Houses of Austin canons: Priory of Kirkham

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

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, 'Houses of Austin canons: Priory of Kirkham', in A History of the County of York: Volume 3, (London, 1974) pp. 219-222. British History Online [accessed 30 May 2024].

. "Houses of Austin canons: Priory of Kirkham", in A History of the County of York: Volume 3, (London, 1974) 219-222. British History Online, accessed May 30, 2024,

. "Houses of Austin canons: Priory of Kirkham", A History of the County of York: Volume 3, (London, 1974). 219-222. British History Online. Web. 30 May 2024,

In this section


The Augustinian priory of Kirkham was founded about 1130, (fn. 1) and was the earliest of the three religious houses which owed their existence to Walter Espec. In his foundation charter, (fn. 2) addressed to Archbishop Thurstan and Geoffrey, Bishop of Durham, Walter Espec records that he had given to God and the church of the Holy Trinity of Kirkham, and to the canons serving God there, the whole manor of Kirkham, with the parish church and the churches of Helmsley, Garton, and Kirby Grindalythe, and other property, including (in Northumberland) the whole vill of Carham-on-Tweed, a mansura at Wark, the whole vill of Titlington, and the churches of Ilderton and Newton-in-Glendale (now known as Kirknewton). As Thurstan and Geoffrey were contemporaries in the sees of York and Durham from 1133 to 1139, the date of this charter is definitely fixed between those years.

There is no reference to any son or child of the founder, (fn. 3) and no suggestion whatever in support of the legend that Walter Espec was led to found Kirkham and his two other monasteries of Rievaulx and Warden out of grief at the loss of his only son by an accident. That story is told with such definiteness of detail in a chartulary of Rievaulx, that, were it not incidentally negatived by the silence of all contemporary accounts, including the foundation charters of the monasteries in question, it would almost carry a conviction of truth with it. The legend, as told in the chartulary under the heading 'Fundatio monasteriorum de Kyrkham Ryevalx et Warden, &c.', (fn. 4) is that Walter Espec, miles strenuus, married, when quite young, a certain Adelina, who bore him a son named Walter. The son was a handsome youth, and greatly devoted to riding swift horses. One day, mounting and urging his steed beyond control, it stumbled against a small stone cross at Frithby and threw him, breaking his neck. The father, inconsolable at his bereavement, consulted his uncle William, then rector of Garton, at whose advice he made Christ his heir, founding three monasteries at Kirkham, Rievaulx, and Warden, appointing his uncle William, who had received monastic instruction in the house of St. Oswald, Nostell, the first Prior of Kirkham, which he endowed to the extent of 1,300 marks a year. (fn. 5) Of the founder himself a vivid picture has been drawn by Aelred, the third Abbot of Rievaulx, in his account of the battle of the Standard. (fn. 6) He describes Walter Espec as at that time an old man, full of days, of quick wit, foreseeing in counsel, sober-minded in peace, wary in war, always keeping friendship with his companions, and faith with kings; a tall, big man with black hair, a full beard, an open and free countenance, with large and keensighted eyes, and a voice like a trumpet. Noble in the flesh, Aelred says, but nobler far for his Christian piety.

The most important incident in the early history of Kirkham is undoubtedly the proposed cession to the abbey of Rievaulx of Kirkham itself, and a considerable amount of its property, on the condition that the patron gave other lands to the canons in lieu of those which were to pass to Rievaulx. The proposal never took effect. The document in the Rievaulx Chartulary (fn. 7) is headed Cyrographum inter nos [Rievallenses] et Kirkham. It begins: 'These are the things which we have conceded and given to the monks of "Rievalle," for the love of God, and the wellbeing of our souls, for peace, and the honour of our prior, and at the will and desire of our patron.' They are enumerated as 'Kirkham with the church and our buildings, and our garths, gardens, and mills, and everything in that place except one barn . . ., Whitwell, and Westow, and 4 carucates in Thixendale (those 4, to wit, which our patron hitherto holds in his possession), and a wagon, and 100 sheep of our stock,' and then follows the condition under which the concession had been made, viz., 'that our patron shall give us all Linton and "Hwersletorp" with all the appurtenances belonging to the same vill.' The chirograph then proceeds: 'And our prior and his assistants shall build us a church, chapter-house, dormitory, refectory, and other houses of sufficient size, as an infirmary, cellar, hospice, bake-house, stable, granary, barn, and establish a good mill there, if possible, at the least cost; the church to be covered with shingle, and the claustral offices thatched. The charters and evidences of Linton, and of all our possessions, shall be acquired by us. . . . Be it known. also that we shall retain with the church of Westow the carucate of land belonging to it, and the monks shall pay us tithes of land they may cultivate in that parish, in Whitwell, and in the demesne lands of our patron. . . . . All our moveables, when we leave Kirkham we shall take away, that is to say crosses, chalices, books, robes, and all church ornaments, including stained glass windows, (fn. 8) for which we will make them white ones. One bell shall remain for them according to our choice. Vessels, and utensils, and necessary articles, whether at Kirkham, or Whitwell, it shall be lawful for us to take away. This, however, is to be known, that we will not depart from our place, or lose our prior, until the things agreed between us are accomplished. If perchance within a year we shall have changed our place, the property and rents of our church, as they now are, shall for the whole year be in our hands and possession, for the acquittance of our debts. In like manner the property and rents of Linton shall be in the hands of the monks, for constructing our buildings. . . . Be it known also, that all the canons and brothers of Kirkham now living shall have the same position in the Cistercian chapter and order as monks of that order.'

There are several points to be noted. In the first place the concession is spoken of in the past tense—'we have conceded and given ' (concessimus et donavimus), which implies that the interchange was very near actual accomplishment, and can only have fallen through because some or all of the conditions were not fulfilled. Then the advocatus noster—our patron—must allude to Walter Espec himself, and not, as Mr. Walbran has surmised, Lord de Ros (fn. 9); but the chief point is, what did the chirograph imply, and what would have taken place if its conditions had been carried out? A clue seems to be given in the final clause that each canon and brother was to have a like standing in the Cistercian chapter and order. This can hardly mean anything else than that it was proposed to hand over Kirkham to Rievaulx, perhaps as a cell, or at any rate as a Cistercian house, and that those canons and brothers of the Augustinian order who became Cistercians were to have the same position they held reserved to them as monks; while it looks as if a new house at Linton was to be established, where we may suppose that the dissentient canons of Kirkham would be formed into an Augustinian monastery. It must not be forgotten that Walter Espec became a Cistercian monk himself, and he may have wished that his three houses should all be of the Cistercian order.

In 1203 (fn. 10) Innocent III ordered that persons presented to the Archbishop of York for institution by the Prior and convent of Kirkham should be admitted to their churches. There had evidently been some obstruction on the part of the archbishop, but its nature, or the ground on which it had been based, is not known.

Gregory IX decided, in 1240, (fn. 11) on behalf of the Prior and convent of Kirkham, that the acquisitions of lands made by the Cistercians within the parishes belonging to Kirkham were not in any way to prejudice their right to the tithes.

In 1253, (fn. 12) when the chapel in the castle of Helmsley was dedicated by the Bishop of Whithern, the prior and convent protested against it as an infringement of the rights of their church of Helmsley, given them by their founder. Archbishop Giffard, on 19 May 1269, (fn. 13) commissioned Magr. Philip de Staunton, if he saw fit on visiting Kirkham, to receive the resignation of the prior, which the archbishop had deferred doing. The prior, who had pleaded his feeble state, was probably Hugh de Beverley, mentioned as prior in 1268.

On 4 February 1279-80 (fn. 14) Archbishop Wickwane held a visitation, and issued a series of injunctions. In the first place he ordered that laymen and outsiders were on no account to enter the infirmary, except doctors and others whose duty was to look after the sick. The prior and sub-prior were several times in the year to have the carols of the canons in the cloister and elsewhere opened in their presence and their contents shown to them. No one was to accept garments (indumenta) or other things, as the gift of any person, without the special leave of the president, and then such were to be delivered, not to the recipient, but wisely and discreetly by the president to some one else. Fools, low buffoons, and tramps were firmly forbidden access to the refectory. The sick were to be properly tended. None of the canons were in future to go to the infirmary to warm themselves. The alms, were to be given to the poor, and not to the stipendiaries of the house, as had hitherto been done. No eatables were to be transferred elsewhere from the refectory.

The prior was enjoined to correct the excesses of his brethren more often and quickly. The doors were to be better guarded from the access of useless and unworthy persons. The canons and conversi were to be distinguished according to the due requirement of their grade, and juniors were not to be placed over their betters. Becoming equality in necessary matters according to the rule was to be observed towards everyone.

The servitors and attendants of the house were not to burden the monastery with their children or relations, but such were to be removed at once. The archbishop forbade all strife and noise in beginning proses and chants. The canons were forbidden after compline, for the sake of drinking, or under any pretext of unbecoming levity, to visit guests or friends, or to go to them, except they had a necessary or useful reason for doing so, and then only with the leave of the president. (fn. 15) Drinking with guests or friends in the absence of the prior was altogether prohibited. The prior was to hear the confession of each at least once in the year. The canons, moreover, were not to visit the houses of nuns or other suspected places.

In 1314 (fn. 16) Archbishop Greenfield issued a series of injunctions as the sequel of a visitation held on Wednesday after Trinity Sunday. The defects in the chapter-house, dormitory, and infirmary were to be repaired as soon as possible. As certain of the secular servants of the house did not show proper deference to the canons, the prior was ordered to correct and chastise such servants, and if any were incorrigible or rebellious, they were to be discharged.

As certain of the cellarers of the house claimed to have a perpetuity in their office, the archbishop ordered that no cellarer should hold office for more than two years, and this on condition that he behaved well. If at the end of two years he was found to have been useful and apt for his office, he might be re-elected by the prior and five or six of the seniors. When the prior found a cellarer unfit for the office he was to be removed by the prior and another appointed without delay. As the monastery was heavily in debt, all were enjoined to strict moderation.

In 1318 (fn. 17) Archbishop Melton held a visitation of Kirkham. He ordered Archbishop Greenfield's decretum and his own to be read weekly every Wednesday and Friday. The injunctions are of a general character, and the grave faults the archbishop would deal with separately later. They do not appear to be recorded.

On 10 November 1321 (fn. 18) John de Jarum [or Yarm] was elected prior in succession to Robert de Veteri Burgo, who had died on Sunday before the feast of SS. Simon and Jude (28 October 1321). According to an entry in the Register headed Status Domus de Kirkham, the monastery was then in debt to the amount of £843 15s. 9½d. of borrowed money. It was burdened at the same date with £12 a year in pensions, there were also twenty-two corrodies, two of which had been sold in the time of Prior William, four in the time of Prior John, and sixteen in the time of Prior Robert.

The expenses of the house from the death of Prior Robert to the installation of Prior John on Wednesday the feast of St. Katherine (25 November) had amounted to £140 10s., which had been borrowed. Moreover, much would have to be bought in the way of wheat, malt, peas, oats, as well as provender for horses, and forty oxen for ploughing would have to be purchased at 13s. 4d. each, and thirty horses (at 20s. each). The total debts, in addition to the money for the necessaries above mentioned, amounted to £1,089 12s. 5d., besides the twenty-two corrodies, estimated at £73 6s. 8d. a year.

A memorandum is added, that in time of peace the priory received 1,000 marks of silver annually from its rents in Northumberland, but had received nothing from that source for the past seven years.

In 1331 (fn. 19) a serious charge was brought against Prior John de Jarum that he had committed adultery with Clemencia, wife of Thomas de Boulton, kt. The archbishop summoned him to appear in the cathedral church on Thursday after the feast of Pentecost and answer the charge. The prior duly appeared, but none of his accusers responded to the summons. The archbishop thereupon pronounced sentence in favour of the prior, and restored him fame pristine, as it is expressed.

Reports of strife between the prior and canons having reached the ears of Archbishop Thoresby in 1353, (fn. 20) a commission of inquiry was issued on 23 August 1353.

In 1357 (fn. 21) the financial state of the house was very bad. It owed £1,000, much the same sum as it had owed thirty years before, and from a letter addressed by the archbishop to the prior as to the desolabilis status of the house, it would appear that the only means of relieving the stress which prevented the priory from supporting the full number of its canons and maintaining due hospitality, was to send some of the canons for a time to other houses of the same order, and licence to do this was conceded by the archbishop.

A letter from the archbishop, dated 10 April 1372, (fn. 22) refers to the case of John Strother, a canon who, at the archbishop's recent visitation, stated that he had been compelled by threats by his father, William Strother, to make his profession as a canon of the house against his will. He sought licence from the archbishop to visit the apostolic see and obtain a release from his vows. This the archbishop granted.

In 1380 (fn. 23) the house contained the prior and sixteen canons. The clear income of the house in the Valor Ecclesiasticus is reckoned at £269 5s. 9d. (fn. 24)

Burton (fn. 25) has, in alphabetical order, a list of the places where the priory held property. The house was surrendered 8 December 1539 (fn. 26) by John Kildwick and seventeen canons.

Priors Of Kirkham

William, first prior, c. 1130 (fn. 27)

D. or O., c. 1134 (fn. 28)

Wallevus otherwise Waltheof, c. 1140 (fn. 29)

Geoffrey, between 1147 and 1153 (fn. 30)

William (de Muschamp), occurs c. 1191-2 (fn. 31)

Walter, occurs c. 1195 (fn. 32)

Drogo, occurs c. 1195-9 (fn. 33)

Andrew, occurs c. 1200-10 (fn. 34)

Walter, occurs before 1226 (fn. 35)

William, occurs 1219-28 (fn. 36)

Richard, occurs 1235-46 (fn. 37)

Roger, occurs 1252 (fn. 38)

Hugh de Beverley, occurs 1258, (fn. 39) 1268 (fn. 40)

William de Wetwang, occurs 1304 (fn. 41)

John de Elveley, confirmed 1304, (fn. 42) resigned 1310 (fn. 43)

Robert de Veteri Burgo, 1310, (fn. 44) died 1321 (fn. 45)

John de Jarum, 1321, (fn. 46) died 1333 (fn. 47)

Adam de Wartria, 1333, (fn. 48) died 1349 (fn. 49)

John de Hertelpole, 1349, (fn. 50) resigned 1362-3 (fn. 51)

William de Driffield, elected Feb. 1362-3, (fn. 52) died 1367 (fn. 53)

John de Bridlington (sub-prior), elected 1367 (fn. 54)

John de Helmeslay, elected 1398, (fn. 55) died 1408 (fn. 56)

Richard de Ottelay, elected 1408 (fn. 57)

William Frithby, died 1457 (fn. 58)

Nicholas Naburne (sub-prior), elected 1457, (fn. 59) died 1462 (fn. 60)

Thomas Irton, elected 1462 (fn. 61)

William Perle, succ. 1470, (fn. 62) died 1504 (fn. 63)

Thomas Bowtre, appointed (by lapse) 25 September 1504 (fn. 64)

John Kildwick, elected 1518 (fn. 65)

The seal, (fn. 66) used as early as 1191, is a large vesica, 37/8 in. by 17/8 in., showing our Lord in Majesty, with the legend:—


The 13th-century prior's seal (fn. 67) is a vesica 27/8 in. by ¼ in., of similar but more elaborate design, having the prior kneeling in the base between two water bougets. On either side of the majesty is a water bouget between two Catherine wheels, which devices refer to Walter Espec, the founder, who bore arms of three Catherine wheels, and to Lord de Ros, in whose honour the house had for arms three water bougets with a crozier in pale over all. Of the legend there remains:—



  • 1. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. vi, 207. The date there given for the foundation, 1121, appears to be too early.
  • 2. Ibid. 208.
  • 3. The gifts were made with the assent of his nephews, for the welfare of the souls of his and their parents.
  • 4. Cott. MS. Vitell. F. 4.
  • 5. Dr. Atkinson rejects (Rievaulx Chartul. p. xlv) this sum as a gross exaggeration; but when, in 1321, the convent returned a statement of their revenues to the archbishop, they stated that in time of peace they were wont to receive 1,000 marks a year from their Northumberland property alone.
  • 6. Cited Dugdale, Mon. Angl. vi, 209.
  • 7. Rievaulx Chartul. (Surt. Soc.), 108, no. cxlix. The date of this document, which, as shown later on, was compiled within the lifetime of Walter Espec, must be anterior to 1154, for he died as a monk of Rievaulx on 15 March in that year. Ibid. 265.
  • 8. 'Et fenestras vitreas coloratas nobis retinemus, pro quibus illis albas faciemus.' Rievaulx Chartul. 109. A very notable allusion. The Cistercians rejected stained windows.
  • 9. See Rievaulx Chartul. p. xxiv. This is clear from the clause as to the 4 carucates in Thixendale which it is said (Rievaulx Chartul. 108} 'advocatus noster adhuc tenet in manu sua.' In what is called the 'Secunda Fundatio' of Kirkham, Walter Espec granted the canons 4 carucates in Thixendale, and after his death 4 more carucates of land there (Rievaulx Chartul. 160). These latter are those alluded to as still in Walter Espec's possession.
  • 10. Cal. of Papal Letters, i, 15.
  • 11. Ibid. 187.
  • 12. Archbp. Gray's Reg. 119 n.
  • 13. Archbp. Giffard's Reg. 131.
  • 14. York Archiepis. Reg. Wickwane, fol. 117b.
  • 15. There is a letter (23 July 1289) to the Bishop of Norwich as to a canon of Kirkham who was a fugitive from the house, and 'in vestra civitate deprehensum'; Reg. Romanus, fol. 62b.
  • 16. York Archiepis. Reg. Greenfield, ii, fol. 100.
  • 17. Ibid. Melton, fol. 269b.
  • 18. Ibid. fol. 285-7.
  • 19. Ibid. fol. 314b.
  • 20. Ibid. Thoresby, fol. 21.
  • 21. Ibid. fol. 179b.
  • 22. York Archiepis. Reg. Thoresby, fol. 196.
  • 23. Subs. R. (P.R.O.), bdle. 63, no. 12.
  • 24. Valor Eccl. v, 103-4; Dugdale, Mon. Angl. vi, 208.
  • 25. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 374-7.
  • 26. Ibid. 377.
  • 27. Rievaulx Chartul. 171 n.
  • 28. Ibid.
  • 29. Ibid.
  • 30. Ibid.
  • 31. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 377 n.; Rievaulx Chartul. 26.
  • 32. a Cott. MS. Claud. D. xi, fol. 229.
  • 33. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 377 n.
  • 34. B.M. Harl. Chart, 111, C. 21.
  • 35. Rievaulx Chartul. 172 n.
  • 36. Baildon, Mon. Notes, i, 101.
  • 37. Ibid.
  • 38. Ibid.
  • 39. a Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii, fol. 30, 32 d.
  • 40. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. vi, 209, no. iv; Baildon, Mon. Notes, i, 101.
  • 41. York Archiepis. Reg. Corbridge, fol. 41.
  • 42. Ibid.
  • 43. Ibid. Greenfield, fol. 117b. In Recs. of Northern Convocation (Surt. Soc.), 58, one 'Gerard of Burton' is named as Prior of Kirkham, who was present at the Provincial Council at York in 1311-12, which dealt. with the Templars, and, it is added with a (?), 'executed after the Northern Rebellion of 1337.' Immediately after his name comes that of Robert Oldburg,' prior of Kirkham,' who, it is suggested, was Prior of Warter. There is, however, no hiatus in the list of Priors of Kirkham about this time which could be filled by 'Gerard of Burton.'
  • 44. York Archiepis. Reg. Greenfield, fol. 122b.
  • 45. Ibid. Melton, fol. 285.
  • 46. Ibid. fol. 325.
  • 47. Ibid. fol. 320.
  • 48. Ibid. fol. 320.
  • 49. Ibid. Zouch, fol. 202b.
  • 50. Ibid.
  • 51. Ibid. Thoresby, fol. 208.
  • 52. Ibid.
  • 53. Ibid. fol. 218.
  • 54. Ibid.
  • 55. Ibid. sed. vac. fol. 230.
  • 56. Ibid. fol. 295b.
  • 57. Ibid. 295b.
  • 58. Ibid. W. Booth, fol. 110b.
  • 59. Ibid.
  • 60. Ibid. fol. 118b.
  • 61. Ibid. fol. 118b, 119.
  • 62. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. vi, 207.
  • 63. York Archiepis. Reg. Savage, fol. 53b.
  • 64. Ibid. Wolsey, fol. 39b.
  • 65. The last prior. He died 1552. 'John Kilwyk lait prior of Kirkham, obijt circa primum diem Maij hoc anno sexto Regis nunc, and his pension by yere £50.' Exch. K.R. Accts. (P.R.O.), bdle. 76, no. 23.
  • 66. Cat. of Seals, B. M. 3360; Cott. Chart. v, 13.
  • 67. Ibid. 3363, lxxiv, 71.