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Bridlington Priory, The Jewel Of The Medieval North

The town of Bridlington, in the East Riding of Yorkshire is a seaside resort and small lobster fishing port on the east coast of England, lapped by the waters of the North Sea.

Today the town has seen better days and is home to a large retirement population however in medieval times it was the site of a magnificent Augustine priory, the largest and richest monastery in the North of England that drew vast numbers of pilgrims from all over the north.  Sadly all that now remains of this amazing building is the parish church of St Mary, now known as Bridlington Priory.

However tradition shows that the site did not originate as part of the Norman conquest, but had its roots in the Saxon era.  Pricket, in his books the “History of the Priory Church of Bridlington, believed that the site developed from the foundations of a small Saxon church and nunnery.

One of the surviving Norman doors

The Priory that we know of today, was founded in 1113AD by Walter de Gant who had been granted the land around Bridlington by Henry I, and became a key part of the monastic enthusiasm that was sweeping England and Wales in the 11th and 12th centuries. 

     

“I Walter de Gant, do hereby declare to all faithful sons of holy church, that I have established canons regular in the church of St. Mary of Bridlington, by the authority and consent of king Henry, for the good of his soul, and the souls of his father and mother, and the souls of my father and mother, and my own soul, and the souls of my friends. I yield therefore to the same church, and to its ministers, whatever I possessed”

The Priory developed into one of the earliest Augustinian houses in England in the early 13th century.  The Augustinians order themselves developed as part of the mendicant movement of the 13th century, a new form of religious life which sought to bring the religious ideals of the monastic life into an urban setting of which Bridlington was an ideal location.

The original building was impressive even by medieval standard and would have put a large number of the religious buildings of the large urban centres of York, Bristol and even London to shame.   This is demonstrated by the footprint of the building which was over 400 ft long (120 m) and 75 ft wide (23 m), with a transept which was 150 ft long (46 m).

So why had this site sited in the margins of medieval England developed into one of the great religious house of its time.  Well the answer can be found in the age old solution “friends in high places” and the cult of saints.  The patronage of Henry and his rebel son Stephen provided the Priory with lands right across Yorkshire. The Charter from Henry the I shows the large amount of land that the Priory held title to.

“under the warrant and attestation of this our present charter, do confirm to the church of St. Mary of Bridlington, and to the canons regular serving the Lord in the same place, two carucates of land of my own demesne, of which one and a half is in Eston, and a half in Hilderthorp, free and quit of all ‘geld’ and all customs. Moreover, the rest of the donations, which have been made by Walter de Gaunt, and by Jordan Paganel, and by other barons and vassals of mine to the aforesaid church, and are enumerated in the page of this our charter, we concede, and by the authority of the same charter do confirm.”

Additionally Stephen granted the monks the right to take any land or propriety of criminals from the town of Bridlington or on its vast estates.  This provided a very lucrative source of income and led to many abuses of the legal process to help enrich the priory and its estates. 

The nave of the surviving priory building

 

In 1200AD, King John, for the benefit of the Priory granted a licence to the priory, fort a fair to be held annually at Bridlington, on the festival of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.  They also got to right to hold a weekly market and to take taxes on the goods brought to the fair and market which became a very lucrative  source of revenue for the Priory.

Over the next two hundred years the Priory grew in size and in 1388 and A royal license was granted by Richard II to fortify the priory with a wall and four large gates of stone of which one, the Bayle Gate survives.

St John of Bridlington

The Priory church became the shrine of St John of Bridlington, who was the prior of Bridlington and had a reputation of holiness and religious piety. Even when he was alive he was noted for his miracle powers with stories of him changing water into wine and healing the sick.  Another story connected with him related to five seamen in danger of drowning called upon God in the name of His servant, John of Bridlington, whereupon the prior himself appeared to them and brought them safely to shore. After his death in 1379 the miracles continued and pope, Boniface IX, canonized him in 1401.  His shrine within the Priory church became a major centre of pilgrimage in the north, which brought increased wealth to the estate.

A visit to the Priory by John Leland described the position of the tomb and the simple inscription.  He said that the Saint was interred in the cloister, near  the door of the chapter-house, with the following simple inscription on his tomb stone, “Robertas, Scriba, quartus Prior.”

An important aspect of the priory was the large well stocked library which was recorded by Leland shortly before the dissolution of religious buildings by Henry. 

In 1533, the king appears to have entrusted Leland with a document, “a moste gracyouse commyssion” (or diploma as he called it in Latin), which authorized him to examine and use the libraries of all religious houses in England. As Leland spent the next few years travelling from house to house, he compiled many lists of books, most of which were finished before the foundations had been disbanded, though several trips were made at a later date.

On his visit to Bridlington he noted that the library had a “greate librarie” and records that the book in the library were varied and of good condition.   They appear to have consisted chiefly of commentaries on various books including Scripture, and the writings of Hieronymus, Augustine, Bede, Anselm, and others.

One of the books recorded in the catalogue given us by Leland, is preserved among the in the Public Library of the University of Cambridge. It is a commentary upon the Epistles of St. Paul, beautifully written on vellum, in double columns, and is a very large sized folio with initial letter of each epistle splendidly illuminated.

Visits to monastic libraries such as Bridlington in 1536 combined with the Suppression Acts which led to the dissolution of the monasteries, led Leland to become very concerned with the destruction of monastic libraries and their book.  He addressed his concerns to his patron Thomas Cromwell in a letter seeking aid for the rescue of books, complaining that;

“The Germans perceive our desidousness, and do send daily young scholars hither that spoileth [books], and cutteth them out of libraries, returning home and putting them abroad as monuments of their own country.”

This led to the formation of the royal library to accommodate hundreds of books that were previously kept in monastic collections.

How the Priory might have look like in 1538: Image Bridlington Town Council

Eventually, like all its fellow religious houses Bridlington and its estates were dissolved in 1538. Like a lot of the monastic sites the monk had long ceased to play a leading role in the spiritual life of the area and observance of rules of its Augustinians order was very lax

We know from the Valor Ecclesiasticus which was carried out by Richard Pollard who was the surveyor appointed by Thomas Cromwell to asses the condition and value of the Priory estate.  What can be clearly seen from his report is that the priory was very wealthy at the time of the dissolution with its yearly income was estimated to be £547 6s. 11½D, (£173,000 in today’s money) and owned land stretching right across Yorkshire.

The condition of the priory in Pollard report shows the Church had large numbers of building and was surrounded by a richly decorated chapter house Chapter House, Treasury, Cloister, Prior’s Hall, library and Infirmary.

However unlike other monastic sites the last Prior, William Wode, refused to accede to the will of Henry and refused to surrender the Prior or its land. 

The following letter from William Wode, the last prior of Bridlington, to Thomas Cromwell, secretary of state, shows the desperation to prevent the dissolution of the priory.  In a letter he implored Cromwell to ask Henry to consider its tradition and heritage and the fact that they had done nothing to show their disloyalty to the King. 

” Right worshipfull, my duty in most humble – manner  remembered, I recommend me to your gude mastershipp.  And forsomuch as your said mastershipp, by your last  letters to me directed, advised me, and in like manner  counselled me, to recognize the King’s hyghnes to be our  Patron and Founder, forasmuch as no article, word, sentence,  or clause, in our original grante to hus made by Gilbert de  Gaunte, cosign to our original Founder, appeared to the  contrarye whye of equitie his hyghnes owght not so to be,  or else to appere before ane other of his gracious counsell  the last day of October, as I wold avoyd his Grace’s hygh displeasure. In this matter, even so humbly as I canne, I shall beseche your good mastershipp to be gude master to me, and your poor and cotidiall orators my brethren. For notwithstanding the King’s Grace his noble progenitors titles and clames heretofore made to our sayd partronage and foundershipp, (thoughe all we are, and ever wil be at his most gracious commandment and pleasor) yet we have ever bene dimissed clere without any interruption on this behalf nigh this two hundred yeares, as shall appere before your  gudeness under substantiall evidence of record.

He apologies that due to his ill health that he can’t make his case in person but has had to send his deputy to deliver his letter and what appears to be a bribe to help ensure their request is given due consideration

 “And so I beseech your mastershipp we may be at this tyme, ffor in your mastershipp our nolle trust in all our gude causes remayneth. And wheras I am deteyned with divers infir- mities in my body, and in lyke manner am feble of nature, so that without great jeopardie of my lyffe, I cannot, nor am not hable to labor in doing of my deuty to appere before your mastershipp, I right humbly besech your gudenes to have me excused, and in like manner to accept the bearer my brother, as my lawfull deputie in this behaulf, who shall make your mastershipp answer as concerning these premises, to whom I beseeche your mastershipp geve firme credence, of whom also ye shall receve a pore token from me, which I eftsoones besech your gude mastershipp to accept thankfully, with my pore hert and cotidiall prayers, of which ye shall be assured enduryng my lyffe, as is my duty, God willinge, who ever preserve your gude mastershipp in much worshipp long to endure, ffrom our Monastery of Bridlington, the xxiii day of October, by your humble and cotidiall servant,

 Willm Prior

[1537.] of the same.”

The refusal of Cromwell to consider his request Wode took his opposition to the extreme and became a leading player and leader of the Pilgrimage of the Graces.  The Graces was a popular rising in York, Yorkshire during 1536, in protest against Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church and the Dissolution of the Monasteries, as well as other specific political, social and economic grievances.  With the failure of the uprising Wode was captured and was executed at Tyburn.

With the threat of revolt over Bridlington priory like most monastic building of the time were destroyed and sold off as scrap building materials.  While little records of the destruction survive a letter addressed to Cromwell by Richard Bellycys, one of the commissioners who over saw the destruction of monastic building in the north. describes the process and refers to Bridlington at the end of his letter.  While the letter deals mainly with Jervayse Abbey it show what would have been done when Bridlington was dissolved.

Bellycys describes the problem he was having due to the weather and the removal of the lead from the roof. He clearly describes the difficulties he would have in getting the lead to market an suggest it would better to wait till summer becore they continue the process.

 ” Pleasythe your good Lordshipp to be advertysed. I have taken downe all the lead of Jervayse, and made itt in pecys of half-foders, which lead amounteth to the numbre of eighteen score and five foders, with thirty and foure foders, and a half, that were there before. And they said lead cannot be conveit, nor caryed unto the next sombre, for the ways in that contre are so foule, and deep, that no carrage, can passe in wyntre.

And as concerning the raising, and taken downe the house, if itt be your Lordshipps pleasure I am minded to let itt stand to the Spring of the yere, by reason of the days are now so short it wolde be double charge to do itt now. And as concerning the selling of the bells I cannot sell them above 15s. the hundreth, wherein I would gladly know your Lordshipps pleasor, whether I should sell them after that price, or send them up to London. And if they be sent up surely the carriage wolbe costly frome that place to the water.”

He suggests that because of the upcoming winter that Bridlington be spared until the summer when it would be easier to complete the work.  He is mindful of the controversy of the destruction and assures Cromwell that his delay in the destruction of Bridlington is to ensure the job is finished efficiently.

 “And as for Byrdlington I have doyn nothing there as yet, but sparethe itt to March next, bycause the days now are so short, and from such tyme as I begyn I trust shortly to dyspatche it after such fashion that when all is fynished, I trust your Lordshipp shall that think  that Ihave bene no evyll howsbound in all such things, as your Lordshipp haith appoynted me to do.

And thus the Holy Ghost ever preserve your Lordshipp in honor. At York this fourteenth day of November by your most bounden beadsman.”

[1538.] Richard Bellycys.”

However two buildings were spared the destruction, the Nave which became the parish church for Bridlington.  The rest of the Priory building including the central tower and the apses were destroyed and the stones were used to build stone quays in the harbor of the town.  The magnificent shrine of St John of Bridlington was also destroyed even after a delegation of the towns people petitioned Henry to spare the shrine, a request that was refused.

The other surviving building, the Bayle Gate which was the main Gate-house of the priory, was reused first as the Courts house, then a meeting house of Dissenters in the time of Charles II, a prison for sailors captured off Bridlington in Commonwealth times, and finally a school-house in the early 19th century.  The gate house is currently a museum and is open to the public.

The Batle Gate

With the dissolution of the Priory and its estates, the prosperity the town had experienced disappeared.  The town sank into depression and stagnation becoming wholly dependent on the meagre income that its fishing fleet brought in.  The part of the main Priory building that had been retained as a parish church slowly fell into a state of disrepair due to the lack of parish funds to maintain its upkeep

However with the coming of the railway the town became a center for the sea side tourist from the large urban areas of Hull, York and the surrounding areas. This led to renewed interest in the Prior church and in 1846 with the increased prosperity the church was restored and it partially re-roofed. 

The west window which had been closed when the priory was destroyed was opened up and was given a new stain glass window.  The interior of the church was white-washed; and the east window which had it original stain glass destroyed during the civil war also had new stain glass installed.  

The Priory church of St Mary today

Today Bridlington Priory stand tall and proud, a testament to our history and a beacon from the past.  It provides us with a tangible reminder of a once proud monastic building and tradition which in its time was a jewel of medieval England and centre of learning and culture.

 

Copyright: Diarmaid Walshe and Heritage Daily

Featured image:  Priory Church of St Mary (copyright-A Fletcher)

     

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