History of Thornton Abbey

Thornton, founded in 1140, was one of Britain’s richest Augustinian abbeys by the late 13th century. It has the largest and most impressive surviving monastic gatehouse in Britain, built 1377–82. It was one of the few abbeys to be refounded after the Suppression of the Monasteries as a secular college for priests, but this in turn was closed in 1547. Sir Vincent Skinner later demolished most of the medieval buildings and erected an impressive house in about 1607, but this was dramatically lost within five years. After 1816 successive Lords Yarborough worked to protect, research and display the site.

Aerial view of Thornton Abbey and Gatehouse with surrounding pasture and arrable fields
View of the abbey from the south, with the gatehouse to the left and the remains of the church and cloister to the right. These were the central parts of a much larger medieval complex

Foundation and Early History

On 13 January 1139 William Le Gros (c 1110–1179), Count of Aumale in Normandy and Lord of Holderness in Yorkshire,[1] pledged to found a new Augustinian priory dedicated to St Mary. Augustinians were canons – priests who lived communally under the Rule of St Augustine, but who undertook pastoral duties at churches outside the abbey. Le Gros endowed Thornton (the first of his five foundations) with a generous income from churches and townships (villages and their associated lands), which was supplemented by gifts from other lords.

Little is known of Thornton over the 120 years after its foundation. The 12 canons who arrived there from Kirkham Priory in north Yorkshire, precisely a year after Le Gros’s pledge, probably encountered a peninsula of marginal agricultural land overlooking the marshy valley of the Skitter Beck. This navigable tidal tributary of the Humber estuary proved central to the abbey’s economic life, for it facilitated regional and international trade.[2]

The foundation of the abbey coincided with the start of a warm, dry century. Falling sea levels[3] allowed religious houses in this low-lying region to expand the pastures that they owned through land reclamation.[4] Thornton grew quickly and was elevated to the status of an abbey in 1148. Tellingly, Le Gros chose to be buried here on his death in 1179.

Colour illustration of the interior of the abbey church at Thornton Abbey and Gatehouse, c.1400
Reconstruction of the nave of Thornton Abbey church as it may have appeared in about 1400, when the abbey’s prosperity reached its height © Historic England (illustration by Jill Atherton)

A Golden Age

In the mid-13th century Thornton's abbot, William of Lincoln (d.1273), instigated a major rebuilding – perhaps prompted by a great flood in October 1253.[5] Much of our knowledge of this comes from a chronicle[6] completed in about 1533 but based on 13th-century and later documents that no longer survive (see Significance of Thornton Abbey). In 1261, according to the chronicle, 44 masons were paid to quarry 1,500 stones, before work began in 1264 on the great church.

The stock-keeper’s account for 1313, transcribed in the chronicle,[7] shows that the abbey then kept nearly 8,000 sheep.[8] Wool production contributed to most of Thornton’s gross annual revenue of £1,543,[9] comparable to that of a major nobleman.

There is no record of the exact number of canons during this period, but the Bishop of Lincoln’s order in 1440 that one in every 20 should attend university suggests that there was a higher number than at the time of the Suppression, when there were 23. Almost continuous building work over a century included a new chapter house (1282–1308); enlargement of the cloister (1322–6); rebuilding the refectory (1327–8); and construction of a large granary (c 1348), the outer gatehouse (1377–82), and a Lady chapel at the east end of the church (1395–c 1418).

In 1521 Thornton was described as ‘one of the goodliest houses’ of the Augustinian order in England,[10] and in 1534 its gross annual income was £730, still a considerable sum.[11]

The Suppression and Thornton College

Thornton Abbey was suppressed on 12 December 1539, but none of the buildings can have been despoiled immediately, for Henry VIII and Catherine Howard stayed there early in October 1541.[12] Two months later Henry selected Thornton, among a small group of elite religious houses that also included Westminster Abbey, as a college for training priests for service in the newly established Church of England. In 1547, however, the college was suppressed under Edward VI.

The Rise and Fall of the Skinner Family

After 1547 ownership of the former abbey passed through several noble families, including the Tyrwhitts. They appear to have occupied the cloister buildings and laid out an adjacent garden.[13]

In 1602 Vincent Skinner (c 1540–1616) bought the site. He was an ambitious reformer connected to the powerful William Cecil, Lord Burghley, chief adviser to Elizabeth I. Skinner was knighted in 1603 and then served until 1609 as Auditor of the Receipt, a high court office.[14]

The staunchly Puritan Skinner apparently demolished most of the abbey buildings, leaving the gatehouse as a foil to his impressive new house, begun in about 1607, plans of which survive.[15] In 1697, however, the Lincolnshire diarist and antiquarian Abraham de la Pryme gloated that this ‘hall, when it was finished, fell quite down to the bare ground, without any visible cause and broke in pieces all the rich furniture that was therein’.[16]

Skinner died in High Holborn debtors’ prison in 1616, and de la Pryme’s account of the downfall of a hubristic tradesman, whose meteoric rise was financed by new money, has long been accepted. Recent theories, however, suggest that either the house stood for four or five years and was deliberately dismantled to pay off Skinner’s huge debts, or that it was never completed.[17]

De la Pryme records that by 1697 Lady Anne Skinner (d.1707), the wife of Sir Vincent’s grandson, was living in a ‘large but somewhat low hall’ converted from one of the abbey buildings.[18] This house, now named Abbot’s Lodge, survives.

Plan a military encampment at Thornton Abbey and Gatehouse, 1870
A plan of Thornton Abbey by TW Wallis ‘taken during the encampment of the 1st Administrative Battalion of the Lincolnshire Rifle Volunteers 27th June–2nd July 1870’ © Private collection (reproduced by kind permission of John Farrow)

Thornton and the Lords Yarborough

In 1816 Charles Anderson-Pelham, 1st Baron Yarborough (1749–1823), acquired the site to stop the damage caused by quarrying for roadstone, and took steps to turn it into a park.[19] His son, the 1st Earl of Yarborough (1781–1846), instigated excavations in 1831 to expose the remains of the church,[20] and reinstated the roof, floors and windows of the gatehouse, saving it from ruin.

The 1st Earl encouraged visitors and sympathetic use of the site, including temperance movement rallies in 1848–51, attended by up to 19,000 people.[21] In 1851, following further excavations, the first guidebook was produced at his suggestion.[22]

Each summer between 1866 and 1870 the 2nd Earl (1809–62), as commander of the Lincolnshire Light Horse, hosted a week-long army camp in the North Bail. In 1900 the 4th Earl (1859–1936) constructed a purpose-built custodian’s cottage.[23]

In 1938 the family placed the site in state guardianship. Excavations and works intended to refresh the understanding and presentation of the abbey began in 1936. These were interrupted by the Second World War and completed only in 1953.[24]

About the Author

Alastair Oswald, a former Senior Archaeological Investigator at English Heritage, is one of the authors of the latest English Heritage research report on Thornton Abbey. He has written the English Heritage Red Guide to Wharram Percy and is co-author of the Red Guide to Dunstanburgh Castle.


1. For William Le Gros see P Dalton, ‘William le Gros, Count of Aumale and Earl of York (c 1110–1179)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004) (subscription required; accessed 13 March 2018), and B English, The Lords of Holderness, 1086–1260: A Study in Feudal Society (Oxford, 1979).
2. The abbey’s setting in the landscape and trade network are discussed extensively in A Oswald et al, Thornton Abbey, North Lincolnshire: Historical, Archaeological and Architectural Investigations, English Heritage Research Department Report 100/2010 (Swindon, 2010), especially sections 2 and 7.
3. S Neave and K Miller, ‘Medieval and post-medieval settlement and land-use in the Hull valley’, in Wetland Heritage of the Hull Valley, ed R Van der Noort and S Ellis (Exeter, 2000), 100–101.
4. Before 1200 the abbey was responsible for constructing Thornton Dam at the mouth of the river Ouse: see J Bond, Monastic Landscapes (Stroud, 2004), 83; other land reclamation almost certainly took place on the south bank of the Humber.
5. Neave and Miller, op cit.
6. Bodleian Library, Oxford (Tanner MS 166). See also W Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum, vol 2 (London, 1693), 152. For more complete digests of the abbey’s history derived largely from the chronicle, see W Page (ed), ‘Houses of Austin canons: the abbey of Thornton’, in The Victoria History of the County of Lincoln, vol 2 (London, 1906), 163–6 and 235–7, and Oswald, op cit, section 3.
7. See also DM Owen, ‘Thornton Abbey and the lost vill of Auldleby’, Lincolnshire Archaeological and Architectural Society Reports and Papers, 7:2 (1958), 114.
8. This was almost equal to the number kept by the two leading wool-producing religious houses in Wales combined. For comparison of the wool production capacity of different abbeys, see Bond, op cit, 59.
9. This total is calculated from the collected accounts transcribed in the Thornton Chronicle.
10. JS Brewer (ed), Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, 3:1 (London, 1867), 510 (accessed 23 Jan 2013).
11. Dugdale, op cit.
12. EH Minns, ‘Documents relating to the dissolution of the monastery of Thornton Curtis in the county of Lincoln left by the Rev Charles Parkyn to Pembroke College, Cambridge’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, 10 (1898), 482–95; for Thornton College, see Page, op cit, 237 (accessed 23 Jan 2013).
13. This suggestion comes from the excavation in 2012 of garden earthworks west of the cloister. These were initially thought to be associated with a late medieval abbot’s lodging, but were shown by excavation to be of late 16th-century date (dating information from Dr H Willmott; see also the excavation blog, accessed 23 Jan 2013).
14. For recent analysis of Skinner’s life and times see Oswald et al, op cit, section 3.2.
15. For reproductions see DL Roberts, ‘John Thorpe’s drawings for Thornton College, the house of Sir Vincent Skinner’, Lincolnshire History and Archaeology, 19 (1984), 57–64, and J Summerson (ed), The Book of Architecture of John Thorpe in Sir John Soane’s Museum, Walpole Society, 40 (Glasgow, 1966).
16. A de la Pryme, The Diaries of Abraham de la Pryme, the Yorkshire Antiquary, Surtees Society, 54 (Durham, London and Edinburgh, 1870; accessed 23 Jan 2013).
17. The case for the house surviving for several years is argued in Oswald et al, op cit, 17–19. The case for the house never having been completed arises from the 2012 excavation of the earthworks supposed to be the house’s wall-lines (information from Dr H Willmott).
18. De la Pryme, op cit.
19. JR Boyle, A Handbook to Thornton Abbey in the County of Lincoln, with Brief Notices of Adjacent Places of Interest (London, 1897), i.
20. The only detailed report arising from this is AR Maddison, ‘Notes taken of the excavated floor at Thornton Abbey, 31st August 1835’, Lincolnshire Notes and Queries, 11 (1911), 16–17, but the investigations are referred to in a pamphlet by J Greenwood, A Picturesque Tour to Thornton Monastery (Barrow, 1835), an edited and abridged version of which was published in Gentleman’s Magazine, new series, 5 (1836), 282–6. Note that these publications did not aspire to be guides in the current sense.
21. For detailed analysis of this period see Oswald et al, op cit, 24–7.
22. Anon, Handbook for Visitors to Thornton Abbey (London, 1851). This is a more serious guide than the pamphlet produced in 1835 (see footnote 20).
23. The building is dated by an inscribed stone above the door. See SM Watt, ‘An old English gate-house’, English Illustrated Magazine, new series, 29 (1903), 143, for a contemporary compliment on its architectural style (accessed 23 Jan 2013).
24. Relevant documents are held in English Heritage’s archaeological store at Helmsley, North Yorkshire, and in the site file AA30979/2, part 1.