St Mary’s Abbey York

kylebday 192When the Benedictines arrived in York in 1088 they had a fight on their hands. Their patronage came from Alan Rufus of Richmond. The monks of York Minster and Archbishop Thomas of Bayeux were not amused. There was in effect a nasty bout of monastic fisty-cuffs which was only resolved when William Rufus gave the Archbishop the church of St Stephen’s while the Abbot of St Mary’s handed over land in Clifton. In return the monks of St Mary’s gained the church of St Olaf’s. Ultimately St Mary’s would have possession of seven churches in York as well as many others across the country, meaning that they selected the vicar and claimed the various fees and taxes that were levied within the parish for the Church. By the time of the Dissolution the abbey was worth £2,085 1s. 5¾d per annum.

My own interest in St Mary’s Abbey comes not just from the lovely Museum Gardens in York with their picturesque ruins and from several visits to the museums itself where this roof boss can be found but from the fact that the abbey sent out monks to form cells in Cumberland. These cells became the priories of Wetheral and St Bees. During the twelfth century thirteen monks left St Mary’s in search of a more devout existence including the prior – Richard. They went on to found Fountains Abbey, a Cistercian monastic house.

As might be expected of a medieval monastery St Mary’s acquired lands through patronage and privileges from kings. The church of St Olaf’s was was founded in 1055 and found some patronage from Wiliam the Conqueror.  St Mary’s was supported by William Rufus and by King Henrys I, II and III. It gained land in and around York including Bootham fair; it sustained fire damage in 1137 and was occasionally visited by the Archbishop of York who wanted to check on the spiritual and financial healthiness of the monastery.  In 1534 the abbot was found sadly lacking – he was spending far too much time with married women.

The abbey also developed a rather unfortunate relationship with the people of York. In 1262 the rivalry and resentments about tolls and unpaid debts resulted in murder and destruction. At that time according to the Victoria County History the abbot was one Simon de Warwick who was clearly so alarmed that he went on prolonged holiday – for two years.


Image (‘The sites and remains of the religious houses’, in A History of the County of York: the City of York, ed. P M Tillott (London, 1961), pp. 357-365 [accessed 20 June 2015].)

Most monasteries follow a similar layout.   The church which was the most important building was usually, but not always, in the shape of a cross.  Churches might also contain additional chapels and chantries (places where prayers could be said for the souls of individual benefactors.)  Cloisters were usually placed to the south of the church not only so that they would trap the sun but so that the shadows from the church would not fall on them.  In this respect St Mary’s fulfils the stereotype.  Each of the four sides of the cloister would be covered – think glorified carport in the first instance.  This allowed the monks to shelter from the rain as well as to sit in the sun.  Many cloisters contained stone benches.  Some cloisters ruins even contain individual study carrels hewn from the masonry.  In addition most cloisters contained a book cupboard.  I would not have liked to have been a Benedictine monk trying to study in the middle of winter with the wind coming off the River Ouse as the waters rose.  Perhaps that’s why later versions of monasteries had more elaborate cloisters which were effectively closed in corridors with a dwarf wall, lots of windows and a central square open to the elements – though it still sounds chilly.

On the east side of the cloister, typically, there is a dorter range.  The dorter was where the monks slept.  It would have been a two storey building with the first floor being where the monks slept. The ground floor was usually divided into several rooms, one of which may have been used as a parlour, with at least one doorway out into the cloisters and another leading in the general direction of the monks’ cemetery.   In many monasteries there would have been access to the night stairs in the transept of the church for ease of singing divine service during the night hours rather than trekking out through the cold – not that it can have been wildly warm in any event.  The other important link with the dorter would be the reredorter – a.k.a. the toilet block.  These are usually rather grand affairs with the ground floor of the block being given over to effective drainage and flushing action.  The first floor provided the location for the toilets themselves which tended to be communal in nature.

The room that was second in importance only to the church was the chapter house.  This was where the monks met to listen to the Rule and to conduct their business affairs.

The frater, again typical of monastery plans, is opposite the church.  This was the monastic canteen. In many cases there would be a passage joining the dorter with the frater – back to cold monastic types catching chills from wondering around in the rain.  The kitchen was usually separate to the frater, away from the cloister and it was usually rectangular – the plan in this post shows such a building.

The first plan does not show the position of the cellar (not that kind of cellar!)  The cellar is the name given to the monastic stores.  These were usually situated to the western range but could just as well be situated in a ground floor room.  One of the reasons that the cellar lays to the west in most monasteries is because this was where the main entrance to the abbey could be found so it meant that goods could be delivered with little disturbance to the rest of the monastery. Indeed, St Mary’s conforms to the model of having its main gateway on the west (ish) wall.

st-marys-abbey-york (accessed 24/06/2015 23:33)

4 thoughts on “St Mary’s Abbey York

  1. Stephen, the first Abbot, wrote a 25,000 word history of the foundation of St Mary’s, beginning, as I recall: “There was a Count, of great wealth and singular decency, with whom I was fortunately acquainted before I became a monk”. Andre Wilmart’s 1928 article (in French) on “Alan Le Roux and Alan Le Noir” contains a nice summary of Stephen’s account of the foundation period.

    When he was at Whitby, Stephen succeeded as Prior, but had a falling out with the landlord, William De Percy (called “Aux Gernons”, i.e. “with whiskers”, which is the origin of the name “Algernon”), who according to Stephen saw how prosperous the monks had become and wanted their assets for himself. There are accounts of this dispute from the differing perspectives of Stephen, William de Percy and his brother with whom he replaced Stephen, but it’s possible to reconcile them (the records, not the individuals, sadly).

    Stephen and a band of intrepid monks then founded Lastingham Abbey and had advanced well into construction when De Percy descended on them again and they were obliged to leave. Following this, Alan Rufus learnt of their plight and offered them St Olaf’s in York, together with fertile farmland to support them. Thomas, Archbishop of York, though factionally aligned with Alan and actually one of his tenants, claimed the farm for the Archbishopric.

    Stephen went up to London to find Alan to complain, but Alan said that he did not have the authority to intervene as only the King could adjudicate in such land disputes.

    Alan persuaded William the Conqueror to come up to York and (I say, advisedly, attempt) to settle the matter. At Alan’s instigation, William “refounded” St Olaf’s and offered a public apology (!) to the people of York for the repeated damage over many years for which he was ultimately responsible.

    Alan must have prodded William’s conscience quite sharply, because on his deathbed in Rouen in September 1087, the Harrying of the North was a major item in the King’s confession. (Bear with me, as this will shortly prove relevant to the story of St Mary’s.) The King then sent his son William to England, probably accompanied by Alan and the royal household knights, because it was after this that Count Robert of Mortain began to plead with the king to release his brother Odo of Bayeux from his imprisonment for a large-scale act of treason back in 1082.

    No sooner was William II was crowned and settled into his new job, than Archbishop Thomas made a renewed claim on the four acres in Earlsborough that Alan had granted to the monks. The upshot was that in January or Fenruary of 1088 the whole royal court went up to York, Thomas was finally placated (as you relate), and St Mary’s Abbey was given a grand royal foundation, with an explicit statement that it was as partial recompense for Norman depredations over the years.

    The foundation charter was witnessed first by Alan Rufus and secondly by Miles Crispin. Stephen recorded those present as Archbishop Thomas of York, Bishop Odo [of Bayeux], Bishop Geoffrey of Coutances, Bishop William [de St Calais] of Durham, Count Alan of Richmond and Count Odo of Champagne [third husband of Countess Adelaide, the Conqueror’s sister], William de Warenne, and Henry de Beaumont [first Earl of Warwick].

    Odo was alarmed at two things: (1) He had failed to regain his wonted position as chief royal counseller, this having been taken by William de St Calais, Bishop of Durham (a tenant of his old rival Count Alan). (2) The statement about how beastly the Normans had been to the English was a scarcely concealed sharp jab at himself, as he had been the most enthusiastic participant in the Harrying of 1069/70 and had personally led an even worse (though now little remembered) destruction of life and property in the North in 1080.

    In March, during Lent, Odo began conspiring with the majority of great Norman barons to overthrow William II and replace him with his very pliable eldest brother, the new Duke of Normandy, Robert “Curthose”. Thus on Easter Sunday, 16 April, most of the Norman barons were found unexpectedly absent from court and the Rebellion of 1088 began.

    At first, the rebels had the upper hand, honing their Harrying skills on the royal lands across England while the King was trapped near London. But Archbishop Thomas led an army that defeated the rebels in the North, the King authorised Count Alan to seize the rebels’ lands for himself, the English fyrd answered the royal summons and trounced Roger de Montgomery in the Midlands, which forced him to reconsider his position (read that as: continue his aims by subterfuge), and the advance Norman fleet was destroyed by the English navy while attempting to cross the Channel.

    Odo fled Rochester as the royal army approached and joined his brother Robert in Pevensey Castle. Pevensey harbour was blockaded against any supplies or men from Normandy. The Siege of Pevensey was long and hard: it cost William de Warenne (newly appointed Earl of Surrey) his life. Wounded, he was carried to the Abbey he had founded at Lewes, where he died on 24 June.

    Pevensey eventually fell, so Robert and Odo were captured, and Odo agreed to persuade Rochester Castle to surrender. Upon arrival, however, his escort was captured and Odo entered the castle confident that with its many supplies he could outlast any siege. However, a pestilence broke out by which he was compelled to surrender a second time. As Odo was led out in front of a large press of angry English folk, they called for him to be hanged. William II was all for executing the whole party of rebels, but the loyal barons commended leniency to the old barons, who would soon pass on in any case, and to their naive young sons and followers who would be grateful for mercy and become loyal and useful royal servants. The loyalists emphasised the strength of their conviction by promising to return the lands they had captured from the rebels.

    At that time, two charters were issued at Rochester, the first by the King, the second by Count Alan. The former is contained in the Regesta; the latter would make interesting reading but I have not found its text.

  2. PS: In 2010 Dr Nicholas Karn of the University of Southampton wrote an article defending the authenticity of Stephen of Whitby’s account: This was referenced in the Proceedings of the 34th Battle Conference in 2012.

    In the English Episcopal Acta 31, Ely 1109-1197 by Nicholas Karn, article 119 cites Conan (IV), Duke of Brittany and Earl of Richmond and Clement, abbot of St Mary’s, York, as notifying the public that they had informed Geoffrey, Bishop of Ely, that the cell of Rumburg had been given to St Mary’s by Stephen, Duke of Brittany and Earl of Richmond.

    This was Alan’s youngest brother, Stephen, Count of Tregor, who inherited Alan’s Honour of Richmond as well as their father Count Eudon’s County of Penteur, with his claim to the Duchy (in opposition to the descendants of Eudon’s elder brother Duke Alan III).

    Alan III, by the way, had been Guardian of Normandy during his nephew Duke William’s minority, until poisoned on 1 October 1039/40 while besieging a castle owned by a rebel, Roger I of Montgomery, father of Roger II of Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury, who was Guardian of Normandy during William’s absence conquering England in late 1066 and who was among the rebels in 1088.

    Roger II’s wife Mabel of Belleme and her ancestors the Talvas family receive a deservedly negative press for their blatant murders and confiscations, but from another perspective her duplicitous and treacherous in-laws the Montgomery men were far worse.

  3. PPS: William de Percy, whose sons’ names indicate Breton descent, is thought to have owned land in England under King Edward the Confessor, but was among those expelled by King Harold Godwinson.

    Domesday records that Wyken Farm in Suffolk (still operating, now with a vineyard attached) was owned in King Edward’s time by “Alan”. This appears to have been Alan Rufus, because although by 1086 the farm had been given to Peter of Valognes, all of Peter’s lands were beside Alan’s and Alan then owned several other English properties with the element “Wyken”, “Wiken” or “Wicken” in their names. An example is the village of Ashwicken in Norfolk, held for Alan by his (half-)brother Ribald.

    According to the Wikipedia article on the hamlet and civil parish of Leziate, it merged with Ashwicken due to depopulation by the late 1400s. It also cites the “Dictionary of English Place-Names” by A. D. Mills (Oxford, Oxford University Press) ISBN 978-0-19-852758-9 as stating that: “The name Leziate comes from the Old English meaning ‘meadow gate’, while the name Ashwicken is also derived from Old English and means either ‘place at the dwellings or buildings’ or ‘place at the ash trees’.”

    So “Wyken” is derived from the Latin word “vicus”, meaning a village outside a Roman fort. As the wording in his epitaph implies, Alan was keen on Roman associations: Richmond castle overlooked the old Roman fort at Catterick which provided supplies to the soldiers at Hadrian’s wall. Richmond was doubly significant in being situated on the River Swale, “England’s Holy River”, at the very point where the people of Northumbria had been baptised.

    Coincidentally, my cousin Llwyn is named (I presume) for the Welsh melody “Llwyn Onn”, meaning “Ash Grove”. (Llwyn means grove, Onn means ash tree.)

    Ash is a very useful timber (see Among its many uses is the manufacture of bows, a very popular instrument of war by the Welsh and Bretons since very ancient times: at the Battle of Hastings, it was noted that the Breton archers had emptied their quivers, and were calling for resupply, by the time the others were readying their second shot.

  4. Update: According to `The parish of Ashwicken is mentioned in the Doomsday Book and it is said that Wyke or Wyken refers to a stream and Ask or Ash to wet or watery soil. A more recent interpretation gives the meaning of “A dairy farm with ash trees.”’

    Dairy farm! The Bretons were noted (with disdain by William of Poitiers) for their dairy farms. (Perhaps the Bretons had yet to bring the love of cheese to Normandy?) Wyken in Suffolk is a farm near Bury St Edmunds where Alan was interred, and Alan also owned farming property at Richemont within Adelaide’s County of Aumale in Upper Normandy. Richmond castle is named after that farm.

    Referring to, Wyken Vineyard’s “beef and lamb are local (and when possible from the Wyken farm.) Wild game–venison, pheasant, partridge, rabbit and pigeon are from the estate and fruit, herbs and vegetables from the kitchen garden”. Sans award-winning winery, this farm must have been very similar in the 11th century.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.