In the early 1100s Yorkshire was prime ground for a religious revival. Since the Normans arrived in 1066 only four monasteries had been founded in Yorkshire: two in York, one at Selby and one at Whitby.
The newly arrived Augustinian Canons were the first to rise to the challenge (they only arrived in England shortly after 1100) and the Priory at Guisborough, dedicated to St Mary and dating from around 1119, was one of their very first houses in Yorkshire.
The Canons were invited to Guisborough by Robert de Brus, the most powerful and influential Norman baron in the area, who had consulted the Archbishop of York, Thurstan, and the Pope, Calixtus II. Robert, who was an ancestor of the Scottish king Robert the Bruce, was immensely wealthy and generously endowed his new Priory. He gave them the manor of Guisborough, almost 10,000 acres (4000ha) of land with almost 2,000 acres (800ha) under cultivation. He also gave them the whole of nearby Kirkleatham, roughly about 1,400 acres (600ha) as well as parts of Coatham and the income from ten churches in Yorkshire and County Durham.
Robert did of course have an ulterior motive in founding Gisborough Priory, the Canons were required to pray for the soul of the founder and his family and the Priory was to be a burial place for him and his descendants. Robert had two sons, Adam and Robert. Adam remained in the family seat at the nearby Skelton Castle and Robert inherited the abundant Scottish lands of his father, who also had the title Lord of Annandale. The English side of the family were buried at Gisborough until the line died out in 1267 when Peter de Brus died and the Scottish branch was also buried there, the last being Robert the Bruce’s grandfather, Robert de Brus IV (died 1295) known as “the Competitor” because of his unsuccessful competition with John Baliol for the throne of Scotland in 1291-2.
After the death of the first Robert de Brus, the family continued to lavishly support the Priory and the Canons built up major estates in north Yorkshire, County Durham and Annandale in Scotland as well as Lincolnshire. Their support and encouragement also meant that other families such as the Percys and the Latimers also gave generously.
The First Church
The generosity of the de Brus family meant that the Priory was able to employ the best craftsmen. The first stone church, which, like its successors, was dedicated to St Mary, was begun around 1140 and probably finished around 1180. It was slightly south of the present church with a central tower at the west end which opened into a nave with narrow aisles. There was also a north door which had a shallow porch. What little is known of this church shows a plan which is similar to the Augustinian Priory church at Christchurch in Dorset.
The Second Church
The second church, started around 1180, completely replaced the first church, which was knocked down before work started. Like most churches, building started at the east end and worked westwards, finishing at the west end in the mid-1200s. This had a rose window 24 feet (8m) in diameter, possibly the largest “lost” rose window in the country. The Canons created a west front which would have been amongst the most richly decorated church fronts in Yorkshire, if not the whole country. Internally the north aisle was divided into chantry, or family, chapels by wooden screens and there were many burials. The floors were tiled, some of which can be seen in the Gisborough Priory Visitor Centre and also in St Nicholas Church.
The Great Fire, 1289
The second church was finished around 1240 but on the 16th May 1289, just before noon, a disastrous fire broke out in the roof. A plumber (described as a “vile plumber…of wicked disposition” by the medieval chronicler Walter of Hemingborough) had been repairing holes in the lead and returned to the church leaving his labourers to extinguish the brazier. This they failed to do, as a consequence of which the joists caught light and molten lead and falling masonry landed in the church below. The church was seriously damaged, books chalices, vestments and statues were destroyed and rebuilding work took almost 100 years. This resulted in the third church, the remains of which can still be seen.
The Third Church
The third church was built from the shell of the second church, the magnificent west front having survived the blaze, although the heat melted the bells in the north tower, but the eastern end was extended. The superb east end dates from almost exactly 1300, as does the west cloister range, but it is not known if the rebuilding was caused by the fire or was already planned. Although Gisborough was always a wealthy convent the 1300s was, financially, a very difficult period. Not only had the church burned down but the defeat of Edward II at Bannockburn in 1314 (ironically by Robert the Bruce) meant that the Border was unsafe leading to a loss of income from their extensive Scottish lands. In addition the Priory also had to accommodate canons from more northerly Priories such as Brinkburn, Hexham and Jedburgh. The Black Death, which swept the country from 1348 and an agricultural depression which lasted most of the century added to the financial woes of the Priory.
The finished church, however, was quite a statement of wealth. Internally the nave, which was rebuilt, was relatively clear, there were fewer burials and there were no chantry chapels. The interior was painted white, possibly with red lines to look like masonry and there were wall paintings. The crossing and quire survived from the second church and the tomb of Robert de Brus, and his wife, Agnes, was in the quire between the Canon’s stalls. Further east the new presbytery finished at the new east end, which is an outstanding example of early northern gothic architecture, and, once again, of exceptional quality. Here there were several chapels, in front of which there would have been a processional walkway behind the high altar.
Although externally the Church remained unchanged until the dissolution, there are bosses and other stonework from the 15th Century showing that the inside of the church continued to evolve to meet the changing needs of the Canons. The last but one Prior, James Cockerell, installed the Brus Cenotaph in 1521, but its location is not known. The Priory was dissolved in 1540, after which the Cenotaph was removed. It then led a tumultuous life in which various parts of it were dispersed before being reassembled in 1907 having been recovered somewhat earlier by Admiral Chaloner, who tracked down all but one of the missing pieces. It can now be found in the parish church, adjacent to the Priory ruins.
The Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535, which was conducted to allow the closure of houses worth less than £200 a year, found that Gisborough had an annual value of £628 6s and 4d, making it the fourth richest house in Yorkshire, after York, Fountains and Selby.
The dissolution began in 1536, when the King’s Commissioners, Thomas Leigh and Richard Leyton arrived at Gisborough. They forced the Prior, James Cockerill, to resign and within days had installed Robert Pursglove in his place. This was unpopular as Cockerill had strong local support and it is thought that by 1536 some 500 households in the town depended on the Priory for their income. Despite being unpopular with both Canons and townsfolk, Pursglove (who was described as keeping “a most pompous house” and demanding that he was served only by gentlemen) remained Prior, signing the Deed of Surrender on Christmas Eve 1539 in the Chapter House. Normally the Canons would have been evicted immediately, but an unsuccessful proposal for the Priory to become a collegiate church delayed the eviction until 8th April 1540. The dissolution of the Monasteries was completed in 1540, Gisborough was therefore one of the last.
After the Dissolution
The Priory was first leased to Thomas Leigh later in 1540. He was one of Henry VIII’s commissioners and responsible for dissolving the Priory. He died four years later. The lease was next acquired by Sir Thomas Chaloner when he married Leigh’s widow in 1547. He took it over and extended it, before purchasing the estate outright in 1550.
The Chaloner’s principal home outside of London was Steeple Claydon, Buckinghamshire, but the second Thomas Chaloner certainly knew Gisborough as he founded the alum industry which was managed by his cousin, also Thomas Chaloner, who lived in Gisborough, possibly after adapting the Priory ruins.
The first Chaloner to live in Guisborough was Edward, who was there by 1655. Initially the family lived outside Gisborough, at Park House, but by 1709 they were in a new Hall in the town centre, with gardens that incorporated what was left of the Priory ruins. The Chaloners continued to develop the gardens (the Monks’ Walk dates from the mid-1700s) according to fashion. The Hall suffered from damp, becoming uninhabitable and was sold to a London gentleman for the material. He paid 600 guineas (£630) but sold the lead alone for 280 guineas (£294).
The family moved to Long Hull, a farm on the estate until 1825, when Robert Chaloner was declared bankrupt, after a York bank, of which he was a partner, collapsed. He went to work for his cousin (Earl Fitzwilliam) in Ireland. His debts were cleared by the time he died in 1842 but it was his son, Robert, who returned to Guisborough. Robert restored the family finances, partly helped by the arrival of the railway and the discovery of iron ore on the estate. He died childless in 1855 and was succeeded by his brother Thomas.
Thomas, better known as Captain or Admiral Chaloner, was responsible for developing Guisborough as a community and sponsored schools, hospitals and churches amongst others, as well as converting Long Hull into the current Gisborough Hall. He too died childless in 1884 and the estate passed to his sister’s grandson, Richard Godolphin Walmesley Long, on condition that he changed his name to Chaloner, which he did. Richard was a well-respected MP and was raised to the peerage in 1917 when he took the title Lord Gisborough.
It was the first Lord Gisborough who renamed Long Hull as Gisborough Hall, and the family developed gardens both at the Hall and around the Priory. At around this time, the formal gardens around the Priory started to be used as kitchen gardens, although Lord and Lady Gisborough introduced features in other parts of the Priory gardens such as the Italian Garden, which was developed at the west end of the site. The gardens were also home to a horse chestnut tree, said to be the biggest horse chestnut in the country, with a girth of around 8 metres and famous locally at least. It was said to have been grown from a horse chestnut brought to England by the second Thomas Chaloner and planted by him in the early 1600s. Regrettably the tree blew down in a gale in the 1970s,
Sadly the gardens became increasingly difficult to maintain and they began to be broken up. The Priory ruins were given into the care of the nation in 1932 and that part of the garden cleared and replaced with grass. There is a story that a narrow gauge railway, running to the Norman gate house, was installed to help with the clearance.
The former kitchen garden around the dovecote was leased as a market garden, as was the area around the Italian Garden, south of it, and these areas are not open to visitors.
The rest of the gardens, including the Monks’ Walk, became badly overgrown until, in July 2007, Gisborough Priory Project (GPP) leased part of the gardens south of the ruins. Archaeological investigations were carried out to assess the location and extent of any medieval remains and work began in earnest in 2008 to clear away the almost impenetrable undergrowth, almost entirely by hand. The Monks’ Walk is now enjoyed by both locals and visitors. In 2015 GPP were invited by English Heritage to take over the daily management of the Priory site, the first time that English Heritage had worked with a voluntary organisation in this way. GPP are still opening the site to the public, providing volunteer custodians as well as gardeners in the Woodland Gardens.
- B J D Harrison G and Dixon (editors), Guisborough before 1900, Guisborough 1981
- G Coppack, Guisborough Priory, English Heritage 1993
- Gisborough Priory Project, The Lost Gardens of Gisborough Priory, Guisborough 2008
- D H Heslop, Excavation with the Church at the Augustinian Priory of Gisborough, Cleveland 1985-6 Yorkshire Archaeological Journal vol 67 p 51
- S A Harrison and D H Heslop, Archaeological Survey at the Augustinian Priory of Gisborough, Cleveland, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, Vol 71, 1999, p 89