Houses of Cluniac monks: Priory of Pontefract

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

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'Houses of Cluniac monks: Priory of Pontefract', in A History of the County of York: Volume 3, (London, 1974) pp. 184-186. British History Online [accessed 11 April 2024]

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The priory of St. John of Pontefract was founded in 1090 (fn. 1) by Robert de Lacy. The house was dedicated to the honour of St. John (fn. 2) the Evangelist, and subjected to the Cluniac monks of La Charité-sur-Loire, (fn. 3) the order being then popular and in 'good odour and honest fame. (fn. 4) ' The first monks, it appears, had formerly lived in the St. Nicholas' Hospital, and had come from the house of La Charité a few years previously. (fn. 5) St. Nicholas' being near the new monastery was now given to the monks for the use of the poor, and the collegiate chapel of St. Clement was not to be conferred upon any other body of religious than the monks of St. John. (fn. 6)

The establishment of the priory was for the good estate of the founder and the souls of William I, the founder's parents—Ilbert and Hawise—and all his ancestors and heirs; (fn. 7) and the endowment included the churches of Ledsham, All Saints, Kippax, Darringtoh, and Silkstone. This donation was further enlarged by the founder, c. 1090 and c. 1112, when he conferred upon the house the chapel of Cawthorne, and other chapels, lands, and tithes. (fn. 8)

The Prior of St. John's was not appointed by election of the convent, but by the mother-house of La Charité, and to this French monastery the priory at Pontefract had to send a yearly payment. But, as was the case with many alien houses, this payment was confiscated during the reign of Edward III. (fn. 9)

Toward the end of the year 1139 the aged Archbishop Thurstan, who in his youth had made a vow that he would ally himself to the Cluniac order of monks, decided to fulfil his vow. In extreme old age he bade solemn farewell to the clergy at York, and entered Pontefract Priory, taking the monastic vows there on 25 January 1140. He did not, however, long outlive this step. On 5 February he died. Just before his death he recited the office of the dead, and chanted the Dies irae, and then, 'whilst the rest were kneeling and praying around him, he passed away to await in the land of silence the coming of that Day of Wrath, so terrible to all, of which he had just spoken.' (fn. 10) When, some years afterwards, his grave (fn. 11) was opened, the archbishop's remains were said to be found 'sweet-smelling and undecayed.' (fn. 12)

The priory buildings were destroyed in the Anarchy, and Gilbert de Gaunt, who had claimed the estates but afterwards acknowledged himself in error, (fn. 13) made compensation for the demolition by a donation of property at South Ferriby, Lincs. (fn. 14) About 1153, during the rebuilding of the priory, the monks received a temporary residence at Broughton (fn. 15) from Alice de Rumelli, and in 1159 this new house was consecrated by Archbishop Roger. (fn. 16)

In 1156 the priory of Monk Bretton, or Lund, was founded as in some way subordinate to the priory of Pontefract. Difficulties and disputes soon arose between the two houses, and were only finally settled by the renunciation of the order of Cluny by Monk Bretton in 1280, and its subsequent continuance as a Benedictine Priory till the Dissolution. The subject is dealt with more at length in this account of Monk Bretton.

Copies of a great number of charters are given in the Monasticon (fn. 17) and in the Chartulary, (fn. 18) and the various possessions of the house are consequently known in minute detail. A bull of Pope Celestine, c. 1190, also conferred the right of interment on the priory, and gave to the house, during the time of any general interdict, the privilege of celebrating the Divine offices with closed doors, in a low voice, without bells— persons excommunicated and interdicted being of course excluded from sharing such privilege. (fn. 19)

A charter was issued in 1229 by Archbishop Walter Gray, dealing exclusively with the 'pensions' to be paid to St. John's by its various churches: All Saints', Pontefract, 12 marks; Darrington I mark; Ledsham 6 marks; Kippax 4s.; Silkstone 100s.; Slaidburn 6 marks, and Catwick 3 marks. (fn. 20)

Evidently there was some disturbance in the priorate in January 1268, for when Godfrey and his convent presented 'Ralph, the deacon' to Ledsham, no archiepiscopal inquisition was ordered, as the prior and some of the canons were excommunicated by authority of the legate. (fn. 21) This same year, 1268, we are told that certain of the monks had entered into the monastery at Bretton. (fn. 22)

In 1277 the prior, Godfrey, with some of his monks, and others, were charged, with the deaths of 'Thomas son of Raymond, Thomas de Ireton, and Richard de Scauceby, monks.' An inquiry was ordered to deal with the affair, the king having been informed that appeals had been maliciously procured against the prior. (fn. 23)

In 1279 a visitation of the Cluniac houses was made, and on 18 September the Abbot of Cluny and others came to the priory at Pontefract. At that time the brothers numbered twenty-seven, including the prior. It was found that the monks were leading good lives, that the daily offices were duly performed, the buildings in a good state of repair, the church well appointed, and the food sufficient till the next harvest. When the prior entered upon his office, twelve years before, the house was in debt to the extent of 3,200 marks, but the liabilities had been reduced to 350 marks or even less; and, besides this, the prior had obtained a small property of 2 carucates. It was also found that fifteen years previously the priory had incurred an obligation of 400 marks, the convent making themselves liable for the amount to help the brethren at Monk Bretton: such amount, however, had been secured by bonds held from the smaller house. (fn. 24)

Reference has been made to the pensions received by the priory in 1229 from its churches. By the year 1291 things had changed considerably. Vicarages had been ordained in some of the churches, and the old pension system was being superseded, the monks receiving a much greater proportion of the revenues. The following comparison shows the financial benefit which had accrued to the priory:—

1229 1291
All Saints', Pontefract £8 0 0 £30 0 0
Ledsham 4 0 0 10 0 0
Silkstone 5 0 0 57 6 8
Darrington 0 13 4 13 6 8
Catwick (fn. 25) 2 0 0 2 0 0 (fn. 26)

In 1294 royal protection was granted to the prior because he had given to the king a moiety of his goods and benefices according to the taxation last made for a tenth for the Holy Land, (fn. 27) and in 1310 Guichard, the prior, was nominated attorney for the Abbot of Cluny. (fn. 28) This same Guichard was himself going 'beyond seas' in 1313, and received letters nominating attorneys for him. (fn. 29)

The town of Pontefract became famous during the reign of Edward II as the place where Thomas the Earl of Lancaster was executed by the king's order. His body was interred in 1322 in the priory church near the high altar. Many miracles were said to have been wrought at his shrine, and a chantry chapel (fn. 30) was afterwards founded to the memory of 'Saint' Thomas. (fn. 31)

Little seems to have been known of the priory during the 15th century. The valuation of the house in 1535 (fn. 32) was £472 16s. 10½d., the outgoings £137 4s., leaving a clear remainder of £335 12s. 10½d., and this ensured the maintenance of the priory when the smaller houses were dissolved. The commissioners arrived at the priory in November 1538, and their report was very complacent: 'quietly takine the surrenders and dissolvyed the monasterie of Pountfrette, wher we perceyved no murmure ore gruge in any behalfe bot wer thankefully receyvede.' (fn. 33)

The date of the surrender is 23 November 1539, (fn. 34) and pensions were granted to the prior (£50) and twelve brethren, (fn. 35) the prior, James Thwaytes, being further appointed Dean of St. Clement's for life.

Priors of St. John's (fn. 36)

Martin, temp. Hen. I

Walter, occurs c. 1120, (fn. 37) 1135

Reynold, occurs 1139

Adam, occurs c. 1145, (fn. 38) 1156

Bertram, occurs c. 1170 (fn. 39)

Hugh, occurs 1184, 1195

Walter, occurs 1219

Robert, occurs 1225

Hugh, occurs 1226

Walter, occurs 1230


Stephen, occurs 1235

Peter, occurs 1238, 1239

Dalmatius, occurs 1241-63 (fn. 40)

S., occurs 1267 (fn. 41)

Godfrey, occurs 1268 (fn. 42) -83 (fn. 43)


William, occurs 1300

Guichard de Cherleu, elected 1311

Simon de Castleford, occurs 1316

Stephen de Cherobles, appointed 1322, (fn. 44) occurs 1343 (fn. 45)

Simon Balderton, occurs 1366 (fn. 46)

John Tunstal, occurs 1387, 1402

William Helagh, succeeded 1404; occurs 1409

Richard Haigh, occurs 1413-37

William, occurs 1442-46

John, occurs 1439

Nicholas Halle, occurs 1452

Richard Brown, occurs 1475, (fn. 47) 1481 (fn. 48)

John Flynt, occurs 1499

Richard Brown, occurs 1507, 1520

James Thwaytes, last prior, surrendered 1539

The 12th-century seal (fn. 49) is a vesica, 2½ in. by 1¾ in., having the eagle of the evangelist holding a scroll in his claws. The broken legend reads:—


A counterseal (fn. 50) of the 12th century is a vesica, 1¼ in. by 11/8 in., having the head of St. John, with the legend:—


The 13th-century seal (fn. 51) of Prior Godfrey shows a conventional representation of the house with the prior seated within reading from a book on which are the words I PNCIPIO, the beginning of St. John's Gospel. The legend is:—



  • 1. yorks. Arch. Rec. xxv, 2.
  • 2. The donation is 'to God and St. Mary and St. John and my monks in Pontefract' (Mon. Angl. v, 122).
  • 3. Padgett, Pontefract, 43.
  • 4. Foundation Charter, Yorks. Arch. Rec. xxv, 17.
  • 5. Fox, Pontefract, 301, and Padgett, op. cit. 43.
  • 6. Yorks. Arch. Rec. xxv, 18.
  • 7. Boothroyd, Pontefract, 319.
  • 8. Yorks. Arch. Rec. xxv, 18, 25, 26.
  • 9. Fox, Pontefract, 302.
  • 10. Fasti Ebor. 208.
  • 11. Before the altar in the Priory Church; Yorks. Arch. Rec. xxv, p. xxi.
  • 12. John of Hexham, Hist. col. 268.
  • 13. Yorks. Arch. Rec. xxv, p. xx.
  • 14. Ibid.
  • 15. Ibid. 2.
  • 16. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 118.
  • 17. Ibid. 118 et seq.
  • 18. Yorks. Arch. Rec. xxv.
  • 19. Lawton, Relig. Houses, 51.
  • 20. Yorks. Arch. Rec. xxv, 73.
  • 21. York Archiepis. Reg. Giffard, fol. 13.
  • 22. Archbp. Giffard's Reg. (Surt. Soc.), 27.
  • 23. Pat. 5 Edw. I, m. 5 d.
  • 24. Padgett, Pontefract, 48.
  • 25. No vicarage had been ordained at Catwick; the pension therefore remained unchanged.
  • 26. Yorks. Arch. Rec. xxv (pp. xxxii, xxxiii).
  • 27. Pat. 22 Edw. I, m. 27.
  • 28. Ibid. 3 Edw. II, m. 9.
  • 29. Ibid. 7 Edw. II, pt. i, m. 20.
  • 30. This chapel was built c. 1361 on the top of the hill where the execution took place. In 1359 blood was said to have been seen flowing from the tomb of the martyred earl, his belt was reported to give assistance to women in child-bearing, and his hat to cure pains in the head. (Torre's MS. 53.)
  • 31. Padgett, Pontefract, 48.
  • 32. Valor Eccl. v, 66.
  • 33. Padgett, Pontefract, 50.
  • 34. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiv (2), 576.
  • 35. Ibid.
  • 36. List in Chartuh of Pontefract, 681.
  • 37. Ibid. 59. Abbot of Selby 1139
  • 38. Ibid. 64. First Prior of Monk Bretton.
  • 39. Ibid. 66.
  • 40. Ibid. 516.
  • 41. York Archiepis. Reg. Giffard, fol. 9 d.
  • 42. Ibid. fol. 13.
  • 43. Dep. Keeper's Rep, 35, App. 11.
  • 44. Pat. 16 Edw. II, pt. i, m. 25.
  • 45. Ibid. 17 Edw. III, pt. ii, m. 35d.
  • 46. Pipe R. 40 Edw. III.
  • 47. Cal. Pat. 1467-77, p. 564.
  • 48. Ibid. 1476-85, p. 285.
  • 49. Cat. of Seals, B.M. 3852, lxxiv, 96.
  • 50. Ibid. 3853, lxxiv, 97.
  • 51. Ibid. 3854, xlix, 45.