Houses of Cistercian monks: Kirkstall

Pages 142-146

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

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On a bed of sickness Henry Lacy, grandson of Ilbert de Lacy, to whom the Conqueror had given with other possessions the lordship of Blackburnshire, vowed that if he recovered he would found an abbey of the Cistercian order. Having recovered, he made a grant to the Abbot of Fountains of the village of Barnoldswick, close to the boundaries of Yorkshire and Lancashire, and within his lordship of Blackburn. (fn. 1)

Thither certain brothers were dispatched, who built some humble offices, and according to the custom of the order imposed a new name on the place, calling it Mount St. Mary's (Mons Sancte Marie), Henry Lacy, however, was not the chief lord of the grant he had given, which he held of Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, by a yearly payment Which had lapsed for many years, and about which Lacy had said nothing to the Abbot of Fountains. At a later period this led to. trouble, and the temporary dispossession of the monks.

Alexander, Prior of Fountains, was chosen abbot of the new convent, and on 18 May 1147 he left Fountains for Barnoldswick with twelve monks and ten conversi to colonize the fifth abbey, in order of time, peopled from Fountains, the abbot of which became in consequence its pater abbas.

The church of Barnoldswick was an ancient church, having four parochial villages (villas parochiales) dependent on it, and two hamlets. The parishioners were accustomed to attend the church on feast days with their priest and clerks, and this disturbed the quiet of the monks. So the abbot pulled down the church in spite of the remonstrances of the parishioners. A sharp contention, not unnaturally, arose, and the parishioners took their case to the papal court, where the pope in person decided for the monks and against the parishioners. Afterwards the abbey was moved and a new parochial church erected on a fresh site, else it is not impossible that a decision less obviously unfair to the parishioners might have been given.

The monastery at Barnoldswick suffered very much from the forays of robbers, probably Scots, and also from the climate. Barnoldswick was cold and bleak and the ' importunity of the clouds,' as the writer describes it, almost every year spoilt the monastic crops. For more than six years the monks existed in great poverty, and Abbot Alexander began to look about for another place to which the monastery could be transferred. It so happened, the chronicler relates, that when on a journey on the business of the house, he passed through a well-wooded and shady valley called Airedale, he found, on a level place in it, certain hermits. Charmed with the place, he asked their manner of life, to what order they belonged, whence they came, and who had given them the place. One of the hermits, Seleth by name, who appeared to be their master, told the abbot that he was a native of the south of England, and that a voice had sounded to him in sleep, saying, 'Arise, Seleth, and go to the province of York, and seek diligently in the vale called Airedale for a certain place called Kirkstall, for there shalt thou make ready a future habitation for the brethren who serve my son.' Asking who this son might be, the answer was, ' I am Mary, and my son is Jesus of Nazareth the Saviour of the world.' Seleth, placing his hope in God, had set forth from his home, and not without difficulty had reached the spot where the abbot found him. From shepherds who kept their flocks there he had at first obtained the place. For many days he was alone, feeding on roots and vegetables, and depending on the alms which Christian charity brought him. Afterwards other brothers joined him, having for rule a common life, according to the order of the brothers of Leruth, owning no property, but seeking food and clothing by the work of their hands.

The abbot recognized the suitability of the place for the construction of the abbey, and not without a little guile, as he took his leave of the hermits, began to warn them as to the health and safety of their souls, pointing out the danger of following their own will, their fewness in number, disciples without a master, laymen without a priest, persuading them to a better rule of religion. Then he went direct to Henry Lacy, and pointed out the poverty of the monks, and that he had found a place more particularly suitable, the lord of the soil being a certain knight, William of Poictou. The abbot calling together the hermits, some joined the community and others accepted a money compensation for their right. William of Poictou, at the instance of Lacy, granted the monks the place which had belonged to the hermits, and on 20 May 1152 the monks moved from Barnoldswick to the new site. They secured possession of certain land on the south up to the slope of the hill, and having cut down the wood, cultivated the soil, and made it fruitful. Henry de Lacy greatly helped them with provisions and money. With his own hand he laid the foundation of the church and completed it at his own cost.

When the monks left Barnoldswick that place was reduced to the status of a grange. It has been already mentioned that Henry de Lacy held it of Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, and that the annual fee of 5 marks and a hawk had not been paid for many years. Hugh Bigod, however, as the overlord of Henry de Lacy substantiated his claim to Barnoldswick in the king's court and dispossessed the monks. Later, however, Henry II prevailed on the earl to give the grange (for the redemption of his sins) in pure and perpetual alms.

The first abbot, Alexander, ruled the house for thirty-five years, and during his time the church and other buildings were built and roofed. He was a true abbot, in deed and in name, the chronicler records, and in a good old age was gathered to his fathers.

In 1156 Pope Adrian IV (Nicholas Brakespear) confirmed the church and all their possessions to the monks, and took them under his protection. (fn. 2) Henry II also granted them a con firmation of the property which the abbey then possessed. (fn. 3)

Abbot Alexander was succeeded in 1182 (fn. 4) by Ralph Haget, who had also been Prior of Fountains. His rule was not successful, and although renowned for sanctity he seems to have lacked business capacity. Perhaps it may have been more his misfortune than mismanagement, for he was afterwards elected Abbot of Fountains, but Kirkstall became impoverished in his time. The important grange of Micklethwaite was alienated, and the monks seem to have blamed him for that loss, for which he was not responsible, as well as others, such as that of a golden chalice and a text of the Gospels, which he had given to Henry II to gain his good will. For the nine years of his abbacy he remained at Kirkstall with his monks struggling with poverty until he was chosen Abbot of Fountains in 1191, and was succeeded by Lambert, one of the twelve monks who forty - two years before had left Fountains to found the Abbey of Barnoldswick.

Abbot Lambert (fn. 5) is described as a man of extraordinary innocency and simplicity, and one who took little part in the temporal affairs of the house, relying rather on his brethren's advice.

In his time the grange of Cliviger was claimed from the monks by Richard of Eland, and the abbot, regarding the claim as a just one, resigned Cliviger to Robert Lacy, the son of the founder, and then patron of the abbey, who gave instead of it a place called ' Akarinton.' Removing the inhabitants from Akarinton, he formed it into a farm or grange, but some of the ejected inhabitants burnt the grange with all its belongings, besides killing the three conversi who had been put in charge of it. Robert Lacy dealt very severely with the evildoers, whom he banished, making them first rebuild the grange and abjure all right to it and pay money beyond the cost of repairing the damage done to the monks. The record concludes by saying that Abbot Lambert died in a good old age after having held office for thirty years, but his real term of office appears to have been about five years. (fn. 6)

The next abbot was Turgis, a man who practised extreme asceticism even for those days of hard living. It is said that he wept so copiously at his devotions and while saying mass, that others could hardly wear the same sacerdotal vestments.

Helias, a monk of Roche, who succeeded Turgis in the abbacy, endeavoured to obtain from King John the grange of Micklethwaite, which Henry I had seized during the abbacy of Ralph Haget, but the king would only consent to grant the grange if the abbot would take the manors of Bardsey and Collingham to farm, paying yearly the sum of £90. (fn. 7)

At the time of the appointment of Hugh Grimston in 1284 (fn. 8) the abbey was enormously in debt, less a sum than £5,248 15s. 7d. besides 59 sacks of wool. The new abbot must have set vigorously to work to reduce this debt, for by July 1301 the house owed £160 only, while its farm stock comprised 216 draught oxen, 160 cows, 152 yearlings and bullocks, 90 calves, and 4,000 sheep and lambs.

In 1380-1 (fn. 9) besides the abbot there were sixteen monks and six conversi.

In 1394-5 (fn. 10) the alien cell of Burstall in Holderness, belonging to the abbey of St. Martin near Albemarle in France, was sold to the Abbot and convent of Kirkstall, who thus became possessed of several churches and considerable property in the east of Yorkshire, which they retained till the Dissolution.

The entrance of women within the precincts of Cistercian monasteries of men was very strictly forbidden, but Pope Boniface IX having granted indulgences to those persons of either sex who visited the conventual church of Kirkstall on certain days, Robert Burley, Abbot of Fountains, pater abbas of Kirkstall, agreed in 1401 to tolerate pro tempore the admission of women to the church only on condition that they visited no other of the monastic buildings and were not received there by the abbot or monks. (fn. 11)

In 1432 (fn. 12) John Colyngham resigned the office of abbot, and his successor, also named John, with the convent made provision for him. He was to receive a yearly pension of 20 marks for life, and to have a chamber assigned for his free use, called ' the White Chawmber.' Besides this, his portion of bread, ale and victuals was to be that of two monks, and he was to have lights, with wood for fuel. He was to take rank everywhere immediately after the existing abbot, and, if he so wished, might take his meals in the abbot's chamber. A servant was to be assigned to him as to the abbot, and if ill a monk was to be deputed by the abbot or prior to look after him.

Possibly because a visitation of all the Cistercian houses of men in England was in progress at the time, this agreement was confirmed by the three abbot visitors, William, Abbot of Clairvaux, John, Abbot 'de Theolosco,' and John [Ripon], Abbot of Fountains. Indeed, the resignation of Abbot Colyngham may have resulted from this visitation of the abbey, although nothing is said to that effect.

A very large amount of property was gradually acquired by the abbey of Kirkstall. It mainly lay in the neighbourhood of the abbey, in Blackburnshire, and in the East Riding, the latter being the property purchased from the abbey of St. Martin near Albemarle. (fn. 13)

In the Taxation of 1291 the temporalities were valued at £68 5s. 8d. (fn. 14) The returns for part of Yorkshire in the Valor Ecclesiasticus of Henry VIII are defective, and the portion relating to Kirkstall is missing.

The monastery was surrendered by John Ripley, abbot, and the convent on 22 November 1540. (fn. 15)

Abbots of Kirkstall

Alexander (first abbot) 1147 (fn. 16)

Ralph Haget, succeeded 1182 (fn. 17)

Lambert, succeeded 1191 (fn. 18)

Turgesius, (fn. 19) c. 1196 (fn. 20)

Helias de Rupe, occurs 28 February 1203-4 (fn. 21)

Ralph of Newcastle, occurs 29 September 1209, (fn. 22) 1230 (fn. 23)

Walter, after 1230 (fn. 24)

Martin, occurs 1237 (fn. 25)

Maurice, occurs 1236-7, (fn. 26) died 1249 (fn. 27)

Adam, succeeded 1249, (fn. 28) occurs 1256, (fn. 29) 1258 (fn. 30)

Hugh Mikelay, confirmed 1259, (fn. 31) died 1262 (fn. 32)

Simon, confirmed 1262, (fn. 33) died 1269 (fn. 34)

William de Ledes, 1269 (fn. 35)

Robert, c. 1271-5 (fn. 36)

Gilbert de Cotles, Cothes or Cotes, 15 August 1275 (for three years, one month, and four days) re-elected 12 December 1278 (?) and was abbot till 1 August 1280, (fn. 37) occurs 1280 (fn. 38)

Henry Karr, succeeded 1280 (fn. 39)

Hugh Grimston, confirmed 27 February 1288-9 (fn. 40)

William de Parlington, occurs 1290 (fn. 41)

John de Birdsall, elected 1304, (fn. 42) occurs 1311 (fn. 43)

Walter, elected 1313 (fn. 44)

William, occurs 1337, (fn. 45) 1348 (fn. 46)

Roger de Ledes, confirmed 1349 (fn. 47)

Ralph, occurs 1351 (fn. 48)

John Topcliffe, occurs 1356, (fn. 49), 1368 (fn. 50)

John de Thornberg, occurs 1369, (fn. 51) 1378 (fn. 52)

John de Bardsey, occurs 1392, (fn. 53) 1396, 1399 (fn. 54)

William Stapleton, occurs 1414 (fn. 55)

John de Colyngham, resigned 1432 (fn. 56)

John, occurs 1432 (fn. 57)

William Grayson (fn. 58) or Graveson, occurs 1452, (fn. 59) resigned 1468 (fn. 60)

Thomas Wymbirslay, confirmed 1468, (fn. 61) occurs 1498 (fn. 62)

Robert Killingbeck, elected 1499 (fn. 63)

William Stokdale, elected 1501, (fn. 64) occurs 25 February 1506-7 (fn. 65)

John Ripley, 1508 (fn. 66)

William Marshall, elected December 1509 (fn. 67)

John Ripley (second time), elected 15 May 1528, (fn. 68) surrendered the abbey 22 November 1540 (fn. 69)

The 14th-century seal (fn. 70) is circular, 2¼ in. in diameter, showing our Lady crowned and seated with the Child, and the legend:—


A 13th-century abbot's seal, (fn. 71) a vesica 21/8 in. by 13/8 in., shows the abbot standing between two heads of saints with this legend:—


The seal (fn. 72) of Abbot John de Birdsall (1304-11) is a small vesica 1¼ in. by ¾ in. with a design of a naked arm, the hand holding a crozier between two suns and as many moons.

Abbot William, sealed in 1343 with a vesica (fn. 73) 15/8 in. by 11/8 in. with a full-length figure of himself holding crozier and book.


  • 1. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 530, &c. no. i, ii, from which the earlier history of the house and its foundation is derived. The chartulary (Duchy of Lanc. Misc. Bks. vii), printed by the Thoresby Soc., contains much information as to the endowment of the abbey.
  • 2. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 536, no. xiv.
  • 3. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 535, no. xiii.
  • 4. Ibid. 531.
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. See list of abbots below.
  • 7. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 534, where King John's charter, dated 4 May 1205, is printed (no. vii), from the original formerly in St. Mary's Tower, York.
  • 8. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 528, n.
  • 9. Subs. R. 63, no. 12.
  • 10. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 298, where an alphabetical list of the churches, lands, &c. which, passed to Kirkstall will be found.
  • 11. Cott. Chart. iv, 39.
  • 12. York Archiepis. Reg. Kemp, fol. 368b.
  • 13. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 288-96.
  • 14. Pope Nich. Tax. (Rec. Com.), 325.
  • 15. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 550, no. liii.
  • 16. Ibid. 530, 531, no. ii.
  • 17. Ibid. 531, no. ii; Abbot of Fountains 1.1911203.
  • 18. Ibid.
  • 19. Ibid. 528 n.
  • 20. Guisborough Chartul. ii, 41.
  • 21. Yorks. Fines, John (Surt. Soc.), 20; a monk of Roche.
  • 22. Ibid. 157.
  • 23. York Archiepis.. Reg. Greenfield, fol. 85.
  • 24. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 528. (No date given there, but lie comes after Ralph, so after 1230.)
  • 25. Feet of F. Yorks. file 30, no. 16; 20-3 Henry III.
  • 26. Archbp. Gray's Reg. (Surt. Soc.), 328.
  • 27. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 528.
  • 28. Ibid.
  • 29. Lancs. Fines, i, 129.
  • 30. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 503, no. vii.
  • 31. Ibid. 528.
  • 32. Ibid.
  • 33. Ibid.
  • 34. Ibid.
  • 35. Ibid.
  • 36. Mentioned in 1370 as abbot temp. Hen. III and Edw. I; Baildon, Mon. Notes, i, 112.
  • 37. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 528.
  • 38. Feet of F. Yorks. file 60, no. 115, 8 Edw. I. The first two forms of his surname are in Dugdale and Burton, ' Cotes' in Baildon.
  • 39. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 529.
  • 40. York Archiepis. Reg. Romanus, fol. 33.
  • 41. Coram Rege R. 125, m. 50 d.
  • 42. York Archiepis. Reg. Corbridge, fol. 21.
  • 43. Add. Chart. 16782.
  • 44. York Archiepis. Reg. Greenfield, slip between fol. 77 and 78.
  • 45. Duchy of Lane. Misc. Bks. vii, fol. 83.
  • 46. a bid.
  • 47. York Archiepis. Reg. Zouch, fol. 4.
  • 48. Cal. of Papal Letters, iii, 375.
  • 49. a As 'John '.; Assize R. 1130, m. 17b.
  • 50. Baildon, Mon. Notes, i, 107.
  • 51. Ibid.
  • 52. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 529 (from Whitaker's Hist. of Craven).
  • 53. Baildon's MS. Notes.
  • 54. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 529.
  • 55. Cal. of Papal Letters, vi, 410.
  • 56. York Archiepis. Reg. Kemp, fol. 368b.
  • 57. Ibid.
  • 58. Ibid. G. Nevill, fol. 16.
  • 59. Baildon, Mon. Notes, i, 107.
  • 60. York Archiepis. Reg. G. Nevill, fol. 16.
  • 61. Ibid.
  • 62. Baildon, Mon. Notes, i, 107.
  • 63. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 529.
  • 64. York Archiepis. Reg. Savage, fol. 11.
  • 65. Test. Ebor. iv, 256.
  • 66. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 529.
  • 67. York Archiepis. Reg. Bainbridge, fol. 9b.
  • 68. Ibid. Wolsey, fol. 94.
  • 69. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 550, no. liii.
  • 70. Cat. of Seals, B.M. 3364, xlix, 15; lxxiv, 72.
  • 71. Ibid. 3366, lxxiv, 73.
  • 72. Ibid. 3367; Add. Chart. 16688.
  • 73. Cat. of Seals, B.M. 3368, xlix, 16.