History of Easby Abbey

Easby Abbey is one of the best-preserved monasteries in Britain of the Premonstratensian order. It was founded in about 1152 by Roald, constable of Richmond, and later enjoyed the patronage of the Scrope family. After its suppression in 1536 the buildings rapidly lapsed into ruin, before becoming an object of interest for antiquarians and Romantic artists in the 18th and 19th centuries. The grandeur of the surviving buildings testifies to the success and wealth of the abbey.

View from the east across the ruins of Easby Abbey
View from the east across the ruins of Easby Abbey

Before the Abbey

Easby Abbey lies about 1.5 miles south of Richmond, North Yorkshire. The hamlet of Easby is listed in the Domesday survey of 1086 as ‘Asebi’, which was held by Enisan Murdac, an important local landowner.[1] Murdac was a vassal of Alan le Roux or ‘the Red’, Earl of Richmond (c 1040–1093).

Evidence suggests that a religious community of some sort existed on the site before the abbey was founded. This was probably based on the existing parish church of St Agatha, and may have been an Anglian minster, a community of priests responsible for serving the surrounding parishes.[2]

Richmond Castle, where Roald, the founder of Easby Abbey, was constable
Richmond Castle, where Roald, the founder of Easby Abbey, was constable

Foundation of Easby Abbey

The abbey of St Agatha at Easby was founded in about 1152 by Roald (d.1158), constable or principal officer of Richmond . Roald’s identity is unclear, but it has been suggested that he was the younger son of Hacuil, or Hasculf, de St James, lord of Tansor in Northamptonshire and of estates in Oxfordshire.[3]

Roald established Easby as a Premonstratensian monastery, only the third such house to be founded in England. In the process, the existing minster community was probably absorbed into the new abbey.

The Premonstratensian order was founded in 1121 in Prémontré, France, by St Norbert of Xanten. Most monks followed the 6th-century Rule of St Benedict, renouncing the world for a contemplative life. Norbert elected instead to follow the older Rule of St Augustine, which better fitted his aims that Premonstratensians should serve communities by preaching, teaching, charitable work, and sometimes by direct service as parish priests.

The Premonstratensians lived communally but did not take monastic vows. The distinctive point about the new order was that its members were ordained as canons (priests), not monks. As such they had the authority to celebrate mass and administer sacraments, which monks did not.[4]

Nonetheless, the Premonstratensians were heavily influenced by the Cistercian order, borrowing their rules for founding abbeys, the use of lay brothers to carry out much of the manual work for the community, and the regulation of daily life. The Premonstratensians adopted white robes like the Cistercians, and were known as ‘white canons’.[5]

The east range of the cloister, with the remains of the chapter house in the centre and the sacristy to the left, built in the early 13th century
The east range of the cloister, with the remains of the chapter house in the centre and the sacristy to the left, built in the early 13th century

The Early Monastery

Roald granted a modest new endowment of land to Easby, in addition to the assets of the existing minster community. Easby’s endowment rose slowly over the centuries, traced in over 100 charters contained in its cartulary.[6] The abbey owned flocks of sheep from a very early stage, and sheep farming seems to have been one of its main means of support.

Little is known about the abbey’s early buildings. The only masonry on the site which can be dated to the mid-12th century is a reused doorway in the west range of the cloister. The surviving fragments of the abbey church probably date to the 1170s or 1180s.

Easby seems to have prospered in the later 12th and early 13th centuries, as the number of canons increased. The original domestic buildings were replaced on a grand scale. In 1198 Egglestone Abbey in nearby Teesdale was founded as Easby’s only daughter house.[7]

These niches in the north wall of the extended chancel may have housed the tombs of members of the Scrope family
These niches in the north wall of the extended chancel may have housed the tombs of members of the Scrope family

The Scropes of Bolton

Roald’s descendants continued to hold the constableship of Richmond with the lands attached to it through the 12th and 13th centuries, variously styling themselves de Burton or de Richmond. In the late 13th and 14th centuries, for unknown reasons, they sold up their estates in stages.

The patronage of Easby passed to the senior line of the Scrope family, landowners of knightly rank based at Bolton in Wensleydale.[8] The Scropes made Easby their burial place, and probably paid for the chancel of the abbey church to be lengthened in the 14th century.

A celebrated lawsuit over the Scropes’ right to use a coat of arms in 1385–90 reveals the location of the Scrope tombs and their decoration. Abbot John of Easby was one of the witnesses called in the case, and his evidence describes the Scrope family tombs in the abbey church. He said that Sir Henry Scrope (d. 1336):

lies in the same abbey above the choir higher than their choir in a part of the church buried under high stones, and upon the stone a knight graven of stone and painted with these same arms, azure a bend or.

Henry’s son Sir William Scrope (d. 1344) was buried ‘on an high tomb, all armed and the arms grave on a shield represented upon him without painting of colours’.[9]

A reconstruction painting of the abbey as it may have appeared in about 1500
A reconstruction of the abbey as it may have appeared in about 1500 © Historic England (illustration by Terry Ball)

The Later Middle Ages

In 1392, following a grant of land by Sir Richard Scrope (c 1327–1403), Easby was substantially enlarged. In return, the community was to support 10 additional canons, two chaplains and 22 poor men.

Between 1478 and 1500 the abbey received regular visitations from Richard Redman, Abbot of Shap and later Bishop of Ely, and principal of the Premonstratensians in England. Visitations were formal inquiries into the state of a community. The records of Redman’s visitation make this the best-documented period in the abbey’s history.

In 1482 Redman found that one John Nym was a fugitive from the community, accused of having improper relations with a widow. Nym was later proven innocent of the charge and, by 1494, had become prior of the abbey. Redman also observed that the community was in debt, though he praised the overall state of the house, which was well provided with food and new buildings.

Little is known about the abbey in the early 16th century. In a curious document of 1535, when talk of suppressing England’s monasteries was in the air, Abbot Robert Bampton (1511–36) restated the rights of the Scropes as patrons. It may be that by issuing this document he hoped to obtain their support for the abbey’s continued existence.[10]

The abbey ruins seen through trees from the north-east on a misty day
The abbey ruins seen from the north-east. Much of its stonework was robbed soon after its suppression in 1536

Suppression of Easby Abbey

When Easby was closed in 1536 as part of the Suppression of the Monasteries, the community had dwindled to just 11 canons. The abbey and its lands were let to Lord Scrope of Bolton for £300.[11]

By this time, however, much of the north was rising in support of the monasteries in what became known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, and Richmond was a major centre of the uprising. In December 1536 the town’s bailiffs restored the canons to Easby.[12] A monk of Sawley Abbey, visiting Richmond in that month, was told by a group of townsmen: ‘Rather than our house of St Agathe should go down, we shall all die.’[13]

But by the spring of 1537 the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace had missed their chance to defeat the forces of the Crown. On 22 February a vengeful Henry VIII wrote to the Duke of Norfolk, who was engaged in crushing the rebels:

at your repair to … St Agatha and such other places as have made resistance … you shall without pity or circumstance … cause the monks to be tied up [hanged] without further delay.[14]

The abbey was returned to Lord Scrope, despite his having wavered during the rebellion.

Engraving of Easby Abbey from the south in 1721, by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck
Engraving of Easby Abbey from the south in 1721, by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck

After the Suppression

By 1538 most of the buildings had been stripped of their lead roofing and partly demolished. It seems surprising that the Scropes should have agreed to, or actually ordered, the demolition of the church, which was their family’s burial place. It is possible that the church was destroyed by royal order to prevent the monks from returning again.

The Scropes gave up the lease in 1550,[15] and the abbey and its estates passed through several hands before being bought back by Henry, Lord Scrope of Bolton, in 1579.

No evidence has yet come to light for the fate of the abbey’s remains between the 16th and 18th centuries. There is no visible evidence of 16th- or 17th-century work in the abbey ruins, suggesting that the buildings were not reoccupied as a residence. The earliest known view of the site, an engraving from 1721, shows the ruins looking much as they do today. This suggests that all of the robbing of stonework had taken place at an early stage.

Easby descended with the Scropes until the death of Emmanuel, Lord Scrope, in 1630. Emmanuel’s daughter Annabel married John Grubham Howe, and the Howes inherited the Easby estate. In 1700 Sir Scrope Howe sold it to Bartholomew Burton. It passed through several different hands in the 18th century, before being bought by Robert Jaques in 1816.

Photograph of the interior of the refectory in about 1890
The interior of the refectory in about 1890 © Historic England Archive BB98/10824

A Romantic Ruin

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the abbey ruins became something of a landmark. In 1792, George Byng, Viscount Torrington, wrote that ‘there cannot be a more perfect ruin [or] a nicer ruin … or one of happier situation’. Easby was depicted by several artists, including JMW Turner, who drew and painted the ruins in about 1816–18.

Antiquarian interest in the site developed in the 19th century. In 1885–6 the abbey was partly excavated by Sir William St John Hope for the Society of Antiquaries (see Research). The Jaques family continued to own the abbey ruins until 1930, when they were taken into guardianship by the Ministry of Works.[16]

 

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About the Author

Steven Brindle MA DPhil FSA is an English Heritage historian and author of best-selling books on Brunel and on Paddington Station. He has written numerous guidebooks for English Heritage. 

Footnotes

1. W Farrer and CT Clay (eds), Early Yorkshire Charters, vol 5: The Honour of Richmond, Part 2 (Leeds, 1936), 83–5.
2. Ibid, 73.
3. Ibid, 81–9; W Ryland, D Adkins and RM Serjeantson (eds), The Victoria History of the County of Northampton, vol 1 (London, 1902), 362.
4. J Bond, 'The Premonstratensian order: a preliminary survey of its growth and distribution in medieval Europe', in In Search of Cult: Archaeological Investigations in honour of Philip Rahtz, ed M Carver (Woodbridge, 1993), 153–5; HM Colvin, The White Canons in England (Oxford, 1951), 1–2.
5. Colvin, op cit, 1–8.
6. W Farrer and CT Clay, Early Yorkshire Charters, vols 4 and 5: The Honour of Richmond, Parts 1 and 2 (Leeds, 1935–6).
7. Colvin, op cit.
8. Farrer and Clay, op cit, vol 5, 93–4.
9. NH Nicolas (ed), The Controversy between Sir Richard Scrope and Sir Robert Grosvenor 1385–1390, vol 1 (London, 1832), 95–6 and 220.
10. TD Whitaker, The History of Richmondshire, vol 1 (London, 1823), 110, quoted in Colvin, op cit, 297.
11. J Gairdner (ed), Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, vol 11 (London, 1888), 196, no. 481 (accessed 30 Jan 2015).
12. J Gairdner (ed), Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, vol 12, part 1 (London, 1890), 17–18, no. 29(2) (accessed 30 Jan 2015).
13. Ibid, 231, no. 490 (accessed 30 Jan 2015).
14. Ibid, 226–7, no. 479 (accessed 30 Jan 2015).
15. W Page (ed), A History of the County of York: North Riding, vol 1 (London, 1914), 60 (accessed 30 Jan 2015).
16. The National Archives, WORK 14/306, Easby Abbey, guardianship by the Office of Works.

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