It is 500 years this year since Martin Luther, an Augustinian friar who became convinced that the selling of Indulgences by the Catholic Church was corrupt and unscriptural, ignited what quickly became the Reformation by, it is said, nailing his ‘Ninety-Five Theses’ to the door of Wittenberg Church.
The consequences of Luther’s protest were enormous, initially in Europe and then throughout the world. In England and Wales his Reformation soon became ineradicably entangled with another matter – the King’s divorce. When Henry VIII wanted to leave Katherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn, it was convenient for him to take the English Church out of the orbit of the Papacy.
One concomitant move by Henry had great consequences for architecture; the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The Act of Supremacy of 1534, which made Henry the Supreme Head of the Church of England, gave him the power that enabled him, between 1536 and 1539, to suppress all the monasteries and take over their assets.
Almost overnight their treasures were plundered, their people scattered and their buildings abandoned.
Some of the smaller monastic houses vanished almost completely, leaving only a memory of them in place names. Some monastic buildings were taken over by great landowners and were converted – often very drastically – into houses. Occasionally the local townspeople took over the monastery’s church as their parish church.
But a majority became ruins, either large and spectacular or just tiny fragments left to tell of the medieval past.
Yorkshire has examples of all these except the great house conversions – nothing to rival Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, with its monastic cloister still intact as part of the house, or Buckland Abbey in Devon, where the church itself was converted for domestic use.
We have Wykeham Abbey near Scarborough, but the monastic ruins there are only a wall with two arches and a nearby doorway in the garden of a 18th Century house.
In Coverdale the remains of Coverham Abbey’s guesthouse are incorporated in a later farmhouse.
At Yedingham, north-east of Malton, the south wall of the nave of the former Benedictine nunnery is now incorporated into a shed.
Churches that were taken over for parochial use fared rather better, of course. Perhaps the best of our Yorkshire examples is Selby Abbey, a monastery of Benedictine monks founded about 1069, which has survived to its full size, though much restored, especially after a disastrous fire of 1908. Also still in use is Bridlington Priory, a former base of Augustinian canons.
Unlike Selby, Bridlington has not preserved the full church – only the nave has survived here, as happened, too, at Bolton Priory.
Smaller survivors, in whole or in part, include the simple church of the Benedictine nuns of Nun Monkton, again without its chancel. The same is true of Holy Trinity Priory in York’s Micklegate, where the chancel, transepts and north aisle have all disappeared, and of Old Malton Priory, where just the nave and a west tower survive of the house of Gilbertine canons.
At Swine in Holderness the opposite happened; the chancel of the Cistercian nuns’ cruciform church is what survives. And at Marrick in Swaledale part of the church and its tower remain.
Our other three great medieval churches – York Minster, Beverley Minster and Ripon Cathedral – were not monastic churches but collegiate, run by colleges of canons, so they did not suffer in the same way as the monasteries, though they had to adapt to the new English Church, especially under Henry VIII’s successor, Edward VI.
Yorkshire’s wealth of ruined abbeys is perhaps our greatest legacy from the tumultuous changes of the 16th Century.
Here in Ripon the city’s fortunes were to a large extent bound up with the neighbouring monastic estate at Fountains, and its suppression in 1539 must have sent shock waves through the area. But there were, undoubtedly, benefits, not least in the abbey’s stones being a convenient quarry for nearby new buildings, such as Fountains Hall.
And what happened at Fountains was repeated at the great monastic houses elsewhere in the county.
Second only to Fountains in wealth was another Cistercian foundation, Rievaulx, where the ruins are almost as extensive as those of Fountains, though most of the church’s nave is missing. Byland is a less complete Cistercian foundation.
At another, Jervaulx, little of the church remains, though the ruins of its other buildings are perhaps the most romantic of all. Also Cistercian were Roche Abbey near Maltby in South Yorkshire, where only a fragment of the church survives, and the more-extensive Kirkstall Abbey near Leeds.
There are substantial remains of the mother house of Fountains Abbey, the Benedictine St Mary’s Abbey in York, which once rivalled the Minster in size and splendour. Whitby Abbey, on its exposed clifftop, was also a Benedictine foundation as, in South Yorkshire, were Monk Bretton Priory – though it started as a Cluniac house before the monks broke away as independent Benedictines – and the smaller Ecclesfield Priory, where the remains of a chapel survive. The Carthusian Mount Grace preserves much of its unusual layout of individual monastic cells.
Easby Abbey near Richmond was a Premonstratensian site; in Richmond itself is the tower of the former Franciscan Friary founded in 1257, and just outside the town are the remains of the Benedictine St Martin’s Priory.
In East Yorkshire scant remains of a foundation of the Dominican order – the Blackfriars – survive, while at Watton the house of the prior of what was England’s largest Gilbertine monastery is now a private residence.
The remains of other dissolved monastic houses are scant, though Guisborough, an Augustinian house, has some imposing surviving masonry. After that we have just two Cistercian nunneries: Ellerton Priory, in the Swale valley, is represented by an archway, and Rosedale Priory on the North York Moors by a single turret with stairs – melancholy reminders of the influence that Luther’s actions had down the centuries.