Houses of Austin canons: Priory of Guisborough

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

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.


, 'Houses of Austin canons: Priory of Guisborough', in A History of the County of York: Volume 3, (London, 1974) pp. 208-213. British History Online [accessed 30 May 2024].

. "Houses of Austin canons: Priory of Guisborough", in A History of the County of York: Volume 3, (London, 1974) 208-213. British History Online, accessed May 30, 2024,

. "Houses of Austin canons: Priory of Guisborough", A History of the County of York: Volume 3, (London, 1974). 208-213. British History Online. Web. 30 May 2024,

In this section


The Augustinian priory of Guisborough (or Gisburne, as the place was usually called in the Middle Ages) was founded by Robert de Brus, who endowed it on a magnificent scale. The Foundation Charter (fn. 1) records that he had founded the house by the counsel and advice of Pope Calixtus and Archbishop Thurstan.

Walter of Hemingburgh, a canon of Guisborough who wrote within 200 years of the founding of the priory, states that the year of its foundation was 1129. (fn. 2) Pope Calixtus, however, who confirmed the act of foundation by Robert de Brus, died in 1124. Camden and others give 1119 as the year of the foundation, and although no ancient authority can now be quoted for it, that year (fn. 3) seems not improbably the correct date. Anyhow, it is certain that the foundation cannot have been earlier than 1119 or later than 1124.

'The generosity of the founder enabled the canons to make a start under very favourable circumstances. Twenty-nine carucates with the advowsons of ten churches and other gifts speak for themselves . . . All through its history the Bruses and their descendants continued to be the munificent benefactors to the canons of Guisborough. The chief estates of the latter in Cleveland, at Hart in Durham, and in Annandale, were entirely due to gifts from that family or from sub-in feudatories of theirs. It is true they had other benefactors, such as Alice de Rumilly in Cumberland, the Lascelles in Lincolnshire, the Bardolfs at Barningham, and the Stutevilles in the East Riding; but their grants were not of great value, and cannot be compared with the gifts received by the convent from the Bruses and their descendants. Guisborough, which at the time of the Reformation was the fourth richest monastery in Yorkshire, being surpassed only by St. Mary's, Fountains, and Selby, may be called without any exaggeration the creation of this family.' (fn. 4)

The chartulary records a large number of gifts from people of small possessions, who could only afford to give a few acres, or even roods. These deeds, which are mostly of the middle of the 13th century, show that a great religious house like Guisborough was popular, not only with people of higher rank as the Bruses, Percies, and Lascelles, but with the franklins and yeomen of the time. Among the charters there are twenty-two entitled Cartae Elemssinariae (fn. 5) containing small gifts to the canons on behalf of the poor, but distinct from the ordinary property of the house. A few of them specially direct what particular use the gift is for, as, for example, fuel for the poor, or 'ad lumen inveniendum pauperibus qui ibi hospitantur.' (fn. 6) These deeds, of about the middle of the 15th century, indicate that the canons had some sort of hospital for the poor in connexion with the priory before the hospital of St. Leonard of Lowcross came into their possession. These charters are followed by sixty-three which relate to the building of the church which was burnt down in June 1289. (fn. 7)

On the death of Peter de Brus III the patronage of the priory passed to Agnes the wife of Walter de Fauconberg, and Lucy the wife of Marmaduke de Thweng. By a charter dated London, 26 October 1275, (fn. 8) Walter and Agnes de Fauconberg and Marmaduke and Lucy de Thweng granted the canons the right of electing a new prior when a vacancy occurred without first obtaining their licence, but stipulated that the new prior upon his election should be presented alternately to the Fauconbergs at Skelton and to the Thwengs at Danby for confirmation.

An event occurred in the early part of the 13th century which does not throw a pleasant light on the methods which the convent pursued, in one case at least, in endeavouring to enrich itself. The canons had obtained a large amount of land in the parish of Kirkleatham, and wished to get possession of the well-endowed church of that parish as well. (fn. 9) They obtained three grants of it, in almost identical terms, from William de Kilton, the patron, and they proceeded at once to get a confirmation of it from King John in 1210. In 1221 Maud the niece and heiress of William de Kilton in conjunction with her husband Richard Dawtrey claimed that William's grant had been obtained from him on his deathbed, and when he was not in full possession of his senses. At first the prior traversed this statement, and maintained that William de Kilton made the grant when in good health and able to know what he was doing. The case was adjourned, and in 1228-9 Michael the prior released his claim, thus practically admitting the truth of the assertion made, of undue influence brought to bear on William de Kilton.

Among the early grants of a special nature made to the canons, those of a number of salinae at Coatham (fn. 10) ought to be mentioned. The salinae were situated on low marshland which was overflowed by the higher tides with seawater. Artificial hillocks were raised on the marsh land, on to the top of which the sea-water was baled, and there evaporated by fires made with a powdered coal which is still washed ashore and made use of by the cottagers. Several of these hills, locally known as salt hills, still remain with their furnaces overgrown and hidden. Many of the religious houses possessed one or more, (fn. 11) and in one or two instances it has been possible to identify the particular salina, or salt hill, belonging to a certain house.

The constant raids of the Scots greatly damaged the property of the canons. (fn. 12) In 1276, before the wars with Scotland began, the goods, temporal and spiritual, of the house (excluding their property in, Scotland) were valued at 2,000 marks. (fn. 13) Sixteen years later they were heavily in debt, and in 1328 commissioners appointed to inquire into the matter certified that £36 (fn. 14) was all that the canons could be fairly called upon to contribute as their share of the tenth on their temporal property in Yorkshire.

Besides the property in the more immediate neighbourhood, the canons received gifts of land in Lincolnshire, Cumberland, and elsewhere, especially in Annandale, where Robert Brus, lord of Annandale, second son of their founder, gave them the churches of Annan, Lochmaben, Kirkpatrick, Cummertrees, Redkirk, and Gretna, with dependent chapels. (fn. 15) From Ivo de Charchem, or Karkem, they received, between 1180 and 1190, the church of Hessle, in the East Riding. (fn. 16)

In 1280 Archbishop Wickwane found much that needed correction; (fn. 17) in the first place he ordered the rule of St. Augustine to be strictly followed. No one was to go outside the cloister after compline, for the sake of frivolity (causa lasciviae) or drinking, under the pretext of entertaining guests. The canons were not to keep expensive schools for rich or poor, unless the Chancellor of York deemed that it would be for the good of the monastery. The infirmary was filled with persons shamming illness. These were to be turned out and punished, and the really sick treated with greater compassion. In the refectory the food was to be all of one kind and divided equally. Alms were not to be bestowed on unworthy subjects, and a costly and extravagant household was to be put down at once.

Silence was to be observed more strictly in the cloister, whilst in the quire all were enjoined to take part in the praises of God. Any who were silent in quire were to be forthwith expelled by the rulers of the quire and their attendants unless excused by illness. In their recreation the canons were adjured in Christ to prefer discourses that tended to edify, rather than scurrilous or lewd tales. Keeping accounts was to be committed to the charge of young and sharp-witted men, who would clearly understand what was going on. Quarrels were to be avoided, and instead of proclaiming neighbours' faults each was to speak for himself. Gifts were not to be received without the superior's leave, and were at once to be assigned to common use. Expeditions outside the priory were strictly forbidden, unless in accordance with the rule. Agents who became rapidly enriched by managing the manors were to be removed at once. The conversi, if skilled in the management of temporal affairs, were to be made use of, so that their sagacity might avail to the benefit of the house.

The prior was not to be too lenient or, worse still, fearful in correcting, but, as a considerate and prudent prelate, was to instruct and teach the flock committed to his charge. The subprior, in hearing confessions and in other matters which belonged to his office, was to act with such moderation and care that at the Last Judgement he might receive a recompense full of peace. Certain canons, William de Beverley, Stephen de Kyrkeby, William de Scelton, Walter de Stocton, and John de Salkoc, the first four of whom had already been blamed in the earlier part of the decretum, and who had made themselves notorious for quarrelling and caballing, were debarred from promotion and were committed to the prior and sub-prior for condign punishment. Finally, the archbishop exhorted all, by the witness of the Cross, not to rejoice in or hasten one another's fall, but to show true compassion in all things, with all fear lest a like calamity should befall themselves.

The most important event in the earlier history of the priory is undoubtedly the fire in 1289, by which the conventual church was completely destroyed, when, according to Walter of Hemingburgh, (fn. 18) a number of most valuable books on theology, as well as nine chalices, the vestments, and sumptuous images, perished, owing to the carelessness of a plumber who with his two men had gone to repair the roof of the building, and left the fire not properly extinguished in the roof. The wind blowing the sparks about set fire to the beams. In consequence of this disaster the prior and convent petitioned (fn. 19) the king for licence to impropriate their churches of Easington, Benningholme, and Heslerton, and licence was granted 18 Edward I (1290) for that purpose, but the impropriation does not appear to have taken place. (fn. 20) The reparation of the church must have taken a considerable time, for in 1309 Archbishop Greenfield granted an indulgence of forty days to all who contributed to the rebuilding of the conventual church, which by the sudden fury of a fire had been devoured, together with the buildings, books, and other properties of the convent. In 1311 Richard de Kellaw, Bishop of Durham, granted a similar indulgence on account of the fire. (fn. 21)

Although details of the visitations of Guisborough, with the exception of that of 1280 by Archbishop Wickwane, are not entered in the registers, there are many allusions to visitations of the house. In 1308 Archbishop Greenfield held a visitation, and as a result two of the canons were sent, Hugh de Croft to Bridlington, and Geoffrey de Caldebek to Kirkham, there to undergo penances imposed upon them for misbehaviour, the character of which is not specified, although the penances are detailed.

Hugh de Croft was to keep convent in quire, cloister, refectory, and dormitory. He was to say two psalters weekly, and to be the last among the priests, and for three months was to abstain from saying mass. He was to keep silence during the common colloquy, and say the seven penitential psalms with the litany by himself in the cloister. He was not to attend chapter or receive or send out letters, nor was he to speak to any secular or religious person except in the presence of the president, and on no account was he to go outside the precincts of the monastery. Each Friday he was to have bread, ale, and vegetables only, and on each vigil of the Blessed Virgin to fast on bread and water.

The penance of Geoffrey de Caldebek was much the same, but he seems not to have been a priest, and there is no inhibition in his case forbidding him to say mass, but he was not to be promoted to higher orders without the archbishop's special licence.

In 1309 (fn. 22) the prior and convent had to receive a certain canon of Bridlington, Simon le Constable, whose offence is named in the account of that house, and it was with evident disgust and reluctance that the Prior of Guisborough yielded to the archbishop's order and admitted him.

In 1327 (fn. 23) the archbishop had to deal with the case of Stephen de Aukeland, a canon of the house, who had before taking orders, or entering the Augustinian Order, been technically guilty of the crime of usury, in conjunction with his mother, by lending ten shillings in usury. He applied to his prior for leave to go to obtain absolution of the pope. This being refused, he cast aside his canon's habit and went to Avignon, whence he brought back to the archbishop an absolution from John de Wrotham, the papal penitentiary. The archbishop sent him back to Guisborough, imposing upon him, for hidden sins confessed to the archbishop, a severe penance. He was to keep convent in all things, and was to hold no claustral office, nor was he to go outside, the precincts of the convent without the archbishop's special licence. Each Wednesday and Friday he was to fast, to receive a discipline from the president in chapter and, prostrate before the altar of the Blessed Virgin, to say the seven penitential psalms with the litany, humbly imploring divine grace and the help of the saints. He was to abstain from celebrating and all ministration of the altar and be last in the convent. In 1315 (fn. 24) two commissions were issued to correct the defects, crimes, and excesses discovered at the visitation.

The canons of Guisborough in 1319 (fn. 25) utterly refused to admit one of the Templars, Robert de Langton, who had been sent first to Bridlington on the dispersion of the order, and had been transferred by the pope to Guisborough. The canons were only induced to obey under threat of excommunication.

About this time the priory seems to have been reduced to great straits. On 23 April 1323 (fn. 26) Archbishop Melton was constrained to allow the convent to sell two or three corrodies, and to let to farm for a year their church of Kirkburn. Again, on 27 March, they had to ask for further licence to sell more corrodies and to let the church of Kirkburn for two years.

In 1380-1 the convent consisted of a prior, twenty-five canons, and two conversi. (fn. 27)

On 19 October 1523 (fn. 28) James Cokerell, the prior, was instituted to the rectory of Lythe near Whitby, which for some time he held in commendam. A very strange and simoniacal arrangement was entered into with the previous rector, who resigned on condition that the prior and convent paid him £200 on the feast of St. Mark next ensuing, and bound themselves to give him a yearly pension of £44 during his life, by even portions half-yearly, on the feast of St. Mark and St. Martin in winter, to be delivered to him 'at the founte situate in the body of the cathedrall church of Saynte Paule of London betwene the howores of eght and eleven of the clok before none on every of the saide festes.' This agreement bears date 4 November 1523. (fn. 29)

The clear annual value in 1535 was £628 6s. 8d. (fn. 30) The prior and convent paid £8 a year for a student at the university, and among the reprises were alms, including the portion of a canon daily given to thirteen poor persons in bread, ale, and meat, in honour of the Blessed Virgin for the souls of Robert de Brus, the founder, and Agnes his wife, amounting to 100s. yearly. Also alms on the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (15 August), given in bread and meat to all poor folk coming to the monastery, for the soul of Robert de Brus, amounting to 60s. Alms at the obit of Peter de Brus II for 1,000 poor, 66s. 8d. yearly. Alms at the obit of William de Brus, brother of the founder, 40s. Alms given at the seven principal feasts for the soul of Peter de Brus, in bread, viz., 7 quarters of wheat, 46s. 8d. Daily alms from Ash Wednesday to Maundy Thursday in feeding three poor persons, 33s. 4d. Alms on Maundy Thursday in bread, money, and herrings, to thirteen poor persons, 40s. Alms yearly given to thirteen poor widows for the soul of Marjorie de Brus, 13 quarters of wheat, £4 6s. 8d. Daily alms during Lent, 3 quarters of peas, 12s. The whole amounted to £24 5s. 8d. It can be easily understood from this what a loss to the poor the dissolution of the larger monasteries must have been.

At the Dissolution there were twenty-five inmates of the house who received various pensions, which were to begin on 25 March 1540. When an inquiry was made in 1552 (fn. 31) Robert Pursglove, the late prior, appeared, and complained that he was in arrear a whole year. One of the canons, Henry Alaynby, was deceased; another, Gilbert Harryson, appeared with his patent, and was behind for half a year, 'and axed it and they saied they had no money'; Christopher Malton was said to be 'dwelling in Lyllye in Hartforthshire'; John Harryson was 'behind for a yere and a half at Michelmas last and requyred payment; and Walter Whallay and he (sic) answered that his bokes was at London and when he saue his bokes he wold pay hym.' Eight canons on the roll, besides Henry Alaynby, did not appear, and eleven, including those above mentioned, appeared with their patents, and against seven no other entry is made to show whether they were paid or not.

It was at first proposed on the dissolution of the priory to found a collegiate church of secular canons in its place. (fn. 32) The scheme provided for a dean, four prebendaries, six petty canons 'to syng in the quier,' four singing men, six choristers with a master, a gospeller and epistoler, and a grammar schoolmaster, a steward, auditor, and four poor men. It need hardly be said that the scheme only existed on paper.

Priors Of Guisborough (fn. 33)

William de Brus, occurs temp. Archbishop Thurstan (fn. 34)

Cuthbert, occurs 1146-54

Ralph, occurs c. 1174-80

Raold, occurs 1199

Lawrence, occurs 1211-12

Michael, occurs 1218-34

John, occurs 1239-51, 1257

Ralph de Irton, occurs 1262, elected Bishop of Carlisle 1280

Adam de Newland, occurs 1280

William de Middlesburg, elected 1281

Robert de Wilton, elected 1320-1

John de Derlington, elected 1346

John de Horeworth or Hurworth, elected 1364, resigned 1393

Walter de Thorp, elected 1393

John de Helmesley, occurs 1408

John Thweng, elected 1425

Richard Ayreton (Prior of Healaugh Park), elected 1437

Thomas Darlington, elected 1455

John Moreby, elected 1475

John Whitby, resigned 1491 and re-elected, resigned 1505

John Moreby (second time?), elected 1505, blessed 1511 (fn. 35)

William Spires, elected 1511 (fn. 36)

James Cokerell, elected 1519, occurs 1534

Robert Pursglove alias Sylvester, occurs 1537, 1539

The 12th-century seal (fn. 37) is a vesica, 2½ in. by 1¾ in., with our Lady seated and reading from a book on a lectern. The legend is—


The circular 13th-century seal, (fn. 38) 25/8 in. in diameter, has on its obverse our Lady crowned and seated and holding the Child, with this inscription at the sides—


On either side of her chair kneels a canon, with a sun above his head.

The reverse has St. Augustine seated in a similar chair, blessing and holding his staff. At the sides are the words—

ORA P NOB' B[eatae] AVGV

Above the kneeling canons are moons. The legend is too much destroyed to be legible.


  • 1. Guisborough Chartul. (Surt. Soc.), i, 1-5.
  • 2. See, as to the. question of the date of foundation, Guisborough Chartul. Introd. pp. vi-x.
  • 3. Pope Calixtus II was elected on 1 Feb. 1119.
  • 4. Guisborough Chartul. i, Introd. pp. xvi-xvii.
  • 5. Ibid. 142-8.
  • 6. Ibid. 147, no. ccliii.
  • 7. Ibid. i, 148-64.
  • 8. Ibid. 98, no. ccxvi.
  • 9. For a full account of this affair see Guisborough Chartul. ii, Introd. p. vii; 96, no. dccxlv-dcclii, A.
  • 10. Ibid. ii, 113-16, 121-3, D.
  • 11. e.g. Byland, Ellerton on Spalding Moor, Handale, &c.; Guisborough Chartul. ii, Introd. p. ix.
  • 12. Guisborough Chartul. ii, Introd. p. ix.
  • 13. Ibid. i, 102, no. ccxix.
  • 14. Ibid. ii, Introd. p. ix n.
  • 15. Ibid. ii, 340-5 2.
  • 16. Ibid. 255.
  • 17. Ibid. Introd. p. xiv.
  • 18. Guisborough Chartul. ii, 353, where Hemingburgh's account is reprinted in full.
  • 19. Anct. Pet. 15414.
  • 20. Guisborough Chartul. 354.
  • 21. The canons also excused themselves to Edward II from granting a livery (liberationem) to Robert de Ryburgh, who was named for it by the king (in place of Henry le Charecter, who had previously held it on the nomination of Edward I), on the score of their impoverishment owing to the fire and the raids of the Scots, &c.; ibid. 356.
  • 22. Guisborough Chartul. 379.
  • 23. Ibid. 385.
  • 24. Ibid. 391, 392.
  • 25. Ibid. Introd. p. lvii; 392.
  • 26. Ibid. 398.
  • 27. Subs. R. (P.R.O.), bdle. 63, no. 12.
  • 28. York Archiepis. Reg. Wolsey, fol. 107.
  • 29. Ibid. fol. 108b. This use of the font in St. Paul's is mentioned in another grant by the Prior and convent of Guisborough, dated 14 June 29 Hen. VIII (1537), where they granted to Ralph Sadleyr a yearly rent of £40, to be paid in quarterly portions 'in ecclesia cathedrali sancti Pauli London super petram infra ecclesiam predictam existentem vocatam the ffontstone'; Conventual Leases, Yorks. no. 213. It also occurs in an annual pension of £6 granted 1 June 1530 by the Abbot and convent of Whitby to Ralph Belfield, which was to be paid 'in ecclesia cathedrali Sancti Pauli London super fontem baptismalem inter horas octavam et undecimam ante meridiem' (ibid. no. 993). Mention is also made of an annual rent of £118 to be paid 'uppon the ffountstone in the Temple Church, London,' 3 Jas. I; Yorks. Arch. Journ. xix, 474. As to 'The Old Fount Stone' on which money was paid in Christ Church, Dublin, and which was removed at the 'restoration' of that building by the late Mr. G. E. Street, see The Cathedral Ch. of Holy Trinity, Dublin, by William Butler, 1901, p. 10. Money payments were made on the tomb (or shrine) of St. Alkelda in the nave of Middleham Collegiate Church; Richmond Wills (Surt. Soc.), 129 n. The stone was removed at the last 'restoration.'
  • 30. Valor Eccl. v, 80.
  • 31. Exch. K.R. Accts. bdle. 76, no. 25.
  • 32. Henry VIII's Scheme of Bishopricks (ed. Cole, 1838), fol. 44.
  • 33. This list is taken from that in the Guisborough Chartul. ii, Introd. pp. xxxix-xlvi, where authority is given for each name and date.
  • 34. It is said that he was brother of the founder, and died in 1145. 40s. in alms were annually distributed at the obit of William de Brus, brother of the founder: Valor Eccl. v, 80.
  • 35. Commission to John, Bishop of Negropont, to bless John Moreby, Prior of Gisburn, 10 Sept. 1511; York Archiepis. Reg. Bainbridge, fol. 23b.
  • 36. Confirmation of the election of William Spires as Prior of 'Gisburn,' 13 Dec. 1511; York Archiepis. Reg. Bainbridge, fol. 24b.
  • 37. Cat. of Seals, B. M. 3186, lxxiv, 49.
  • 38. Cat. of Seals, B.M. 3187, 50, 51.