Abbeys and Priories

Northern Monasteries

From around 1074, the monasteries that had made the North-East famous in Anglo-Saxon times were revived. Many of these great institutions had been destroyed by Vikings. Except in places like Durham and York, they had either been abandoned or had fallen into disrepair. In 1083 the Normans erected a priory at Durham which came to dominate the county to the exclusion of all but affiliated cells.

Cloisters, Durham Cathedral
Cloisters, Durham Cathedral © David Simpson.

Extensive monastery building began in Yorkshire and the Scottish Borders from around 1108 with new monasteries at Melrose, Hexham, Rievaulx, Guisborough and Fountains. The establishment of Yorkshire monasteries was encouraged by Thurstan, the Archbishop of York, and his friend David, King of Scotland. Such monasteries would own and dominate vast areas of the northern landscape until their ruthless destruction by Henry VIII in the 1530s.

Monastic Orders

Lindisfarne or Holy Island
Lindisfarne or Holy Island © David Simpson

Benedictine order

The oldest monasteries in the region tend to be Benedictine and follow the rule of St Benedict of Nursia. The rules of the order were set out around 520AD at the monastery of Monte Casino. The order later moved to Rome where under the patronage of St Gregory it sent monks to Canterbury under St Augustine and established the first Benedictine house outside Italy. The Benedictine order was more practical and less austere than some of the later monastic orders, but included some of Britain’s most powerful monasteries including the Priory of Durham.


Carthusians were one of the strictest monastic orders dedicating their life to solitude and silence. Each monk lived in a hermitage or cell with its own living room, workshop, garden and ambulatory. The monks occupied their time praying, studying or labouring. Once a week they would break their solitude and silence for three or four hours and get together with the other monks for a walk and a talk. The order was established by St Bruno in 1084 in the Chartreuse mountains north of Grenoble in France. Carthusian monasteries are called Charterhouses.


The Cistercian order was based on Benedictine monasticism and was founded in 1098 by St Robert De Molesme at Cîteaux in France. It undertook the literal observance of the rule of St Benedict and was stricter than the Benedictine order living by poverty, prayer, arduous labour, long fasts and little sleep. The monks cultivated vast tracts of land with the help of numerous lay brothers.

Augustinians and Premonstratensians

Augustinians follow the rule of St Augustine of Hippo (354AD-430AD) but the rules of the Augustinians were never written or detailed to the extent of the Benedictine order and there are many different types of Augustinian orders including Premonstratensians and Gilbertines. The Premonstratensian order was founded in 1119 at Premontre in France by St Norbert. Their life is devoted to penitence and preaching.

The Monasteries

Northumberland Monasteries

The best known monasteries in Northumberland are Hexham, and Lindisfarne but both really owe their fame to the earlier Anglo-Saxon monasteries of the Kingdom of Northumbria. In the post-Norman era Northumberland monasteries were at the mercy of raiding Scots and never developed the prestige and wealth of the great Yorkshire monasteries.

Alnwick abbey – (Premonstratensian canons)

Alnwick Abbey was founded by the De Vesci family in 1147.

Abbey church Blanchland © David Simpson

Blanchland Abbey  – (Premonstratensian canons)

Founded by a Norman Baron called Walter de Bolbec on the Northumberland side of the Derwent valley in 1165. Stones from the abbey were later used to build Blanchland village.

Brinkburn Priory- (Augustinian canons)

Established near Rothbury 1135.

Hexham Abbey
Hexham Abbey © David Simpson

Hexham Abbey – (Augustinian canons)

Established in Hexham by Thomas II, the Archbishop of York, on the site of St Wilfrid’s Saxon monastery in 1113.

Lindisfarne Priory – (Benedictine monks)

Established by the Bishop of Durham, William St Carileph, on the site of the Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne monastery. It was probably founded around 1093, the same time as Durham Cathedral to which it bears a marked resemblance.

Newminster Abbey – (Cistercian monks)

Established near Morpeth as a daughter of Fountains in 1139.

St Bartholomew’s nunnery, Newcastle (Benedictine nuns)

Established in Newcastle sometime before 1135. The mother and sister of the widow of King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland are thought to have taken the veil here. The Nunnery was situated close to Nun Street but owned land throughout the town including the Nun’s Moor. Th e nunnery was often patronised by the Scottish king David, who is also said to have built St Andrew’s church in Gallowgate.

Tynemouth Priory and graveyard
Tynemouth Priory and graveyard © David Simpson

Tynemouth Priory – (Benedictine monks)

Tynemouth Priory was founded around 1090 as a cell of Durham. Robert Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland, transferred its jurisdiction to St Albans in 1093. Whitley Bay was conferred to the Priory of Tynemouth by Henry I in 1100. The priory developed a coal port at North Shields in the thirteenth century which would rival the port at Newcastle.

County Durham Monasteries

The most famous monasteries in what became County Durham were Jarrow and Monkwearmouth and to a lesser extent Hartlepool, but they were only really monasteries of significance in the Anglo-Saxon era when they were part of the Kingdom of Northumbria. After Norman conquest one monastery dominated the whole of County Durham and that was the Priory of Durham Cathedral. Monasteries in County Durham were all Benedictine and merely outlying cells of the great Priory.

Durham Cathedral Priory – (Benedictine monks)

The most powerful monastery in Northumberland and Durham was the Priory attached to Durham Cathedral, which dominated the area between Tyne and Tees. The Norman monastery was built around 1080 by William Walcher, Bishop of Durham, and the monastic buildings are concentrated around the cathedral cloister. The monastery was dissolved by Henry VIII on December 31, 1540.

Finchale Priory © David Simpson

Finchale Priory – (Benedictine monks)

St Godric was granted land at Finchale by the Bishop of Durham in 1115 for a hermitage. Godric died in 1180 and is buried on the site. The Priory was founded around 1196 for eight Durham monks who often used it as a holiday retreat.

Neasham Abbey – (Benedictine nuns)

Neasham abbey was located near Darlington and was home to eight nuns. It was first mentioned in a papal bull in 1156. A nineteenth century house called Neasham Abbey stands near the site of the nunnery

Norman Jarrow
Remains of Norman monastery at Jarrow © David Simpson

Wearmouth and Jarrow (Benedictine monks)

The famous Anglo-Saxon monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow had long since been abandoned and fallen into ruin when they were revived around 1076 by Aldwin of Winchester during the time of Bishop William Walcher. Most of the monks were moved to Durham in about 1080.

Blackfriars, Newcastle
Blackfriars, Stowell Street, Newcastle © David Simpson 2015

Friaries : monasteries in towns

Newcastle never had a medieval cathedral or monastery like Durham or York but there was a nunnery and a number of friaries. Friars made their living from charitable donations. Newcastle’s friaries included the Dominican Blackfriars (1239), Carmelite White Friars (1262), Sack Friars (1266), Franciscan Grey Friars (1274) and Austin Friars (1286). Substantial remains of Blackfriars can still be seen. Other friaries existed at Yarm, Hartlepool, Richmond, Scarborough, York, Beverley, Hull, Penrith, Appleby, Hexham and Alnwick (known as Hulne Priory).

Yorkshire monasteries

The Yorkshire monasteries were amongst the most powerful and wealthiest in the country, owning vast tracts of land in the Yorkshire Dales and other parts of the region. Some of the most famous monasteries in England can be found in Yorkshire including Fountains Abbey, Rievaulx and Whitby Abbey. Whitby and possibly St Mary’s Abbey in York lie on the site of earlier Anglo-Saxon monasteries located within the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria. Ripon Cathedral also stands on the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery.

Baysdale Nunnery – (Cistercian nuns)

Moved here from Nunthorpe (near Middlesbrough) in 1163.

Bridlington Priory – (Augustinian canons)

Established 1120.

Byland Abbey – (Cistercian monks)

Originally established at Byland, it was so close to the rival Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx that monks were confused about which monastery bell was calling them to order. In 1147 the abbey moved to Stocking near Coxwold, leaving behind Old Byland. The Byland monks were affiliated to the Monastery of Savigny in France.

Coverham Abbey – (Premonstratensian canons)

Established in Coverdale 1212.

Eggleston Abbey – (Premonstratensian canons)

Built in 1195 near Barnard Castle but on the Yorkshire side of the Tees, the abbey was attacked by Scots in 1315.

Ellerton Abbey  (Gilbertine monks)

A twelfth century Gilbertine abbey (a mixed order) in Swaledale.

Fountains Abbey © David Simpson

Fountains Abbey – (Cistercian monks)

Fountains was founded on December 27, 1132, by 13 monks from St Mary’s Benedictine Abbey in York. They included the Prior Richard and wished to obey a stricter order of life. Archbishop Thurstan of York granted land near the River Skell and the monks set up Fountains Abbey against the wishes of Geoffrey, the abbot of St Mary’s. Like Rievaulx, Fountains was a daughter of Clairvaux Abbey in Burgundy. An experienced monk, Geoffrey D’Ainai, came from France to teach the Cistercian way. In 1135 the Dean of York retired to Fountains Abbey. His wealth helped it to grow.

Gisborough Priory
Gisborough Priory © David Simpson.

Gisborough Priory – (Augustinians canons)

Established at Guisborough (the spelling of the town is different) around 1128 by Robert Bruce of Skelton.

Priory church, Holy Trinity, York
Priory church, Holy Trinity, York © David Simpson

Holy Trinity Priory, York – (Benedictine monks)

Founded by Robert Pagnell in 1089 and attached to the abbey of Marmoutier near Tours. The present church of Holy Trinity in York’s Micklegate was part of the priory.

Jervaulx Abbey, Wensleydale – (Cistercian monks)

Originally established at Fors near Aysgarth in 1145 by Akar Fitzbardolph. Here, the French monks are thought to have perfected the making of Wensleydale cheese. In 1156 they moved further down the valley to a new site which they called Jervaulx. Jervaulx means Ure Valley as the Ure is the river of Wensleydale. Unlike Rievaulx and Fountains this abbey is affiliated to the French monastery of Savigny rather than Clairvaux.

Kirkham Priory- (Augustinian canons)

Established near Malton 1125.

Lastingham Priory (Benedictine monks)

Refounded in 1078. Monks were moved to York before 1086.

Malton Priory – (Gilbertine monks)

Gilbertine priory established around 1150

Marrick Priory – (Benedictine nunnery)

Site of a Nunnery in Swaledale established in the 1150s

Mount Grace - the house
Mount Grace – the house incorporates part of the monastery © David Simpson

Mount Grace Priory – (Carthusian charterhouse)

Founded in 1398, the north’s first Carthusian monastery or ‘Charterhouse’, was established by Thomas of Holland, Duke of Surrey near Osmotherley.

Newburgh Priory – (Augustinian canons)

Established near Coxwold 1150.

Rievaulx Abbey © David Simpson

Rievaulx Priory – (Cistercian monks)

Founded in 1131 near Helmsley, with the support of St Bernard of Clairvaux, this was Britain’s first Cistercian monastery and was built by monks from Clairvaux Abbey in France.

York, St Mary's Abbey
York, St Mary’s Abbey © David Simpson

St Mary’s Abbey, York – (Benedictine monks)

Founded by King William Rufus in 1089, probably on the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery. Most of the present building dates from the thirteenth century and lies just outside York city walls although it is enclosed by walls of its own.

Whitby Abbey © David Simpson

Whitby Abbey – (Benedictine monks)

Re-established by Reinfrid in 1078 on the site of St Hilda’s Anglo-Saxon monastery. Robert De Brus presented a small chapel at Middlesbrough to the abbey around 1120 to be staffed by its monks. In 1215 the hermitage at Saltburn was granted to Whitby Abbey by Roger de Argentum.

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