Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey of Whitby

A History of the County of York: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1974.

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, 'Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey of Whitby', in A History of the County of York: Volume 3, (London, 1974) pp. 101-105. British History Online [accessed 29 May 2024].

. "Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey of Whitby", in A History of the County of York: Volume 3, (London, 1974) 101-105. British History Online, accessed May 29, 2024,

. "Houses of Benedictine monks: Abbey of Whitby", A History of the County of York: Volume 3, (London, 1974). 101-105. British History Online. Web. 29 May 2024,

In this section


While the history of the monastery of Streoneshalch, so intimately associated with the Abbess Hilda, forms an important chapter in the early history of Christianity in the north of England, that of the Benedictine house, which after a lapse of two centuries was founded on its site, is devoid of exceptional interest or importance.

The story of the re-founding of the monastery by William de Percy is not very clear, for there are extant three accounts, practically contemporary with one another, which differ as to many of the facts related. These three accounts are: one given in the ' Abbot's Book ' of Whitby, another by Symeon of Durham, and the third by Stephen, the first Abbot of St. Mary's, York. (fn. 1) The latter differs greatly from the two former, which agree well in the main lines of the story. The comparison and criticism of the three has been very thoroughly made by Dr. Atkinson. (fn. 2)

A certain Reinfrid, who had been a most valiant soldier of William the Conqueror, moved by sorrow at the wasted holy places at Whitby and elsewhere in the north, entered the monastery of Evesham with the intention of becoming a monk capable of repairing some of the mischief. After some time spent there, he returned to the north and journeyed to Streoneshalch, otherwise called Prestebi and Hwitebi. (fn. 3) He approached William de Percy, from whom he received the ruined monastery of St. Peter, with 2 carucates of land, and there he set to work to resuscitate the monastic life. He was joined by many, including Serlo de Percy, the founder's brother, and numerous other gifts were made to the revived house, which followed the Benedictine rule. From the description of the old monastery when it was given to Reinfrid it comprised about forty roofless and ruined monasteria vel oratoria, (fn. 4) which calls to mind some of the Irish monastic ruins at the present day with their numerous chapels and cells.

The original gift of William de Percy (fn. 5) included the monastery of St. Peter at Whitby (or Streoneshalch), the town and port of Whitby, the parish church of St. Mary there, and its six dependent chapels of Filing, Hawsker, Sneaton, Ugglebarnby, Dunsley, and Aislaby (to follow the modern spelling), five mills (including that of Ruswarp, still existing), the town of Hackness with its two mills, and the parish church of St. Mary there, and the church of St. Peter at Hackness ' where our monks served God, died, and were buried,' and various other gifts enumerated in the ' Memorial' in the abbot's book. The latter authority relates that Prior Reinfrid, having ruled the monastery many years, was accidentally killed at Ormesbridge by a piece of timber falling upon him, and that he was buried, in the cemetery of St. Peter at Hackness, when he was succeeded by Serlo de Percy as prior. (fn. 6)

From William the Conqueror the monastery received two undoubted charters. One (fn. 7) granted to the church of Whitby and Serlo the prior and the monks all the liberties over their lands and men which by royal power he was able to grant to any church. He also conceded and confirmed to them and their men buying or selling, freedom from the customs and demands of kings, earls, and barons, and their bailiffs. No man was to meddle with their lands, men, forests, or game within their boundaries, nor with their waters of the port of Whitby, or elsewhere, or other possessions.

By the other charter, (fn. 8) addressed to Thomas (de Bayeux), Archbishop (of York, 1070-1100), Earl Alan, and Ralph Paynel, the king granted to the church of St. Peter of Presteby and of Whitby, and to Prior Serlo and the monks there, that their church should have the same laws and customs as the churches of St. John of Beverley, Ripon, and St. Peter of York. The witnesses to this deed, granted at York, were Lanfranc, Archbishop (of Canterbury 1070-89), Osmund, bishop, (fn. 9) and William de Percy.

The story of the re-founding of the monastery which goes by the name of Stephen of Whitby, (fn. 10) Abbot of St. Mary's, York, and was evidently intended for the glorification of Abbot Stephen, says that he joined the re-founded abbey under Prior Reinfrid in 1078, and that a few days afterwards Reinfrid and the rest of the community compelled him, by urgent solicitations, to assume the office of prior; and then soon after this, through the combined pressure of the king and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, he was unwillingly made Abbot (not prior) of Whitby. The founder, William de Percy, seeing the improvements made in the place, repented of his foundation gift, and persecuted the monks, who were also greatly troubled by pirates and robbers, so that they appealed to the king, who granted them the old monastery of Lastingham, and they began to build there. While they were still at Whitby he (Stephen) went to Lastingham, and received episcopal benediction as abbot of that place as well. William de Percy, according to this account, still continued to persecute Stephen and the monks of Whitby, till eventually he drove them away to Lastingham, where they remained a few years, and then, by the gift of Earl Alan, they moved to St. Olave's, York, and eventually formed the nucleus of St. Mary's Abbey.

There is undoubtedly a substratum of truth in the story, and the probability is that (as Dr. Atkinson suggests) (fn. 11) Stephen conceived himself, and was conceived by a not insignificant party of the brethren, a suitable successor to Reinfrid, on the latter's death. The Percys preferred that one of themselves, Serlo de Percy, should succeed, and therefore brought pressure to bear which made Stephen with certain of his followers migrate to Lastingham, and very soon afterwards to York. The ' Memorial' is quite definite in its statement that Serlo succeeded Reinfrid, and makes no mention whatever of Stephen. It should be noted, too, that Serlo de Percy became Prior (not abbot) of Whitby.

From William Rufus the monastery of Whitby received the gift of the church of All Saints, Fishergate, York. (fn. 12) How the monastery was raised from a priory to an abbey has not been explained; but it seems quite certain that Serlo, as prior, retired to the cell of All Saints, Fishergate, and that his successor in the superiorship of the monastery of Whitby was his nephew William de Percy, who is mentioned by name as abbot in a document dated 1109. (fn. 13) He was succeeded by Nicholas, whose name occurs in a charter of Pope Honorius who died in 1130. The next abbot was Benedict, who in consequence of troubles in the monastery resigned about 1148 or 1149 (fn. 14) and retired to the cell of All Saint's, Fishergate. The monks consulted Archbishop Murdac, who refused to confirm Benedict's resignation unless one of three persons nominated by himself was elected abbot. These three were Thomas Grammaticus, monk of St. Albans, Richard, Prior of Peterborough, and German, Prior of Tynemouth. (fn. 15) The Prior of Peterborough was elected because he was deemed the most prudent and of noble lineage.

Walter, the Prior of Whitby, and one of the monks named Martin, were sent to Peterborough. The monks of Peterborough eventually consented, and Martin, Abbot of Peterborough, sent him to King Stephen, then at York. The king received his homage as abbot, and Richard entered the monastery on the Sunday after the octave of Pentecost. There were thirty-six monks in the monastery. Abbot Richard of Peterborough ruled the house as a loving father for more than twenty-six years, and died early in the morning of 1 January 1175. He was buried in the chapter-house (which he had built) by the side of Abbot William. During his abbacy a raid was made by the King of Norway, who laid hands on all that he could carry off, and wasted the rest.

In the second year after the death of Abbot Richard I, Richard de Waterville, a monk of St. Nicholas, Angers, and Prior of Monks Kirby, was elected Abbot of Whitby. He entered the monastery as abbot on 29 June 1176 when there were thirty-eight monks, who received him with honour. Abbot Richard de Waterville and his convent granted the town of Whitby a charter erecting it into a free borough; but this charter was rendered void in the time of his successor, Abbot Peter, who gave 100 marks fine that the burgesses should not make use of the liberties granted in the charter until it had been decided in the king's court whether the abbot and convent had power to make the grant. (fn. 16) The burgesses of Whitby proffered four score marks that they might have a confirmation, (fn. 17) but eventually King John refused to confirm it, and it became null and void. Abbot Peter died in 1211, and the kingdom being under an interdict the revenues of the abbey were seized by the king, who appointed an abbey warden. (fn. 18) At the end of three years Nicholas, the papal legate, appointed John de Evesham abbot. (fn. 19) He held office till 1222, when Roger de Scardeburg succeeded. During his time the abbey ' received a great accession of territory and wealth, and was at the zenith of its grandeur.' (fn. 20)

The only visitation recorded was held by Archbishop Melton in person on 4 October 1320, (fn. 21) and six months later he sent his decretum, containing a series of injunctions, many of which are in what may be termed the ' common form ' of such documents. The archbishop found the monastery heavily in debt, and all possible mod eration in food, drink, and other matters was enjoined. The revenues of their church of Great Ayton in Cleveland, by unanimous consent, were assigned for the relief of their debts.

Then follow the usual directions forbidding the revealing of chapter secrets, inordinate going to and fro of seculars in the cloister, infirmary, and private parts of the monastery, and an order that none but mature and respectable persons were to dine in the refectory. The sick monks were to be duly cared for, &c.

All the monks were to be uniform as to their habit, according to the old ordinances, and were to avoid novelties of dress. They were not, in future, to accept money to get clothes, but were to receive them from the vestry, giving back their old clothes for the new ones. The monastic, alms were to be duly distributed by the almoner and his servants, and were not to be given to workpeople, &c. The archbishop forbade all the monks, under pain of suspension from divine rights, to go out of the monastery with bows and arrows. In the matter of recreation, the abbot was to grant most relaxation to those who most needed it. The prior was to keep convent in church, refectory, dormitory, and cloister, unless engaged in attending on notable guests, or hindered by sickness, or the needful affairs of the house, or some other legitimate reason. The abbot was to consult the older and more prudent members of the convent in the difficult affairs of the house. He was to allow no monk to reside in the family or be in the service of any secular person without the archbishop's special licence. All money coming to the house was to be delivered to two resident bursars, who were to spend the money as seemed best on the needs of the house. A cellarer was to be appointed to mind the outside affairs, and to his office was to pertain all that had hitherto been the duty of the bursars, except the receipt and expenditure of the money. The abbot, on receipt of the decretum, was with five or six mature and discreet monks to audit an account of the goods of the house made by the officials, and make the state of the monastery known to the whole convent in chapter. No attendant or manservant who was burdensome to the house, or who was defamed of the vice of incontinence or any other grievous crime, was to be retained. The abbot, prior and monks were not to keep their own or other people's hunting dogs in the monastery, nor were they to admit any, except those needed for the house, and the cloister doors were to be so guarded that they could not get in. If any dog did get in, such dog was to be caught, et rigide castigetur.

An earlier entry (fn. 22) relates to William de Wadworth, a monk of Monk Bretton, whom Archbishop Romanus sent to Whitby in 1293 to undergo a penance. He was to be last in quire, cloister, dormitory and refectory, and on Wednesdays and Fridays was to fast on bread, ale and vegetables. He was to keep convent continuously, and to abstain from the celebration of divine service. His offence is not definitely stated. Two monks of Selby were also sent by Archbishop Greenfield to Whitby for penances. (fn. 23)

Abbot Thomas de Malton resigned in 1322, (fn. 24) when, in recognition of his faithful labours as abbot, provision was made for him during the remainder of his life. He was to have a chamber called ' Camera Astini ' with all that pertained to it, kept in order by the abbot and convent; also daily for himself and a monk-associate food and ale to the same amount as that given to three monks. He was also to have daily provision for a valet, a cook, and a man-servant (garcione), whom he should choose to serve him. Further, he was to receive yearly 12 marks of silver, and decent clothing. For his valet and man-servant two coats (robas) of the abbot's livery (de liberatione abbatis), or 25s. He was to have the profit of the manor of Eskdale, &c., and the forester appointed by the abbot was to find him, at the abbot's cost, necessaries for keeping up the buildings and repairing the ploughs, &c., and reasonable amount of firebote for burning at the abbey, and at Eskdale. He was, in addition, to receive fifteen cartloads of turves yearly at Whitby, and from the sacrist 3 lb. of wax at the feast of St. Michael, and also, from the abbot's chamber, for lights for himself, 10 lb. of Paris wax at All Saints. Besides these benefits, he was to have a competent equipage for riding to and from Whitby and Eskdale when he desired, and when entertaining guests, what was needed from the cellar and kitchen as the abbot had.

Thomas de Haukesgarth (Hawsker) (fn. 25) was elected abbot in Thomas de Malton's place, and the archbishop (as was often the case with the larger monasteries), claimed the right to demand on the creation of a new head of the house the payment of a pension to a person nominated by himself, (fn. 26) in this instance William de Cliffe.

In 1328 Edward III (fn. 27) directed the archbishop to appoint trustworthy men to survey the benefices pertaining to Whitby Abbey destroyed by the Scots, and to make new valuations, as the abbey and benefices were unable to pay the tenth on the old valuation. (fn. 28) In 1380-1 there were, besides the abbot, nineteen monks, (fn. 29) and in 1393 twenty monks voted at the election of the abbot. (fn. 30)

The monastery of Whitby, in common with all other religious houses, was often engaged in litigation. One of the most important disputes in which Whitby was involved was with the newlyfounded priory of Guisborough, early in the 12th century, respecting the tithes and parochial dues of 12 carucates of land in the parish of Middlesbrough, which church had been given to Whitby by Robert de Brusl. (fn. 31) The canons of Guisborough claimed in right of their church of Stainton, of which Middlesbrough Church was a chapel only. The dispute was settled by Robert de Brus, that the canons should receive the tithes and dues of 6 carucates, and the monks the dues of the others as belonging to their church of Middlesbrough, which henceforward was to be accounted a mother church, no longer dependent on Stainton. (fn. 32)

The Abbot of Whitby was a spiritual baron, and certain of the abbots before Edward III were summoned to Parliament. (fn. 33) He had also the use of the mitre and other pontifical insignia, but at what time this privilege was conceded has not been ascertained. It is alluded to in an indult of Boniface IX of 1401 (fn. 34) to Thomas (de Bolton) Benedictine Abbot of Whitby, to whom and whose successors the use of the ring and pastoral staff, as well as of the mitre, had been granted, that they might also give solemn benediction at table within the monastery and elsewhere, provided no bishop or papal legate were present.

A few wills relating to the abbey of Whitby may be mentioned. On 29 April 1479 John Salman of Newbiggin, Yorkshire, bequeathed his body to be buried in the quire of the monastery of St. Peter and St. Hilda before the high altar in a place selected by the abbot, and among his executors he named Dominus Thomas Pickeryng, Abbot of the monastery of Whitby. (fn. 35) On 10 July 1474 Nicholas Langechester, burgess of Scarborough, bequeathed 2s. nove fabrice monasterii de Whitby. (fn. 36) On 12 October 1474 Dompnus John Nyghtyngale, rector of Sneaton, bequeathed his body to be buried in his monk's habit in the church of St. Peter and St. Hilda, Whitby (in which house he had been professed), in the north part of the church. This is interesting as a case where a Benedictine monk had been appointed to a secular cure. (fn. 37)

The abbey was surrendered by Henry Davell, the abbot, and the convent on 14 December 1539, (fn. 38) the clear annual value being estimated in the Valor Ecclesiasticus at £437 2s. 9d. (fn. 39)

Priors of Whitby

Reinfrid c. 1078

Serlo de Percy, before 1087

Abbots of Whitby (fn. 40)

William de Percy, (fn. 41) occurs 1109

Nicholas, (fn. 42) died 1139

Benedict, (fn. 43) resigned 1148

Richard I, succeeded 1148, (fn. 44) died 1175

Richard II (fn. 45) (de Waterville) succeeded 1177

Peter, (fn. 46) before 1190, died 1211

(A vacancy of three years)

John de Evesham, (fn. 47) appointed 1214, died 1222

Roger de Scardeburg, (fn. 48) 1223, died 1244

John de Staingrave, (sub-prior) succeeded 1245, (fn. 49) resigned 1258 (fn. 50)

William de Brineston, 1259, (fn. 51) died 1265 (fn. 52)

Robert de Langetoft, (fn. 53) 1265, died 1278

William de Kirkham, (fn. 54) 1278, died 1304

Thomas de Malton, 1304, (fn. 55) resigned 1322 (fn. 56)

Thomas de Hawkesgarth, 1322, (fn. 57) resigned 1355 (fn. 58)

William de Burton, succeeded 1355 (fn. 59)

John de Richmund, (fn. 60) succeeded 1374, died 1393

Peter de Hartlepool, (fn. 61) 1393, died 1394

Thomas de Bolton, (fn. 62) 1394, died 1413

John de Skelton, (fn. 63) 1413, died 1437 (fn. 64)

Hugh Ellerton, D.D., (fn. 65) 1437, died 1462

Thomas Pickering, (fn. 66) 1462, died 1475

William Colson, (fn. 67) 1475, (fn. 68) died 1499 (fn. 69)

John Lovell, (fn. 70) 1499, died 1501

William Evesham, (fn. 71) succeeded 1501

John Benested, 1505, (fn. 72) died 1514 (fn. 73)

John Bednell, (fn. 74) 1514, died 1516 (fn. 75)

John Whitby, (fn. 76) confirmed 7 July 1516

Thomas York, (fn. 77) confirmed 18 January 1517

John Hexham alias Topcliffe, confirmed 13 April 1527, (fn. 78) resigned 1537 (fn. 79)

Henry Davell, (fn. 80) elected 1538, surrendered the abbey 14 December 1539

The 13th-century circular seal, (fn. 81) 2 in. in diameter, shows St. Hilda, the patron saint, standing under a canopy and holding crozier and book, between two altars each having a priest before it consecrating the chalice. Above the head of each priest is a dove, having a wafer in his beak, and above the birds are the sun and moon. The legend is:


The 13th-century seal (fn. 82) ad causas shows St. Peter standing, with the legend:



  • 1. For the first see Whitby Chartul. 1-10. For Symeon of Durham's account see Introd. chap, ii of the same vol., p. xxxii, and for Stephen's story, ibid. p. xxxiv.
  • 2. Whitby Chartul. introd. chap. ii.
  • 3. According to Domesday held by William de Percy of Hugh, Earl of Chester.
  • 4. Whitby Chartul. 2.
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. Ibid. 147 (no. 184).
  • 8. Ibid. 495 (no. 555).
  • 9. Dr. Atkinson, Whitby Chartul. 496 n. adds ' Bishop of Winchester.' There was no Bishop of Winchester of that name. It was no doubt Osmund, Bishop of Salisbury (c. 1078-99).
  • 10. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. iii, 529. The account is also printed in Whitby Chartul. i, p. xxxiv.
  • 11. Whitby Chartul. i, p. lxxxv.
  • 12. Ibid. 5.
  • 13. Ibid. 329 (no. 382).
  • 14. Ibid. 8 (no. 3.)
  • 15. Afterwards Abbot of Selby.
  • 16. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 80 n.
  • 17. Dugdale, Mon, Angl. i, 407.
  • 18. Young, Hist, of Whitby, 265 n.
  • 19. Ibid. 264.
  • 20. Ibid. 265.
  • 21. York Archiepis. Reg. Melton, fol. 235. It should be mentioned, however, to Whitby's credit, that Archbishop Wickwane visited the monastery in 1280, but issued no decretum, because there was no fault revealed on that occasion. York Archiepis. Reg. Wickwane, fol. 135.
  • 22. York Archiepis. Reg. Romanus, fol. 34b.
  • 23. Whitby Chartul. 629, 630.
  • 24. York Archiepis. Reg. Melton, fol. 238, &c.; Whitby Chartul. 636.
  • 25. He must not be confused with a later Thomas de Haukesgarth, monk, who in 1374 was sent by Archbishop Thoresby for a two years' sojourn in Selby Abbey (York Archiepis. Reg. Thoresby, fol. 182b), and who again appears in 1393, when Prior of Middlesbrough, as voting at the election of Peter de Hertilpoole as abbot. (Young, op. cit. 391 n.)
  • 26. York Archiepis. Reg. Melton, fol. 240b; Whitby Chartul. 647.
  • 27. Close, 2 Edw. III, m. 28; York Archiepis. Reg. Melton, fol. 249.
  • 28. In the ' Taxatio ' of Pope Nicholas, the temporalities of Whitby according to the old taxation had been £109 10s., and according to the 'nova taxatio' were only £50.
  • 29. Subs. R. 63, no. 12.
  • 30. Young, Hist. of Whitby, 391, n.
  • 31. He gave Middlesbrough Church on condition that there should be certain of the monks ' qui Deo et S. Hyldae de Wytebi deserviant'; Whitby Chartul. 95. Middlesbrough was afterwards the most important cell the abbey possessed.
  • 32. Young, Hist, of Whitby, 327. [An account of the ' disputes and agreements' of the abbey is given by Dr. Young, op. cit. chap, xi.]
  • 33. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 81.
  • 34. Cal. of Papal Letters, v, 398.
  • 35. Reg. of Wills, York, iv, fol. 170.
  • 36. Ibid. fol. 217.
  • 37. Ibid. fol. 223b.
  • 38. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiv (2), 683.
  • 39. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), v, 83.
  • 40. According to the story of Stephen, Abbot of York, he succeeded Reinfrid first as prior and was then made abbot. As to this see the history of the abbey.
  • 41. Whitby Chartul. 239 (no. 382).
  • 42. Charlton, Hist. Whitby, 86.
  • 43. Whitby Chartul. 8.
  • 44. Ibid. 10; formerly Prior of Peterborough.
  • 45. Ibid.
  • 46. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 80; Young, Hist. Whitby, 264.
  • 47. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. i, 407.
  • 48. Ibid.
  • 49. Pat. 29 Hen. III, m. 4.
  • 50. a Cal. Pat. 1258-66, p. 7.
  • 51. Ibid. 8.
  • 52. a Dugdale, Mon. Angl. i, 407.
  • 53. The first Abbot of Whitby summoned to Parliament, ibid.
  • 54. Ibid.
  • 55. Proclamation of an election, 7 Kal. Nov. I 304, of an Abbot of Whitby, no name given, York Archiepis. Reg. sed. vac. fol. 43.
  • 56. Ibid. Melton, fol. 239b.
  • 57. Ibid.
  • 58. Ibid. Thoresby, fol. 73b.
  • 59. York Archiepis Reg. Thoresby, fol. 73b.
  • 60. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. i, 407.
  • 61. Ibid.
  • 62. Ibid.
  • 63. Ibid.
  • 64. a Cal. Pat. 1436-41, p. 18.
  • 65. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. i, 407.
  • 66. Ibid.
  • 67. Prior of Middlesbrough. York Archiepis. Reg. W. Booth, fol. 64b.
  • 68. Ibid. G. Nevill, fol. 174.
  • 69. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 80.
  • 70. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. i, 408.
  • 71. Ibid.
  • 72. Ibid.
  • 73. L. and P. Hen. VIII, i, 4720.
  • 74. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. i, 408.
  • 75. L. and P. Hen. VIII, ii (2), 1951.
  • 76. York Archiepis. Reg. Wolsey, fol. 18.
  • 77. Ibid. fol. 33. He was Prior of St. Andrew's, Northampton; L. and P. Hen. VIII, ii (2), 3833.
  • 78. York Archiepis. Reg. Wolsey, fol. 86.
  • 79. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. i, 408.
  • 80. Ibid.
  • 81. Cat. of Seals, B M. 4328, D.C., E. 39.
  • 82. Ibid. 4329, lxxv, 17.