Houses of Austin canons: Priory of Nostell

Pages 231-235

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

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The origin of the great and wealthy priory of Nostell is not free from obscurity. It seems quite certain that on or near the site where the Augustinian priory was afterwards founded there was a hermitage dedicated in honour of St. James (fn. 1) in which a certain unknown number of hermits were congregated. It has been said that the priory of Austin canons which succeeded them was founded by Ilbert de Lacy in the reign of William Rufus, (fn. 2) and that the order of Austin canons was first introduced into England at Nostell by a certain 'Athelwulphus or Adulphus, confessor to Henry I.' (fn. 3) It is clear, however, that the canons were not settled at Nostell till the time when Thurstan was Arch bishop of York, which was not till 1114, (fn. 4) and therefore, although undoubtedly the first house of the order in Yorkshire, others, such as Colchester, founded in 1105, took precedence as earlier foundations in England. That Ilbert de Lacy had in some manner made arrangements for the establishment of a monastery at Nostell is very probable, but its actual foundation must be assigned to his son Robert, in the reign of Henry I.

The story of the foundation, as told in a manuscript compiled when Robert de Quixley, who succeeded in 1393, was prior, is briefly as follows. (fn. 5) Henry I was accompanied on an expedition against the Scots by his chaplain, Ralph Adlave, (fn. 6) who fell ill, and was detained atPontefract. When convalescent, and on a hunting expedition, he came across the hermits, whose mode of life so impressed him that he decided to do what he could to found a priory there, and when the king returned obtained the royal consent. Ralph Adlave then became an Augustinian canon, and by the king's direction assumed the position of head of the establishment, which then Consisted of eleven brethren. Henry I favoured the new establishment, and made a grant of 12d. a day to it from the king's revenues in Yorkshire. Others followed the king's example as benefactors, chief of whom was Robert de Lacy, in whose fee of the honour of Pontefract Nostell was situated. He granted to God and the church of St. Oswald of Nostell and the canons regular there half a carucate of land where the canons' church was situated, together with the churches of Warmfield, Huddersfield, Batley, and Rothwell, besides other land and property. (fn. 7)

Henry I (fn. 8) confirmed these gifts of Ilbert de Lacy or Robert his son, (fn. 9) to the church of the blessed Oswald, king and martyr, near the castle of Pontefract in a place called 'Nostla,' in which canons regular had been established (comtituti sunt) by Archbishop Thurstan. Besides confirming the grants of Robert de Lacy, he confirmed those of other benefactors, which included a considerable number of churches, both in Yorkshire and elsewhere, two of which were Bamburgh in Northumberland, which became a rich cell of Nostell, and Bramham, which was made a prebend in the church of St. Peter, York, annexed to the priorship of Nostell. In addition, the king granted the canons the same liberties and customs as those possessed by the mother church of the blessed Peter of York. Thus, at the very outset, the priory of Nostell was richly endowed, and possessed of a large number of churches. The king confirmed all, for the souls of his father, William the Great (Willelmi Magni), king of the English, Queen Maud his mother, Queen Maud II. his wife, William his son, and all faithful departed.

Henry II confirmed the grants again, (fn. 10) including some others and that of a fair at Nostell, granted by Henry I on the feast of St. Oswald and two succeeding days. The possessions of the priory are set out by Burton, (fn. 11) and he has prefixed to them an account, derived from the manuscript before mentioned, of the growth of the monastic buildings under the successive priors. The site was changed, at a very early date, to one a little northward of the original chapel or church of St. Oswald, by authority of a bull of Calixtus II. (fn. 12) The change was made to bring the monastery nearer to a certain pool, often referred to in the charters.

In 1153 (fn. 13) Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, then lord of Pontefract, disputed the canons' right to the site on which they were building the house. But he relinquished his claim when he joined the Crusade.

The priory had no less than five cells attached to it, the two more important being Bamburgh in Northumberland, and Breedon in Leicestershire. A third was that of Hirst in the Isle of Axholme, Lincolnshire, and the two others those of Woodkirk otherwise Erdislaw, and Scokirk otherwise Tockwith in York. Much of the revenues of the priory was derived from Bamburgh, and when, at times, the revenues from Bamburgh failed, owing to Scottish raids, the priory felt the loss severely.

The churches which the canons possessed in whole or part numbered over thirty, besides others from which they received a pension, or of which they only possessed part. (fn. 14)

In 1312, (fn. 15) when Prior William de Birstall resigned, the produce of Bamburgh was sold for £383 11s. 9d. The priory had then a large number of servants, viz., eleven in the malthouse and bakery, five in the kitchen, besides the master and cook, three in the brewhouse, nine in the smithy and carpenter's shop, five carriers, sixteen ploughmen, besides others at manors, making in all seventy-seven. In autumn the reapers' expenses ran to £1,274, and the kitchen expenses £224 18s. 4d., besides what was taken out of the stores. The farm stock included 2,540 sheep, 100 cows, four bulls, seventy-two oxen, sixty-one heifers, and thirty-three calves. There were then twenty-six canons in the house.

In 1328 the priory was held by several creditors to whom it owed £1,012 4s. 1d.; the profits of Bamburgh had been lost for fifteen years, amounting in the whole to £4,450, and the church of Birstall, which used to bring in £100 a year, for six years had only brought in £40, so that the canons had lost £360.

In three years the canons lost 1,200 sheep, fifty-nine oxen, and 400 cows, calves, &c., but in two years John de Insula, prior, managed the affairs so well that he was able to pay off £540 of the debt, and left £319 in the treasury.

In 1372, when Prior Thomas de Derford died, he left 8,000 sheep in the pastures, and 800 marks of silver in the treasury. Yet in 1390, when Prior Adam de Bilton resigned, the house owed 1,200 marks.

In 1217 (fn. 16) Pope Honorius III inhibited the Prior of St. Oswald, on the petition of the subprior and convent, from receiving any person as canon, or disposing of any of the benefices, without the consent of the convent, or the major part of it.

A very strange story is revealed in another mandate, issued by the pope in the same year, to the archbishop. (fn. 17) The prior and convent had complained to the pope that the archbishop had despoiled them of two of their churches, viz., South Kirkby and Tickhill, and they related that the archbishop had broken the cross, and cast to the ground the sacred host, which the canons and their lay brothers held in their defence, and that he had expelled them from their churches, beating some so severely that one was said to have died, and others were dangerously hurt. The archbishop likewise, as they said, had broken down the altars, excommunicated the prior and canons, and absolved clerks, vicars, and others from payment of their dues. The entry in the papal register is cancelled. It ordered the archbishop to restore the churches within fifteen days, and make compensation. It is impossible to believe that Archbishop Gray took any personal part in such an affray; but there was probably some unseemly scuffle in one of the churches between his officials and certain canons and convent during which the host was thrown (probably by accident) to the ground, and some present were more or less hurt. It is interesting to find the canons protecting themselves by carrying the host. (fn. 18)

Archbishop Wickwane held a visitation of Nostell Priory in 1280, (fn. 19) and there is a brief memorandum in his register stating that no injunctions were issued quia omnia bene. On 25 October 1290 (fn. 20) Archbishop Romanus sent Gilbert de Ponteburgo, who had just resigned the office of Prior of Thurgarton, (fn. 21) back to Nostell, of which house he had been canon, and in which he had been professed, and the archbishop desired the Prior and canons of Nostell to receive him with loving-kindness. On 6 October 1291 (fn. 22) the archbishop confirmed the election of William de Birstall as prior, and also issued a mandate to the Dean and Chapter of York, that as the sub-prior and convent had canonically elected him, 'vobis mandamus quatinus ipsum racione prebende sue in nostra Ebor. Ecclesia in fratrem et canonicum admittentes, stallum in choro et locum in capitulo debite assignatis, in persona ipsius, modo consueto,' &c. The prebend of Bramham consisted of the impropriations of the churches of Bramham, Wharram-le-Street, and Lythe. (fn. 23) It was annexed, when first founded, by Archbishop Thurstan to the priory of Nostell, and continued to be held by the prior till the Dissolution.

As a result of a visitation of the house, Archbishop Greenfield on 28 October 1313 (fn. 24) wrote to the prior and canons that Brother William Wyler, Prior of their cell at Breedon, and Henry de Dermor, master or warden of their church of Bamburgh, who were accused of certain excesses, were to be recalled at once, to answer for themselves and receive due punishment needed; and in another letter of the same date (fn. 25) he ordered that Brother Benedict de Suddele, who, by his own admission, had misbehaved, was to be sent for the expiation of his crimes to their cell in the Isle of Axholme, and undergo a penance there. On the 19th (fn. 26) of the same month he ordered Brother John de Dewesbury to be sent to Breedon under very similar conditions, and on 24 November (fn. 27) Brother Thomas de Giderhowe was dispatched to Bridlington.

On Monday after the feast of St. Luke 1320 (fn. 28) Archbishop Melton held a visitation, as a result of which he sent on 10 November a long decretum to the prior and canons.

The house was overburdened with debts, pensions, liveries, and corrodies, all the members were therefore exhorted to be as economical as possible, till they were solvent. The sick were to have lighter food, and a doctor was to be appointed to attend the infirmary. The services were to be duly celebrated, and those of our Lady, or for the dead, or others said without note, were not to be gabbled, but recited distinctly, and aloud, and one side was not to begin a verse before the other had ended. As Brothers John de Wath and Benedict de Suddeley residing at Woodkirk, Brother John de Pontefracto at Hirst, and Brothers William de Norton and Henry de Huddresfield at Bamburgh, as well as the four canons of Breedon, had not, as it was said, been summoned to the visitation, the archbishop directed that the prior was in future to summon all such brethren to visitations.

Corrodies, &c., were not to be granted, or woods sold, without the archbishop's licence. Two bursars were to be appointed, idonei et fideles, to receive all rents and profits and take proper charge of them, as in other houses.

Efficient officers were to be appointed, both external and internal, and accounts were to be presented to the prior and five or six of the older and wiser canons, and then shown to the chapter.

The mission of canons to the cells, and their recall, was to be with the consent of the convent, as well as of the prior, or at least with the consent of the seniors.

Without delay the prior was to see that the guest-house was better provided with bedclothes than had been wont, lest by defect in a small matter the house should get a bad name.

No women should enter the outer door to ask for the liveries or corrodies, but such were to be asked for by men, lest, under colour of entry of women, sins, or any other illicit acts, should be committed.

As certain of the charters and muniments had been sent, not long ago, to Breedon, for the conservation of their cell there, and in part ought to come back to the monastery, and as the Prior for the time being of Breedon refused to return them, the archbishop directed that someone, chosen by the whole consent of the entire convent, was to be sent there and bring them back. As regarded the mission and revocation of canons to and from Breedon, with consent of the chapter, the prior was directed that the old method was to be followed.

The archbishop found at the visitation that certain young canons were of old accustomed to study in the cloister, and on feasts of doubles to make collations in turn in chapter, and so were more studious. The old custom was to be followed.

Blind and feeble canons were not to be compelled to keep convent, but were to be in the infirmary, unless their devotion and powers led them to church.

Writing in April 1323 (fn. 29) to the Prior and convent of Bolton, Archbishop Melton stated that the monastery of Nostell was suffering from various oppressions, and being unable to maintain its members he sent Brother Thomas de Mannyngham, one of its canons, to their house.

Archbishop Zouch in 1351 (fn. 30) directed the prior to punish certain of the canons who, regardless of. their yoke of obedience, had committed many insolences both within and outside the monastery; but who they were, or what were their offences, is not recorded.

In 1364 (fn. 31) Urban V granted a faculty to Thomas, Prior of St. Oswald's, Nostell, to dispense six canons of his monastery to be ordained priests in their twenty-second year, many having died of the pestilence.

In 1380 (fn. 32) there were fifteen canons besides the prior.

In 1438 the priory was so impoverished by lawsuits, the expense of re-building their church and other causes, that the king granted to the canons the hospital of St. Nicholas, in Pontefract. (fn. 33)

The Archbishop of York claimed an annual pension of 5 marks from the priory for any clerk he might name, on the creation of a new prior, and on 9 May 1480 (fn. 34) Archbishop Rotherham claimed the pension for John Wigmore, his clerk, on the election of William Melsonby to the vacancy created by the death of Prior William Assheton.

For some reason not known, Melsonby resigned 'dolo, fraude, et metu quibuscumque cessantibus,' two months after his election, (fn. 35) and the archbishop directed that he was to have the mansion or rectory of the parish church of Bamburgh for his dwelling, with all the tithes.

The gross revenue (fn. 36) according to the Valor Ecclesiasticus was £606 9s. 3½d., and the clear annual value £492 18s. 1d. Drs. Legh and Layton record as superstition that a pilgrimage was made here to St. Oswald. The house was surrendered by Robert Ferrer, prior (afterwards Bishop of St. David's), and twenty-eight canons on 20 November, 1540, (fn. 37) and the site was afterwards granted to Dr. Legh, (fn. 38) one of the notorious commissioners.

Priors Of Nostell

Athelwold, (fn. 39) 1121, occurs 1122

Savardus, elected 1153

Geoffrey, died 1175

Anketil, elected 1175, died 1196

Robert de Wodekirk succeeded, died 1199

Ralph de Bedford, died 1208

Robert (?), 1208 (fn. 40)

John, occurs 1209, (fn. 41) 1218 (fn. 42)

Ralph (?), occurs 1219-27 (fn. 43)

John, occurs 1231-6, (fn. 44) died 1237 (fn. 45)

Ambrose, died 1240 (fn. 46)

Stephen, resigned 1244 (fn. 47)

Ralph succeeded, (fn. 48) occurs Easter 1244, (fn. 49) died 1246 (fn. 50)

Robert de Behal succeeded 1246, (fn. 51) died 1255 (fn. 52)

William de Clifford, (fn. 53) occurs 1255, (fn. 54) died 1277 (fn. 55)

Richard de Wartria, elected 1276, (fn. 56) occurs 1285 (fn. 57)

Thomas, occurs 1286 (fn. 58)

Richard de Wartria, (fn. 59) occurs Trinity 1291, (fn. 60) died August 1291 (fn. 61)

William de Birstall, elected 1291, (fn. 62) resigned 1312 (fn. 63)

Henry de Aberford, elected 1312, (fn. 64) resigned 1328 (fn. 65)

John de Insula, appointed 1328, (fn. 66) occurs 1331 (fn. 67)

John de Dewsbury, confirmed 1331, (fn. 68) died 1336 (fn. 69)

Thomas de Derfield, (fn. 70) Driffeld, (fn. 71) or Derford, (fn. 72) occurs 1350, (fn. 73) died (fn. 74)

Richard de Wombwell, confirmed 1372, (fn. 75) occurs 1378 (fn. 76)

Adam de Bilton, succeeded 1385, occurs Oct. 1390 (fn. 77)

John de Ledes, (fn. 78) confirmed 1390, (fn. 79) died 1393 (fn. 80)

Robert de Quixley, confirmed 1393, (fn. 81) died 1427 (fn. 82)

John Huddersfeld [alias Blythebroke, occurs 1438 (fn. 83) ], confirmed 1427, (fn. 84) occurs 1437, 1452, (fn. 85) 14S5 (fn. 86)

Stephen Melsanby, occurs 1446 (fn. 87)

John, occurs 1470 (fn. 88)

William Assheton, confirmed 1472, (fn. 89) died 1489 (fn. 90)

William Melsonby, confirmed 11 May 1489, (fn. 91) resigned July 1489 (fn. 92)

Thomas Wilcok, confirmed 29 July 1489 (fn. 93)

Richard Hirst, (fn. 94) occurs 1489, (fn. 95) 1498 (fn. 96)

Richard Marsden, confirmed 1505 (fn. 97)

Alvered Comyn, confirmed 1524 (fn. 98)

Robert Ferrer, last prior, (fn. 99) surrendered 20 November 1540 (fn. 100)

The seal (fn. 101) of Nostell is circular, and shows St. Oswald seated on a chair decorated with wolves' heads; in his right hand a cross and in his left a sprig of laurel; legend:



  • 1. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. vi, 89; Burton, Mon. Ebor. 300.
  • 2. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. vi, 89.
  • 3. Ibid. 37.
  • 4. Ibid. 92, no. ii (Charter of Henry I).
  • 5. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 300.
  • 6. For the reasons for supposing the name 'Ralph Adlave' to be an error see note 38.
  • 7. Dugdale, Mon, Angl. vi, 91, no. i.
  • 8. Ibid. 92, no. ii.
  • 9. 'Sicut unquam Ilbertus de Laceio, vel Robertus films ejus,' &c.
  • 10. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. vi, 93, no. iv.
  • 11. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 301-9.
  • 12. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 301.
  • 13. Ibid.
  • 14. Ibid. 309.
  • 15. These particulars have been derived by Burton (Mon. Ebor. 301, 302) from the manuscript volume previously mentioned.
  • 16. Cal. of Papal Letters, i, 42.
  • 17. Ibid. 44.
  • 18. In the foundation charter of Robert de Lacy the church of South Kirkby is included as one of his gifts. In the confirmation of Henry I it is said to have been given by Hugh de Laval; Dugdale, Mon. Angl. vi, 92. Tickhill was given by Archbishop Thurstan. There had been previous trouble as to the prebend of Bramham, which, in 1216, the pope ordered the dean and chapter to restore to the prior and convent; Cal. of Papal Letters, i, 45.
  • 19. York Archiepis. Reg. Wickwane, fol. 35. The statement that all was well at the visitation is one of the very few entries of the kind in any of the registers. St. Mary's York, Warter, and Whitby were similarly distinguished on this occasion.
  • 20. Ibid. Romanus, fol. 36b.
  • 21. He was elected Prior of Thurgarton 9 July 1284. There seems to have been a charge of incontinence brought against him at Thurgarton; Dugdale, Mon. Angl. vi, 190.
  • 22. York Archiepis. Reg. Romanus, fol. 40.
  • 23. An Accurate Description and Hist. etc. of the Church of St. Peter, York (York, 1770), ii, 186.
  • 24. York Archiepis. Reg. Greenfield, ii, fol. 71.
  • 25. Ibid.
  • 26. Ibid. ii, fol. 71b.
  • 27. Ibid. fol. 712b.
  • 28. Ibid. Melton, fol. 142b.
  • 29. York Archiepis. Reg. Melton, fol. 150.
  • 30. Ibid. Zouch, fol. 59.
  • 31. Cal. Papal Letters, iv, 37.
  • 32. Subs. R. (P.R.O.), bdle. 63, no. 12.
  • 33. a Cal. Pat. 1436-41, p. 190.
  • 34. York Archiepis. Reg. Rotherham, i, fol. 126b.
  • 35. Ibid. fol. 127b.
  • 36. Valor Eccl. (Rec. Com.), v, 62.
  • 37. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. vi, 91.
  • 38. Ibid.
  • 39. The list in Burton (Mon. Ebor. 310), and others copied from Burton, place Ralph Adelavus or Adelave first, with the date 1121, followed by Adelwald, who became first Bishop of Carlisle in 1133, and had been chaplain to Henry I. Mr. Baildon (Mon. Notes, i, 152) suggests that these were one and the same person. This seems certainly correct, as in a charter concerning land at Twyford, between the canons of St. Paul's, London, and William Cranfort, in 1122, among the witnesses occurs 'Adeloldo priore Sancti Oswaldi' (Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. ix, App. i, 65). The prefixing of the name Ralph to the form Adelave must be an error. Le Neve gives a number of variants of the form of the name of the first Bishop of Carlisle, as e.g., Adulfus, Aethelwulfus, Arnulphus, Aelulfus, Adelulfus, Adelwaldus (Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae [ed. Hardy], iii, 229). The other five succeeding names and dates are taken from Burton (Mon. Ebor. 310).
  • 40. a After the death of Ralph de Bedford Roger de Lacy, a patron, informed Archbishop Geoffrey that one Robert had been elected prior. Cott. MS. Vesp. E. xix (Chartulary of Nostell), fol. 14 d.
  • 41. b Ibid. fol. 166d.
  • 42. Cal. Papal Letters, i, 52.
  • 43. Baildon, Mon. Notes, i, 152, but John occurs in the Chartulary (fol. 9, 10) as prior in 1219, 1222, 1225, 1227.
  • 44. Ibid.
  • 45. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. vi, 91.
  • 46. Ibid.
  • 47. Ibid.
  • 48. Ibid.
  • 49. Baildon, loc. cit.
  • 50. Dugdale, loc. cit.
  • 51. Ibid.
  • 52. Ibid.
  • 53. Ibid.
  • 54. Baildon, loc. cit.
  • 55. Dugdale, loc. cit.
  • 56. He was elected on 30 December, while Henry de Lacy, the patron, was outside the county; he might therefore have presented himself to die steward of Pontefract, but he preferred to go the longer distance to the patron; Chartulary, fol. 16.
  • 57. Ibid. fol. 10d.
  • 58. Baildon, loc. cit.
  • 59. Dugdale, loc. cit.
  • 60. Baildon, loc. cit.
  • 61. Dugdale, loc. cit.
  • 62. York Archiepis. Reg. Romanus, fol. 40.
  • 63. Ibid. Greenfield, ii, fol. 55.
  • 64. Ibid.
  • 65. Ibid. Melton, fol. 172b.
  • 66. Ibid.
  • 67. Baildon, loc. cit.
  • 68. Dugdale, loc. cit.
  • 69. Ibid.; Chartulary, fol. 16.
  • 70. Dugdale, loc. cit.
  • 71. As Thomas de 'Driffeld,' confirmed 30 April 1337; York Archiepis. Reg. Melton, fol. 213. His successor Ric. de Wombwell was elected to the vacancy caused by the death of Thomas de 'Derfeld'; Ibid. Thoresby, fol. 165b.
  • 72. Dugdale, loc. cit.
  • 73. Baildon, loc. cit.
  • 74. Dugdale, loc. cit.
  • 75. York Archiepis. Reg. Thoresby, fol. 165b.
  • 76. Baildon, loc. cit.
  • 77. a Chartulary, fol. 27 d.
  • 78. Dugdale, loc. cit.
  • 79. Ibid.
  • 80. York Archiepis. Reg. Arundel, fol. 43.
  • 81. Ibid.
  • 82. Ibid. Kemp, fol. 364.
  • 83. Baildon, loc. cit.
  • 84. York Archiepis. Reg. Kemp, fol. 364.
  • 85. Baildon, loc. cit.
  • 86. Chartul. Fol. 70.
  • 87. Baildon, loc. cit.
  • 88. Baildon's MS. Notes.
  • 89. York Archiepis. Reg. G. Nevill, fol. 148.
  • 90. Ibid. Rotherham, i, fol. 125b.
  • 91. Ibid.
  • 92. Ibid. fol. 126b. Melsonby, not Meltonby.
  • 93. Ibid.
  • 94. Dugdale, loc. cit.
  • 95. Conventual Leases, Yorks. (P.R.O.), no. 260, 261.
  • 96. Chartul. fol. 113.
  • 97. York Archiepis. Reg. Savage, fol. 42b.
  • 98. Ibid. Wolsey, fol. 75.
  • 99. Dugdale, loc. cit.
  • 100. Ibid.
  • 101. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. vi, 91.