The Journal Of Antiquities

Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland

Marrick Priory, Swaledale, North Yorkshire

Old Plan of Marrick Priory, Richmondshire, Yorkshire (c.1590).

NGR: SE 06686 97759. About 1 mile southwest of Marrick village, on the north bank of the river, in Swaledale (formerly Richmondshire), North Yorkshire, are the now ‘very scanty’ ruins of Marrick Priory, a 12th Century house of Benedictine nuns that was founded by Roger de Aske and, dedicated to St Andrew & St Mary the Virgin. The religious buildings, or what’s left of them, are now incorporated into more modern buildings that are an Outdoor Education and Resi-dential Centre for young people. The former priory church (St Andrew’s) has largely survived and was still in use up until 1948 as the parish church, though the tower was rebuilt in the early 19th Century, and the rest of the building much renovated more recently. One is still able to see the fragmentary remains of some of the monastic buildings in particular the cloister and chancel and fishponds. The priory ruins are on [private land] but you can view them from the lane: by heading southeast from Reeth via Fremington and Grinton on the B6270, or southwest from Marrick via the 375 nuns’ stone steps (causeway) down through the woods, and then onto Sikelands Lane.

Marie Hartley & Joan Ingilby (1963) tell us that: “The Priory of St Andrew, a house for Benedictine nuns, was founded c. 1154 by Roger Aske, who endowed it with a hundred acres of land and the advowson of the parish church of Marrick. Other gifts of land here and elsewhere followed. Bear Park in Wensleydale was their most valuable property. Although one of the smaller houses exempted from suppression, it was surrendered 17 November 1540; it then had a prioress and twelve nuns, and the gross annual value was £48 18s. 2d.

“The parish CHURCH is still there, and recently the interior has been renovated and altered for an Outward Bound centre for young people. The tower was pulled down and rebuilt in 1811, and old arches were used to form a chancel arch. A chapel of ease in Marrick village, formerly a Roman Catholic church, bought in 1893, has replaced it. Some of the priory buildings are incorporated in the farmhouse; other remains may be picked out amongst the farm buildings, and the ruins of the old chancel, swathed in ivy, stand at the E. end of the church. Note: fishponds between house and river.”

Frank Botttomley (1981) has the following entry information for Marrick, Yorkshire North Riding c1155-1540. “Large P (CN, possibly BN) with dependent H at Rerecross. Some remains cannibalized by C19 church, ruins of chapel in situ, incorp-orated in new secular building.”  Key: P – priory, CN – Cistercian nuns, BN – Benedictine nuns, H – house.

Frank Bottomley adds regarding Benedictine priories, that: “Their chaplains may have been Benedictine priests but some of the older nunneries were provided with secular chaplains with prebends in the monastic estates. Such benefices generally became the perquisites of royal clerks who provided vicars for the nunneries.”

The following information is from the Genuki Website: “The Church (St. Andrew) occupies a portion of the site, and seems also to have served for the conventual chapel as well as the parish church. The old structure having become much dilapidated, the greater part of it was taken down in the early part of this century, and the present small church built on its site, mixed with parts of the old fabric. It consists of a nave, with north aisle, chancel, and the ancient tower, In the latter are three bells, one of which dates from old Catholic times, and bears the invocation in Latin, “St. Peter, Pray for us.” The chancel was restored and improved in 1885, at the expense of the impropriator. A few ancient tombstones remain. On the chancel floor, cut in relief, are the arms and sword of Sir Roger de Aske; and near the door are the places from which some vandal hand has torn the funeral brasses of the founder and his wife. In the nave is a slab, which a Latin inscription, in Old English characters, tells us covers the remains of Isabella, one of the nuns of the priory, and sister of Thomas de Pudsay, of Barforth; and on another, forming part of the step of the altar rail, are an incised cross, with chalice, book, a square object charged with a quartrefoil, and another object, apparently a pax. Against the wall is a tablet to the memory of Mr. Thomas Fawcett, of Oxque, in this parish, who died in 1783. He was, the inscription tells us, “a celebrated cultivator of bees, for which he received many testimonies from the Society in London for the encouragement of Arts and Sciences.” See Genuki – UK & Ireland Genealogy Website Link, below.

The Yorkshire Dales Official Guide says that: “The Priory has a most delightful situation a short distance from the river, and was founded in King Stephen’s reign by Roger de Aske. Built into the shell of the Priory is a two-storey structure to provide hostel-type accommodation for youth organisations as a kind of spiritual Outward Bound Centre. A refectory, quiet room, chapel and two dormitories provide accommodation for 35 young people of both sexes.”

Sources / References and related websites:

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

Genuki Website:                                         

Hartley, Marie & Ingilby, Joan, The Yorkshire Dales, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London, 1963.

The Yorkshire Dales Official Guide, (Compiled by: Eric Lodge F.R.G.S.), The Yorkshire Dales Tourist Association, Burnsall, Skipton.

Click on:

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© Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2019.

Cockersand Abbey, Near Thurnham, Lancashire

Engraving of the chapter house at Cockersand Abbey. (Wikipedia).

OS Grid Reference: SD 42703 53764. The scant and windswept ruins of Cockersand Abbey, or priory, lie beside the Lancashire Coastal Way on the Moss about 2 miles west of Thurnham and 2½ miles northwest of Cockerham on the Lancaster Road (A588). It is 9 miles south of Lancaster, 3 miles northeast of Pilling, and overlooks Morecambe Bay. Today only the 13th century chapter-house remains intact, whereas the rest of the abbey is now all but a few low walls and earth-works next to the adjacent Abbey farm, which might have some of the stonework of the religious building? Cockersand Abbey started its life as ‘the hospital of St Mary’ for lepers – having been established by Hugh (Garth) the Hermit around 1180. It became a priory in 1190 and, in 1192 the Norman baron Theobald Walter, turned it into an abbey for Premonstratensian canons, whose mother-house was Croxton Abbey, Leicestershire. Cockersand was dissolved in 1539. To reach the site head west out of Thurnham for about 2 miles, passing Haresnape farm. At a junction of two lanes – head south along Moss Lane. After half a mile go west onto the coastal footpath to the abbey. You will see the chapter-house in front of you. You can also reach the site from Bank End Farm in the south, and from Glasson in the north on the coastal path southwards for 3 miles.

1954 1″ Ordnance Survey map of Preston (sheet 94) which shows Cockersand  Abbey.

The infirmary or ‘Hospital of St Mary of the Marsh’ for lepers at Cockersand grew in size under Hugh Garth and it received monies from Croxton Abbey, near Leicester. Hugh was very well-liked and respected by the local people and, because of this, many charitable gifts were given to the hospital, which for 10 years flourished. After the death of Hugh Garth in 1188 or 1189 white canons of the Premonstratensian Order from Croxton arrived in the area, and in a few years they built an abbey onto the hospital building as a cell of their mother-house. In 1230 they added a chapter-house. The abbey was said to have covered 1 acre of land, and to have become one of the three richest abbeys in Lancashire; the other two being Whalley and Furness. Then, in the 15th century the canons built what must have been the first lighthouse in the area to guide sea vessels away from dangerous mud and sand banks. The lighthouse would have been a stone tower with a beacon burning every night. We also know that the fishing rights on the River Lune between Glasson and Thurnham were owned by the canons of Cockersand Abbey, and they owned land at Pilling Hall, a few miles to the southwest, where there are the remains of Pilling’s first church, a medieval foundation served by the canons.

Ruins at Cockersand Abbey by Bob Jenkins (Wikimedia Commons/ Geograph).

However, the abbey’s good fortunes were not to last for in 1539 this religious building was destroyed by King Henry VIII’s soldiers, although the chapter-house was left intact as it was being used as a family mausoleum by the Dalton family of nearby Thurnham Hall. They had the building crenellated in the 19th century. The last Dalton to be buried there was Elizabeth in 1861. Following the dissolution the land was sold off to a local gentleman, John Kitchen (Kechyn) of Hatfield. The abbey’s 14th century choir stalls and Renassance chest were thought to have been taken to Lancaster Priory – though this would seem not to be the case. However the stonework from the abbey was used in the building of Crook farm and there may be some in the walls of the adjacent Abbey farm. There is, apparently, robbed-away stonework in the sea-wall defenses and some pieces of stonework have been found on the shoreline. The canons’ cemetery has long since gone, having been partly Lost to the sea due to the constant erosion; there is archaeological evidence that human bones from the abbey’s cemetery have been found in the sea-wall and also on the seashore. The chapter house is a Grade I listed building.

Richard Peace (1997), says of the place, that it is: “A bleak and forbidding spot on the Lancashire coast marks where a 12th century hermit founded a leper hospital. Originally the building stood on a island, surrounded by treacherous salt marshes. In 1190 Cockersand Abbey was founded on the same spot, its monks battling with high tides which washed away much of their work. By the 15th century it was one of the three richest abbeys in Lancashire. The surrounding marshland had been drained, a quay built, and the first lighthouse on this part of the coast may well have been in operation.

“Today the only part remaining virtually intact is the Chapter House, where the monks once gathered daily to discuss a chapter from “The Rule”, the strict code which governed their lives. After the Reformation a local aristocratic family, the Daltons, destroyed most of the Abbey but turned the Chapter House into a family mausoleum. If the door is open you may enter to discover a beautiful octagonal room with intricate carving.” 

A. J. Noble (2009), tells us more about the Dalton family. He says that: “The earliest recorded burial at the abbey is that of William Hoghton on December 10th 1712. William was brother to John Dalton who had taken the name of Dalton. The last burial was of Miss Elizabeth Dalton on March 21st 1861. He also tells us that: “the abbey remains were acquired by the Catholic Dalton family of Thurnham Hall in 1556.”

Ian & Krysia Brodie (1993) add some interesting bits of information. They say that: “Crook Farm and its shippon incorporate stone fragments from Cockersand Abbey, some of which are recognizable as former door frames and two-light window heads. The authors also add that: “the ruins are the result of dissolution and time. The chapter house remains because it became the burial vault of the Dalton family from nearby Thurnham Hall who had the building crenellated. The last of the line to be buried here was Miss Elizabeth Dalton in 1861, who built some of the houses……. in Glasson Dock.” They also add that: “Just south of [Pilling Hall Farm] lies a small moated site and some rubble — the remains of Pilling’s first church. This dates at least from the early thirteenth century, possibly earlier, and was served by the monks of Cockersand Abbey, who farmed some land at Pilling. It was probably built on a previously pagan site.”

Nikolaus Pevsner (1979), says of the abbey: “Of the Premonstratensian abbey, founded in 1190, there remains only the chapter house and some inarticulate fragments of walls. Excavations in 1923 have shown that the church had an aisleless nave and aisleless choir and transepts with the pairs of straight-ended chapels which were standard Cistercian and Premon-stratensian custom The cloister was S of the church. Walls indicate the E, S, and W ranges. In the E range is the chapter house. This, if it were better looked after, could be a very beautiful room. It is small (27 ft 6 ins.) and octagonal, with a compound mid-pier of four major and four minor shafts and a rib-vault with one pair of tiercerons for each two cells. The pier has one luscious stiff-leaf capital. The doorway is still round-headed.”

Jacqueline Senior writes that: “The Chapter House and Abbey grounds are open on the Saturday and Sunday of the second weekend in September between noon and 5pm for the Heritage Open Weekend.; these are a festival which is coordinated by The National Trust. My husband and I help out by providing visitors with info, show them all various displays, and point out places of interest there (plus sell my booklet for £5). We help to mark out the Abbey site with various posts and signs so people can see how large an area the Abbey encompassed. Our local historian, Robert Parkinson, is a fount of knowledge of this area and it’s well worth having a chat with him. His mother used to tend the lighthouse which used to be in the grounds of Lighthouse Cottage, but has now gone. This cottage still exists on the shore on the left-hand side at the top of Slack Lane. I have copied the Link to a film that was made of her tending the lighthouse.”

Sources & related websites:

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

Brodie, Ian & Krysia, The Lancashire Coastal Way And The Wyre Way, Lancashire County Books, Preston, 1993.

Noble, A. J., (Contributed Article 19 ‘Cockersands Abbey Chapter House’), The North West Catholic History, (Ed: J. A. Hilton), Volume XXXVI (2009).

Peace, Richard, Lancashire Curiosities, The Dovecot Press Ltd., Stanbridge, Wimborne, Dorset, 1997.

Pevsner, Nikolaus, The Buildings of England — North Lancashire, (Reprint) Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1979.

Thanks also to Jacqueline Senior for her input. 

The engraving of the chapter house (top) is from ‘Cockersand Abbey’, A History of the County of Lancaster: Volume 8 (1914), pp. 105-06. URL:

© Ray Spencer, The Journal Of Antiquities, 2018.

















































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The Dragon Stone, St Mary And St Bega’s Church, St Bees, Cumbria

View of St Bees priory church, Cumbria, by Samuel & Nathaniel Buck (1739) Wikipedia.

OS Grid Reference: NX 9685 1210. In an alcove of the churchyard wall of St Mary & St Bega’s church at St Bees, Cumbria, is a huge carved stone lintel, which was thought to date back to the 8th century AD? The stone has a very beautiful, but also quite curious, Anglo Saxon carving of a dragon being killed by St Michael the Archangel, and not St George – as was usually the case! Below this lintel stone is a carved Medieval cross. The stone, which is called ‘The Dragon Stone’ for obvious reasons, is also known as ‘The Beowulf Stone’. Inside the parish church, which has grown out of the ruins of the near-complete priory nave, are more interesting carved gravestones and crosses. The Benedictine priory was dissolved in 1538. St Bega (Bee) was a Legendary 7th century Irish princess who came here in order to avoid an unwanted marriage; she founded a nunnery in AD 650 at or close to where the present parish church now stands. The priory church can be found beside the B5345 (over the railway line) at the northwestern side of the village – in the direction of Rottington. The village of St Bees lies 3 miles west of Egremont.

The Dragon Stone at St Mary & St Bega’s Church, in Cumbria.

The Dragon Stone or Beowulf Stone is in an alcove of the churchyard (courtyard) wall, opposite the beautifully carved west door of c.1160. It is a huge, long lump of carved stone bearing carvings that were thought to date from the 8th century, but they are now considered to be from the Norman period – the early 12th century AD, and probably came from a much earlier church that stood here. These carvings are very well-preserved, despite their age. A ferocious looking dragon with its long curled tail is depicted about to be killed by St Micheal, who is cowering behind it with his sword raised in readiness. There looks to be another strange beast, perhaps a dragon, with a long curled tail behind the main dragon, but also a dove of peace inside a circle, which sort of balances things out between good and evil. The strap-work design at the right-hand side seems more like Celtic or Saxon, and certainly not Norman; and at the left-side are two small circles with knotted (connecting) cords running through that look like crosses and, below them another section of knotwork with loops and links. Beneath the lintel stone a round-headed medieval cross with shaped depressions forming the arms. Also out in the churchyard part of a 10th century cross-shaft with Late Saxon carvings and a serpent.

Arthur Mee (1961), tells of more about the village, St Bega, and its church, saying that: “Deep in a valley near the sea it lies, a grey village of much antiquity and charm. Its church is the oldest and finest in West Cumberland; its school is ancient, and so is its bridge; but the oldest of all is its delightful story of St Bega (or Bee) and how she got her nunnery. “

The church has grown from the church of a rich priory which began about 1125 as an offshoot of St Mary’s great abbey in York. The priory was built where the nunnery has stood (from the 7th century until the Danes destroyed it in the 10th), and this church is carrying on its ancient tradition. But the most interesting possession of St Bees is a relic of the nunnery itself, a remarkable stone believed to date from the eighth century.

The Dragon Stone.

“We see it in the wall between the churchyard and the vicarage, where it forms the lintel of an alcove. It is carved with an ugly dragon turning to snarl at a tiny armed figure attacking it from behind. One end of the stone is decorated with plaitwork, and with the knotwork at the other end is a very curious carving which looks like a boar’s head. Standing in the alcove is another relic, a stout stone cross on which the bearers of a coffin would rest their load.

“The cross-shaped church with its fine central tower has been altered in modern times, but the greater part was built only a few decades after the priory. It has a magnificent Norman doorway without equal for many miles. The arch has four rich chevron mouldings, beak-heads of men and serpents, and a ram; and carved on one of the capitals is a figure swinging like a monkey from the branches. Three trefoils on stalks make an unusual decoration at the top of the dripstone, and are perhaps meant to represent the Trinity. The oak door is modern, and has decorated hinges. “

Among the stones kept here as relics are a stoup, a piscine, and a mortar, all of the 12th century. Others are probably parts of still older cross-shafts with primitive carving, and one is the upper part of a 10th century shaft decorated on each side with chain and scroll. There are coffin stones 800 years old, carved with crosses and swords and shears: a very fine one engraved with an archer drawing his bow, an elaborate 13th century stone, and another charmingly engraved with the portrait of 14th century Johanna Lucy in a graceful gown her hair in plaited coils.”

Arthur Mee (1961), goes on to tell of St Bega, patron saint of St Bees, saying that: “She was an Irish princess who lived in the 7th century. As a child she made up her mind to serve God and not to marry, and as a pledge of her determination she kept a bracelet said to have been given to her by an angel. But she was the most beautiful woman in the country, and her father betrothed her to a Norwegian prince. Bega (as she was often called) was guarded so that she should not run away, but on the eve of the wedding everyone joined in the merrymaking and she was able to escape, crossing the sea to Northumbria.

“Legend tells us that she was well received by a great lady there, who asked her husband to give her land for a nunnery. He jokingly said he would give as much land as was covered by snow on Midsummer day, and on that morning there was snow for three miles round. Snow has been known on Cumberland mountains on Midsummer day, and possibly the story grew up as an explanation of the irregular shape of the parish. Bega built her nunnery, serving food to the workers with her own hands. As abbess she cared for the sick and poor of the district and became greatly loved.

“Those who declare that there was no Saint Bega assert that the origin of her story is to be found in a ring keep at St Bees until the 13th century, venerated as the bracelet given to Bega by the angel. Actually this was a Norse ring from a pagan temple, taken into the Christian church and referred to as Sancta Bega, Latin for Holy and Anglo-Saxon for Ring; a misunderstanding of these words would account for belief in a saint named Bega. But it is likely that Bega was a real abbess, for the people of north-east England long looked upon her as the protector of the oppressed and the poor.”

Maxwell Fraser (1939), says that: “It has since been demonstrated that no St Bega had any connection with the site, although there was undoubtedly a pre-Norman church there.” W. T. Palmer (1939), adds to the legend of St Bega, saying that: “The place was Christianised by St. Bega, who had been promised all the land that snow lay on, on Midsummer morning. A space of 16 m. by 10 m. was clad in white, and had to be handed to her. In time monks took the place of nuns, and the Prior became one of the most powerful men in the North, though his church and estate were constantly being raided by Scots and by pirates.”

In recent times scholars and historians have considered Bega to be identical with Begu, a 7th century Northumbrian nun and friend of St Hilda. It was Begu who, looking out of her nunnery window at Hackness, had a vision of the soul of St Hilda floating (ascending) up into the night sky and heaven at the very same moment that the saintly abbess had died at Whitby mona-stery, on 17th of November, 680 AD, according to The Venerable Bede’s History. Her death also being recorded in ‘The Anglo Saxon Chronicle’. A passage concerning a bell being tolled for her passing is the first written mention of a bell in recorded history, according to Colin Waters (2003). David Farmer (1982), with regard to St Bee & St Begu being one and the same person, gives the feast-day of St Begu as 31st October. He also says that a sarcophagus containing the bones of St Begu was found at Hackness (c.1125) by the monks of Whitby – after it had been miraculously revealed to them. It was inscribed: Hoc est sepulchrum Begu. These relics were translated to Whitby Abbey where miracles were reported, but another set of relics was claimed by St Bees, says Farmer.

Sources & Related Websites:-

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

Farmer, David, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 1982.

Frazer, Maxwell, Companion Into Lakeland, Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, 1939.

Jennett, Seán (Editor), The Travellers Guides — The Lake District, Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1965.

Mee, Arthur, The King’s England — Lake Counties — Cumberland And Westmoreland, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1961.

Palmer, W. T., The Penguin Guides (Edt. by L. Russell Muirhead), Lake District, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1939.

© Ray Spencer, The Journal Of Antiquities, 2018.

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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.

Copyright © Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities 2015 Up-dated 2022.



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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.

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St Benet’s Abbey, Holme, Norfolk

English: Ruins of St Benet's Abbey on the Rive...

Ruins of St Benet’s Abbey (Photo credit: Richard Harvey Wikipedia)

OS grid reference TG 3832 1564. On a slightly raised area of land just a little north of the River Bure at Holme, Norfolk, lie the quite solitary remains of St Benet’s Abbey – with it’s church and gatehouse. A little to the north there are some more earthworks and fish ponds from what was once a large, thriving religious foundation. To the north-west of the ruins an old windmill now, alas, without its roof and sails looks forlorn but is, in fact, a more recent building built on the abbey’s lands which are said to have once covered up to 35 acres, and around which the ruins of the abbey’s gatehouse, built in the 14th century, still stands (on private land), although in a somewhat ruinous state, but under preservation. The abbey was originally built on what was an island called Cow Holm, surrounded by marshy land and the rivers Bure and Ant which meet each other at this point.

According to documented evidence the site was first inhabited back in the early 9th century by an Anglo-Saxon, Benedictine monastery, then later the Vikings invaded the area and destroyed the abbey, but in the early 11th century a larger, more influential Benedictine abbey was established on the site. The ruins are difficult to reach from the A1062 near Ludlam half a mile north via trackways and paths, but rather easier to reach by boat on the nearby River Bure, in what is a nice part of the Norfolk Broads. The city of Norwich lies roughly 7 miles south-west on the A1151, while Great Yarmouth is 10 miles to the south-east along the A149 on the Norfolk coast.

About 800 AD a hermitage and chapel existed here with Suneman as the founder but he was murdered by Viking invaders; then a small Anglo-Saxon monastery for Benedictine monks was established here but not a great deal is known about it and it did not last long because Viking invaders pillaged and destroyed the building in 870 AD – it’s unclear as to what happened to the monks, if they survived at all? The place lay abandoned and ruined until about 960 or perhaps 980 when the abbey was partly rebuilt by Wulfric the hermit and, by 1019-20 King Cnut granted the abbey and it’s ‘lands’ to the Benedictine order once again, and they then extended, enlarged and fortified the building under the first abbot, Elfsige, making it into a thriving and quite wealthy religious centre of learning. King Cnut ruled from 1016 to 1035.

During the Middle-Ages the abbey of St Benet’s (named after St Benedict, founder of the order) prospered and eventually owned upto 35 acres of land here, and eleswhere; some accounts put this at 80 acres. The monks founded two hospices for the sick at Horning, Norfolk, and another for the poor at Great Hautbois, Norfolk; and there were also dependancies at Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, and Rumburgh, Suffolk; they also had charge of many local churches. The monks farmed the land around their abbey and kept fish ponds – they were probably very self sufficent. By 1539 only a handful of monks were allowed to remain at St Benet’s and in 1545 it was finally abandoned and the remaining monks expelled by bishop Rugge of Norwich who had been given their land by King Henry – much of the stone being robbed away and used in the local area, or further afield in Norwich; only the gatehouse has survived and scant walls of the church, dating from 1270. The abbey did, however, survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries and for this reason the current Bishop of Norwich can still call himself ‘abbot of St Benet’s Holme’.

English: St Benet's Abbey - the gatehouse The ...

St Benet’s Abbey Photo credit: Ian Russell Geograph

Today some of the abbey walls still stand but are only a shadow of what height they would originally have been. At the east end the stone altar supports a wooden cross of recent date. Around the site, just to the north, there are numerous other foundations of the conventual buildings, precinct wall, earthworks and even the monks fishponds. The abbey gatehouse, to the north-west, is in a ruined state but is under preservation. The conical-shaped windmill dates from about 1760-80 but no longer has its roof or sails; it was later used as a drainage mill and wind-pump. A causeway across the marshes was built by the monks and is still just visible to the west and there are traces of boundary ditches and banks, marking the extent of the abbey’s lands much further to the west close to Horning (St Benedict’s) church. Choir stalls from the abbey can be seen in nearby St Helen’s church, Ranworth.



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

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


Norfolk Archaeological Trust: