The Cistercian monks at Jervaulx Abbey in Wensley Dale were renowned for their horse breeding. Their skill brought great wealth which was a tad tricky for a group of people who’d taken vows of poverty.
Jervaulx’s last abbot, Adam Sedbar, was a sensible man. He did not wish to rebel against Henry VIII. When news reached him that the so-called pilgrims of the Pilgrimage of Grace were heading in his direction in 1536 he fled the abbey and went into hiding on Witton Fell. He only came out of hiding when the pilgrims threatened to destroy the abbey – somewhat contrary to their avowed intention of restoring them. Sedbar eventually made his way to Castle Bolton and Lord Scrope where he took no further part in events.
Despite his best attempts to remain uninvolved it was too good an opportunity for Cromwell to miss. Sedbar was implicated in the Pilgrimage and found himself in the Tower of London on treason charges. His name can still be found carved into the masonry of his prison. The main witness against him was Ninian Staveley, one of his own monks, who was up to his neck in rebellion. He informed on his abbot in an attempt to save his own life. The abbey and the abbot were both erased in 1537; the abbey and its estates being passed to the crown through the attainder passed against Sedbar.
These days Jervaulx is a picturesque ruin but there is one other remarkable survival to see in St Andrew’s Church, Aysgarth. The rood screen, so the handy guide in the church tells me, is from the Ripon School of Carving. In fact when I looked closer I recognised the elephant on the Jervaulx screen as an old friend from Ripon Cathedral. The screen, renovated by those pesky Victorians, is beautiful but it does rather question the Cistercian rule of austerity. The screen must have been even more spectacular when it was first installed. There’s a frieze of foliage and animals running the length of the screen – that’s where the elephant can be found- as well as a dragon, a fox, a boar, an antelope, an eagle and a lion. The message is clear if you’re a medieval church goer. You’re being reminded of all those sins out there waiting to trip you up. Apparently the antelope is a warning against drink and lustfulness on account of the fact that his horns are entangled in the foliage around him. Oddly enough I wouldn’t have known that unless I’d read it in the handy guide – clearly the medieval mind was much more switched on to visual symbolism.
Symbolism was the least of Aysgarth’s worries. As Tudor England became more Protestant it became more dangerous for the parishioners to keep the Jervaulx screen and the original loft and statues which accompanied it. In 1567 several churchwardens were required to do penance for having hidden old papist relics. The screen inevitably was badly damaged in the ensuing centuries. It was once part of a much larger edifice. The statues that belonged with it were burned.
But how did the screen get to Aysgarth? The right to present the living of the church and take an income or advowson to give it it’s correct name belonged to Jervaulx up until the suppression of the monasteries. One theory is that the monks seeing which way the wind was blowing transported the choir screen to the church in an attempt to save something of their abbey. Perhaps the screen was the most beautiful thing they had in their monastery and they wished to preserve it – but that is speculation. In the second version of the story the parishioners of Aysgarth purchased the screen upon Jervaulx’s suppression. Either way a thing of great beauty from the days of England’s monasteries survives tucked away in the Yorkshire dales.
As for the rest of the monks, well their reputations as breeders of horses saw them provided with employment in Middleham Castle as well as in receipt of their monastic pensions.