Before Nostell Priory came into being there was a hermitage but when the Augustinian Canons were introduced to Britain a priory was established soon afterwards on its site. The story of Nostell’s foundation is told in a fourteenth century manuscript detailing twelfth century events.
Apparently King Henry I was on his way to do nasty things to the Scots when his chaplain was taken ill at Pontefract. Whilst he was recovering the chaplain, Ralph Adlave or Adulphus, went hunting and came across the hermits in St Oswald’s Wood (we don’t know how many of them and it was quite normal to be on your own in a group if you were a medieval hermit). Adulphus decided on the spot that he wanted found a priory on the exact spot where he’d encountered the hermits and to become a monastic. Obviously you don’t resign from a job with a Plantagenet king, you ask nicely if it would be possible. King Henry I, having finished with the Scots for the time being gave his gracious consent. Adulphus became an Augustinian Canon in charge of eleven canons. Henry I favoured the new establishment, after all Adulphus had been his confessor, and made a grant of 12d. a day to it from his revenues in Yorkshire.
It was a good thing for a king to become a patron of a monastery. Nobles tended to trip over themselves to follow suit in order to win royal favour. Ilbert or Robert de Lacy swiftly handed over the land on which the priory would sit along with several churches including those at Huddersfield and Batley along with other property.
King Henry II, following the bust up between King Stephen and Empress Matilda, reconfirmed the grants including a three-day fair at the end of February each year coinciding with St Oswald’s feast day.
Nostell Priory was undoubtedly well endowed. As a result it ended up with six daughter houses. The two most important were at Bamburgh in Northumberland, and Breedon in Leicestershire.
Of course, things didn’t always go so swimmingly. The reign of King Edward II was not, in general, noted for its successes. The Scots raided deep into England and the revenue from Bamburgh turned into a loss for fifteen years in succession. The arrival of the Black Death didn’t help matters, neither did the politics of the period nor the fact that avaricious archbishops kept trying to snaffle the most profitable churches from the care of the canons. By 1438 the canons of Nostell Priory were in so much financial difficulty that the young and pious King Henry VI granted to the canons the hospital of St. Nicholas, in Pontefract. These financial woes were not unusual. Bottomley notes that about a fifth of all Augustinian foundations failed because of lack of income.
Nostell Priory,however, was able to overcome its difficulties. It developed a reputation for fine manuscripts that ensured a steady flow of income from their commission. In 1536 it’s gross income was £606 9s. 3½d in part also because it had become a site of pilgrimage to St Oswald which Cromwell’s commissioners recorded as superstition. Dr Legh, one of the most notorious of Cromwell’s henchmen, was granted the site on which Nostell Priory stood.
Nothing medieval remains at Nostell Priory. In its place is the eighteenth century house and gardens created by the Winn family. There are three buildings that date from the monastic period “Wragby church, which, though it stands within the park, served the parish and not the monastery; and buildings called ‘The Brewhouse’ and ‘The Refectory’ which lie within the precincts of the adjacent 18th-century Nostell Home Farm. These are all at some distance from the Winns’ house”(Wrathmell ).
Where the Augustinian Canons had parochial responsibilities their priory churches survive rather better. Carlisle Cathedral was an Augustinian priory church as was Hexham Abbey. It is interesting to note that despite the fact that Carlisle, Lanercost and Hexham were Augustinian establishments that the main stronghold of the Augustinians was in fact the Midlands. Derby for instance was home to a number of Augustinian priories but little or nothing of their buildings have survived.
Bottomley, Frank. (1995). Abbey Explorer’s Guide. Otley: Smith Settle
‘Houses of Austin canons: Priory of Nostell’, in A History of the County of York: Volume 3, ed. William Page (London, 1974), pp. 231-235 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/vol3/pp231-235 [accessed 8 August 2015].
Wrathmell, Stuart. Nostell Priory. http://www.archaeology.wyjs.org.uk/documents/archaeology/newsletters/News21pag6.pdf accessed11.08.2015 09:23