel of abbess’ lodging, according to Frank Bottomley in his book ‘The Abbey Explorer’s Guide’, 1981. The nunnery ruins are two-and-a-half miles north-west of Oxford city centre.

Today the well looks quite neat and tidy, and is surrounded by a fence, in what is a very tranquil setting close to the north bank of Blenheim Lake – in the green and wooded grounds of Blenheim Palace. The well is actually a large square-shaped pool paved all around with flat paving stones, while at the head of the pool a high, curving wall with carvings, and a square opening for the water to issue into the pool itself; the water then flowing out into the lake. Foliage and trees grow at either side of the structure, which is soon to be restored. The water is usually quite near to the top of the pool, indeed it is never known to go down by much nor to dry up when there is a prolonged spell of dry weather. Close by is Rosamond’s Bower where Lady Rosamond, daughter of Walter de Clifford, lived before her untimely death (in strange circumstances) at the age of 35 in the year 1175 – murdered, according to the legend, by Queen Eleanor after she had found out that Fair Rosamond was her husband’s concubine. However, it is said that only the king knew the route to Rosamond’s secret bower, a sort of underground labyrinth built for her by King Henry.

Fair Rosamond was buried at the Benedictine nunnery of Godstow in Oxfordshire. In the book ‘A Thames Companion’ by Prichard & Carpenter, the authors say: “On the main stream of the river, Godstow comes next with its ruined nunnery and legend of Fair Rosamond, of which Aubrey wrote (in a manuscript note inside his copy of Plot’s Natural History of Oxfordshire, now in the Bodleian Library): This Rosamond, ye fair daughter of Walter Ld. Clifford, and forced to be Concubine to K. Henry ye 2d, who builded for her at Woodstock an house or Labyrinth under the ground, much wherof at this day is to be seen as also is a goodly Bath or Well, called to this day Rosamund’s Well. In the end she was poysoned by Q. Elianor, some write, and being dead, was buried at Godstow in a house of Nonnes besides Oxford. Not long since her grave was digged, where some of her bones were found, and her Teeth so white (as ye dwellers there report) that the beholders did much wonder at them.”


Photo Credit: © Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.



Bord, Janet & Colin., Sacred Waters, Paladin Books, London W1, 1986.

Bottomley, Frank., The Abbey Explorer’s Guide, Kaye & Ward Ltd (The Windmill Press), Kingswood, Tadworth, Surrey. 1981.

Prichard, Mari & Carpenter, Humphrey., A Thames Companion, (2nd Edition), Oxford University Press, Oxford OX2, 1981.



Gokewell Priory, Broughton, North Lincolnshire

Gokewell Priory Farm (

Gokewell Priory Farm (*Copyright, see below)

OS grid reference: SE 9402 1028. Roughly ½ a mile east of the Appleby Frodingham steelworks (Scunthorpe) and about halfway between Broughton and Santon, in north Lincolnshire, is the ‘lost’ hamlet of Gokewell with the scant remains and earthworks that are all that is left of the small religious house of Gokewell Priory, covering up to 1 acre of land. Standing just a little to the north “was” Gokewell Priory Farm (now demolished*) around which there are some very scant stone foundations, earthworks, ditches and ponds, all that is left of the medieval priory that housed Cistercian nuns between the late 12th and the early 16th centuries. The site now lies in the parish of Broughton, and an area of bushes marks the site where the farm used to stand.

The hamlet of Gokewell is virtually gone. Of the site itself there is little remaining today, while all around it there are ploughed fields that are usually covered in crops during the summer months but, there are footpaths around the periphery of the earthworks and, Santon Wood is just a short distance to the north – otherwise the priory earthworks are for the ‘most part’ on private land. The village of Broughton is 1 mile to the south-east on the B1207 (Appleby Lane) which is, in fact, the course of the Roman road Ermine Street; the roman road itself runs straight through the village centre. There was a holy well at Gokewell called Nun’s Well, but the site could date back to the Dark Ages or to pre-Christian times?

The small priory with a school-room for poor children was ‘probably’ founded in 1185 by William de Alta Ripa but, it’s possible that it was founded a little earlier in 1148; there were three other local benefactors who also gave ‘money’ for the establishment of the religious house, which was run by Cistercian nuns, with the first recorded prioress being a noblewoman called Avice (1234). From what we know, and its not very much, the priory never had much money (for its up-keep) and at any one time there was never more than ten or eleven religious sisters here and, even less on some occassions; at the Dissolution in 1536, only seven sisters remained! The sisters would have lived a “very” spartan life, with a life of prayer and penence, and besides that very little in the way of food, apart from fish from their ponds (still to be seen today), and food stuffs given to them by local people, their clothes were bought by their own families. However, they did take in ‘poor’ children, mainly boys under the age of eight and girls under ten years. The rector of Flixborough was their steward but they were always much in debt to him; however a number of northern bishops found the house to be ‘in good order’ and offered their protection against local thieves and troublemakers. We know that the yearly revenue of Gokewell priory never exceeded £10!

In 1536 the priory of Gokewell was abandoned, seemingly without any fuss, and the sisters dispersed to the locality, while the last prioress Anne (of) Castleford was given an annual pension of £4 and was still living in 1553. But it seems the prioress was not highly thought of by the younger nuns, in deed they took no notice of her and even apparently referrred to her as ‘a simpleton’; she also failed in her ability to discipline the nuns. Eventually the stonework from the priory was re-used in the building of the nearby Priory Farm; much of this carved and dressed stonework ‘could’ still be seen in the farm’s walls and its out-buildings (*the farm has long since been demolished). The land where the priory stood was flattened for farming purposes; however one large round-shaped fish-pond remains and a few smaller ponds can be made out, along with ditches, earthworks and ‘lumps and bumps’ beneath which, scant stone foundations remain.

The place-name ‘Gokewell’ is derived from “Gawk” or the Anglo-Saxon name gawkr meaning cuckoo or fool! which referrs to a holy well Gawkr’s Well (Cuckoo Well), probably a pre-Christian spring that was eventually renamed ‘Nun’s Well’ after the religious sisters who came to live here at the end of the 12th century, but whether it ever had any curative properties, we don’t really know, though I suspect it did. A bit of searching around and you may still be able to find the well, though it could now be dried-up? Abraham de la Pryme (1671-1704) the Yorkshire antiquarian writing in the 17th century calls it Nun’s Well and remarks: “And this day I went to Gokewell, formerly called Goykewell, which was a nunnery. It seems to have been a most stately place. The walls has compassed in betwixt twenty and thirty akers of ground. They shew’d me a little well, which by tradition, was once very great and famous; this they called Num’s Well. It has run straight through the midst of this ground, being a great spring, and it fed the all house with water, and several statues or water fountains in the courts and gardens.”

Footnote:- My Great-Great-Great-Great Grandparents Thomas and Rebecca Spencer lived at Gokewell Priory Farm from 1815-25, afterwhich they moved to Messingham. Thomas died in 1863 and is buried in the cemetary there.


British History Online

Page, William., A History Of The County Of Lincoln, Volume 2, pages 156-7, 1906.

Pryme, Abraham de la., Ephemeris Vitae: A Diary of My Own Life, Vol 54, Surtees Society, 1870.

*Photo: © Copyright Robert Reynolds and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

My sincere thanks go to Ross Parish for his very valuable information on Gokewell, the place-name, and the holy well. Please take a look at his web blog for more holy wells in Lincolnshire

Walsingham, Norfolk

English: The statue of Our Lady of Walsingham,...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Os grid reference TF9360 3678. Walsingham the famous English ‘Marian’ shrine and pilgrimage centre in north Norfolk is actually made up of two villages, Little and Great Walsingham, some 5 miles north of Fakenham and 20 miles east of King’s Lynn on the A148. In the grounds of the Augustinian priory ruins at Little Walsingham just south of Holt road, founded in 1153, 1162 or 1169? by Geoffrey de Favarches, are two holy wells that were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Our Lady of Walsingham), but today these have, sadly, become wishing wells. Geoffrey de Favarches, son of Richeldis who had visions of the Virgin Mary in 1061, having visited the Holy Land had vowed to build a religious house on his land at Walsingham when he returned to England. He did not go back on his vow. Geoffrey was also associated with endowing Castle Acre priory in Norfolk, which had been founded earlier in c.1090 by William de Warenne, Earl of Suffolk.

The two healing wells are located just a short distance to the east of the turreted monastic archway, all that remains of the priory church (east side gable end), now a rather forlorn looking ruin standing all alone, but which in earlier times was a very grand religious house that had strong links to the shrine of Our Lady (which had stood at the north side of the priory church) and the healing wells. There are other ruins here, notably the west end of the refrectory, dating from around 1300, and other ruins including gatehouse and frater. To add to the religious buildings, a Franciscan friary was established in 1347, as a hospice for poor travellers, under the patronage of Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Clare, despite much opposition from the Augustinian canons of the priory who thought this would be a distraction for pilgrims coming to their house. Walsingham priory was dissolved in 1538 even though King Henry VIII had himself earlier visited the ‘Catholic’ shrine and left a candle burning there! – the friary was abandoned at the Dissolution in the same year, although some ruined walls from that building are still visible including guest-house and church, but today these stand on private land.

It was here in 1061 that the lady of the manor of Little Walsingham, Richeldis de Favarches, who had earlier been married to a Norman lord, had at least three visions, one of the Virgin Mary on her own who instructed her to build a replica of the holy house (Santa Casa) at Nazareth, one of St Mary with baby Jesus and another of St Joseph. This was done and a chapel and wooden shrine were established two years later. During the middle ages Walsingham became something of a place of pilgrimage and, this even more so in later centuries when kings, queens, the nobility and also the poor and disabled came to the Slipper Chapel, at Houghton St Giles, on what was the best known of the pilgrim routes to complete the 1 mile journey to the Roman Catholic shrine itself without shoes (barefooted). The Slipper Chapel fell in to ruin in 1538, but was restored by the local Catholic community in the 1890s; and later in 1914 it became the National Catholic Shrine to Our Lady – to where thousands of pilgrims come every year from all over the world. The Slipper Chapel houses a very lovely statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.

During the 14th and 15th centuries Walsingham had become known as ‘little Nazareth’ and even the ‘English Holy Land’- such was the fame of the place at this time in history. In 1931 an Anglican shrine was established near the priory ruins and a well was discovered where the foundations were to be built – this well was rather ‘curiously’ found to be connected up to the two healing wells, and so it too has curative properties. Today it is a renowned place of pilgrimage for Anglo-Catholics, Roman Catholics and, the Orthodox Churches, both in this country, and in Europe. According to the author David Pepin in his book Discovering Shrines And Holy Places, “For many twentieth-century pilgrims the annual pilgrimage to Walsingham is a highlight of the Christian year”. And it still is in the 21st century.

The two circular healing wells, with a larger square-shaped pool between them began to flow “again” at the instigation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, having been dried up for some considerable time; they were almost certainly pre-Christian, pagan springs. Our Lady instructed the saintly and, wealthy widow, Richeldis, to build a shrine and chapel that would represent the holy house at Nazareth; from which time the water in the two stone basins, close-by, became ‘effacious with healing qualities’ that would miraculously cure such ailments as: stomach problems and headaches etc. There also existed a chapel of St Lawrence at or beside the healing wells, but this has long since vanished. The small Romanesque entrance with a round-headed doorway and nice carvings was re-erected here in the 19th century but it originally stood eleswhere as part of the priory buildings. The two wells are covered with decorative iron lids and the larger bathing pool is often covered over. Also at one time a worshippers stone stood between the wells to allow pilgrims to sit and perform their usual water rituals.


Butler, Lionel & Wilson-Given, Chris., Medieval Monasteries of Great Britain, Michael Joseph Limited, London, 1979.

Bord, Janet & Colin., Sacred Waters, Paladin (Grafton Books), London, 1986.

Reader’s Digest., Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain, (2nd Edition), Reader’s Digest Association Limited, London, 1977.

Pepin, David., Discovering Shrines And Holy Places, Shire Publications Ltd., Princes Risborough, Aylesbury, Bucks, 1980.

Bottomley, Frank., The Abbey Explorer’s Guide, Kaye & Ward Ltd., London, 1981.


St Mary-Le-Gill Church, Barnoldswick, Lancashire

St Mary-Le-Gill Church, Barnoldswick

St Mary-Le-Gill Church, Barnoldswick

OS grid reference SD 8930 4801. The picturesque St Mary-Le-Gill Church near Barnoldswick is something of a hidden gem that can be found up Ghyll Lane, (often spelt as ‘Gill’) off the B6252 Skipton road, at Coates, about 1 mile north-east of the town that used to be a part of west Craven or north Yorkshire uptil 1974, but is now in Lancashire, just about! The hamlet of Greenberfield with the Leeds and Liverpool canal running through it is half a mile west of the church, while the town of Skipton is about 8 miles to the north-east on the A56 and A59. The name Gill (Ghyll) is the Yorkshire name given to the stream, in this case Gill Syke, that runs southwards from the churchyard and cemetary along the western edge of Ghyll golf course towards Rainhall, while the place-name ‘Coates’ probably means “cottages” – Coates being a grange/farm of Sawley Abbey near Clitheroe.

A Norman foundation, there was a monastic church on the site in 1157, built by Cistercian monks from Kirkstall Abbey near Leeds, west Yorkshire, some 10 years after another group of Cistercian monks from Fountains Abbey in north Yorkshire had tried unsuccessfully to sustain a foundation in the area, but they had failed due to the ‘very’ inclement weather conditions encountered there along with other problems. In the book Medieval Monasteries of Great Britain by Lionel Butler and Chris Given-Wilson, the authors say: “the land was unproductive, however, and the community was plagued by robbers”. The land for a small abbey had been granted to 13 monks and 10 laybrothers from Fountains Abbey under abbot Alexander in 1147 – by Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, but by 1152 the foundation had been abandoned and left to decay. In the book ‘Outstanding Churches in Craven’ by Val Leigh and Brian Podmore – the authors add a comment from one of the monks saying: “We stayed there for some years, suffering many discomforts of hunger and cold, partly by reason of the inclemency of the air, and immoderate plague of waters, partly because of the Kingdom being disturbed, robbers many times wasted our goods”. The Cistercian abbey of Kirkstall near Leeds was founded in 1152 by the monks who had left Barnoldswick. A few years later, apparently, the Pope decreed that the monks must build a church ‘as a replacement’ at ‘Bernulfswic’ because they had failed to keep their abbey going there. However the monks, maybe out of malice, decided to build the church dedicated to St Mary about one-and-a-half miles from the original site of their failed abbey, which was located on the western edge of the present town at Monkroyd (Townhead). There are no remains, only slight earthworks there today. More likely they sited the church on ‘St Mary’s Mount’ at Ghyll to provide a place of worship between Bernulfswic, Marton and Thornton-in-Craven as a kind of atonement ie penence.

In the excellent book ‘Journeys Through Brigantia’ (vol 1) Walks in Craven, Airedale and Wharfedale, by John* and Phillip Dixon – the authors say: “And indeed what a place for quiet reflection this churchyard is amid the willow-herb, brome, wild-thorn and old English rose that play for space among the tangled stones”, a statement that I like because I think ‘that’ more or less sums up the place as you walk up through the lovely churchyard – when the place has been left alone for some considerable time, but just as nice when the grass and foliage has been cut back as was the case when I visited.

The Perpendicular church tower of the present-day building looks very grand, dating from the early 16th century, while nothing much remains of the 12th century Norman foundation, apart from an arch above an inner door; there is an inscribed stone on the south wall of the tower that reads: CCCCCXXIIII that should have read 1524 but the ‘M’ is missing! Outside, at the side of the porch, there is a medieval stone coffin that is now full of soil. This may have once contained the body of one of the monks who came here to help build the church or the abbey.

Inside the church much of the timbered roof dates from the 13th century, while the font with Jacobean canopied-cover is 14th century; at the side of this there is a nice Medieval holy water stoup (piscina). In the sanctuary (north wall) stands the credence table, carved with three swords in fess, representing the arms of Kirkstall Abbey and it’s monks who came back to build the church. The wooden three-decker pulpit is of 1620 and above it an octagonal sounding board. Notice the south door which has a beam that would have been placed across the door during invasions by Scottish armies, keeping the local people who were taking refuge, secure. Above the door is the 12th century Norman arch, the last reminent perhaps of the 12th century Norman foundation. The dark oak box pews date from the 17th century, and there is a wardens’ and constable’s box-pew in the south aisle. There are many interesting old gravestones in the churchyard, two of which date from the early 17th century, and are well-embedded into the ground.

There are a number of prehistoric settlements and earthworks in the area and a number of finds have come to light in recent times; a Bronze-Age sword was found here at Ghyll, and several Celtic stone heads have been discovered within a few miles, including one at Great Hague house, Kelbrook, and also a Bronze Age collared urn was dug up at nearby Hare Hill, Thornton-in-Craven, according to John* and Phillip Dixon in their work ‘Journeys through Brigantia’ (vol 1).

*[This site page is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend and author John Dixon, of Clitheroe, who very sadly passed away in September 2012].


*Dixon, John & Phillip., Journeys through Brigantia (Vol 1) Walks in Craven, Airedale and Whafedale, Aussteiger Publications, Barnoldswick, 1990.

Leigh, Val & Podmore, Brian., Outstanding Churches in Craven, Bradford Diocesan Board of Finance in conjunction with Val Leigh Publications, Settle, North Yorkshire, 1985.

Butler, Lionel & Wilson-Given Chris., Medieval Monasteries of Great Britain, Michael Joseph Limited, London, 1979.