Yorkshire's awesome abbeys

Remains of magnificent monasteries

Abbeys and priories can be found in abundance across Yorkshire, all providing rich pieces in a historic jigsaw showing the part these monastic communities played in the region between the 12th and 16th centuries.

As with the rest of England, most of these historic abbey sites are ruins as a result of the dissolution of the Catholic monasteries by Henry VIII following the 1534 Act of Supremacy. The Act declared the king head of the Church of England and confirmed a break from the Roman Catholic Church. Starting in 1536, the Crown appropriated and disposed of abbey and priory assets and they were also plundered for stone with government support. There are, however, substantial remains to be found at many abbey sites across Yorkshire and these give a fascinating picture of these once important settlements and magnificent buildings.

Here are just some of Yorkshire's abbeys and priories:

Bolton Priory

Bolton Abbey, North Yorkshire
The beautiful setting at Bolton Abbey in the Yorkshire Dales National Park is one of the most visited monastic sites in Yorkshire. Beside the River Wharfe are the ruins of Bolton Priory, where the nave of the priory church still survives as a parish church. The Augustinian priory was founded in 1154 and continued until the dissolution in 1539. The abbey has been carefully managed by the Devonshire family since 1755 and now has car parking, gift shops, tea rooms, restaurants and facilities for weddings and corporate events. There is an extensive network of footpaths around the estate and one ancient right of way is the 60 stepping stones across the River Wharfe. Other paths lead into the ancient Strid Wood beside the river. Bolton Abbey is 5 miles east-north-east of Skipton (7 miles by road) and 5 miles north-west of Ilkley.

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More information at  Bolton Abbey visitor website and at the  Priory Church website.

Bridlington Priory Church

Church Green, Bridlington, East Yorkshire
Today's magnificent Priory Church of St Mary in Bridlington represents just the nave half of a church built at its large Augustinian priory. Although Bridlington's first church is thought to have been built around 750, the Augustinian priory was founded there in 1113. A new priory church was started during the 13th century and building continued until the dissolution of the monastery in 1537, its west towers not being complete at that time. The church's central tower and the other half of the church, which had contained the shrine of St John of Bridlington, a prior who died in 1379, were demolished two years after the dissolution. Other monastery buildings except for its gatehouse, The Bayle, were also demolished. Restorations of the church took place from 1846 to 1879, during which upper parts were added to the western towers, and there was further restoration in the 20th century. The church has a monument and annual service commemorating the Great Gale disaster of 1871, when gales on February 10 caused 30 ships to be wrecked in Bridlington Bay, including a lifeboat.

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Byland Abbey

Byland, near Coxwold, North Yorkshire
Byland Abbey features the ruins of one of the largest and grandest Cistercian abbey churches in England. Completed towards the end of the 12th century, it is noted for its Gothic architecture which inspired that in other church buildings, including York Minster. The lower portion of a huge rose window gives some idea of the scale and magnificence of the building before the dissolution of the monastery. The abbey also has tiled floors surviving from the 13th century. The abbey is in the North York Moors National Park about 5 miles south-west of  Helmsley (6 miles by road) and 8 miles east-south-east of  Thirsk (12 miles by road). The abbey is managed by English Heritage.

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Easby Abbey

Easby, near Richmond
Situated about 1.5 miles from the centre of Richmond beside the River Swale, Easby Abbey has some magnificent and quite substantial stonework remaining from its refectory, gatehouse and canon's dormitory. The abbey was founded in 1152 and was of the Premonstratensian order. As with most monasteries it was a target of Henry VIII and soon after its supression in 1536 most of its buildings were stripped for stone or demolished. Within the abbey complex is the Parish Church of St Agatha, founded before the abbey and still in use as a church today. Inside are 13th century wall paingtings and a fragment of 12th century glass. The abbey church, however, was mostly demolished after the supression. The abbey is managed as a free entry site by English Heritage.

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Find out more at the  English Heritage - Easby Abbey website

Egglestone Abbey

Near Startforth and Barnard Castle, County Durham
Egglestone Abbey is on the Yorkshire side of the River Tees off a minor road about 1.5 miles south east of Startforth, near Barnard Castle, County Durham. It is the remains of an abbey of the Premonstratensian order which was founded between 1195 and 1198. The remains of a 13th century church and of the monk's living quarters can be found there. While a relatively small abbey a large amount of stonework appears intact in comparison with other abbeys. However, some of this dates from after the dissolution of the abbey when part of the former monks' quarters were converted into a hall in the latter part of the 16th century. The abbey is managed as a free entry site by English Heritage.

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Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden

Fountains, near Ripon, North Yorkshire
A World Heritage site containing Britain's most complete Cistercian abbey ruins. Fountains Abbey dates from 1132 when it became the home of 13 monks. The water gardens in the wooded valley of the River Skell were a Georgian addition to the Studley Royal Estate with features including classical statues, follies and garden buildings. Also on the estate are the 12th century Fountains Mill, the early 17th century Fountains Hall, the Porter's Lodge exhibition in the abbey gatehouse, St Mary's Church, a splendid Victorian Gothic Church, and a deer park. The estate is off the B6265 Ripon to Pateley Bridge road about 3 miles south-west of Ripon and is managed by The National Trust.
Find out more at the  National Trust - Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal website.

Gisborough Priory

Church Street, Guisborough
The stonework of the 14th century east end of the priory church and part of an original Norman gatehouse survive among the ruins of one of the first Augustinian priories to be built in England. Gisborough was founded in 1119 by Robert de Brus, an ancestor of King Robert the Bruce of Scotland, and dissolved in Henry VIII's reign in 1540. The family-owned priory site is managed by the Gisborough Priory Project which is restoring gardens established on the site around 1700. The site is open from the beginning of March to the end of October. The usual opening is Wednesdays to Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays from 10am to 4pm, but check the website for any alterations or dates when the site is closed for events. Entry is free, but the site relies upon donations.

For full details see the Gisborough Priory Project  Gisborough Priory Project website
or English Heritage  English Heritage - Gisborough Priory website.


Jervaulx Abbey

Jervaulx, near East Witton, North Yorkshire
Jervaulx Abbey is the ruins of a Cistercian monastery dedicated in 1156. They are set in tranquil and beautiful parkland in Wensleydale, the valley of the River Ure. The abbey is privately-owned and became a visitor attraction, wedding venue and film and photography location after many years of conservation work at the end of the 20th century. A visitor centre displays a model of the abbey as it would have originally looked and the abbey also has tea rooms and offers accommodation. Jervaulx is located along the A6108 about 5 miles south-east of Leyburn, 3 miles south-east of  Middleham and 5 miles north-west of Masham.

Find out more at the  Jervaulx Abbey website.  Find Jervaulx Abbey on map

Kirkham Priory

Kirkham, near Malton
Situated in a beautiful section of the Derwent Valley around 5 miles south-west of Malton are the remains of the Augustinian Kirkham Priory. The Grade I listed priory dates from the 1120s and includes an impressive portion of its late 13th century gatehouse with sculptures of St George and the dragon, David and Goliath and heraldry of the lords of Helmsley Castle. Church walls from the 13th century and stone foundations also remain. The site is managed by English Heritage.

More information at the  English Heritage - Kirkham Priory website.  Find Kirkham Priory on map

Kirkstall Abbey

Abbey Road, Kirkstall
The ruins of the Cistercian Kirkstall Abbey, dating from 1152, are in public parkland alongside the River Aire at Kirkstall, 3 miles north-west of Leeds city centre.

More information at these  Leeds City Council - Kirkstall Abbey web pages.  Find Kirkstall Abbey on map

Monk Bretton Priory

Abbey Lane, Cundy Cross
The ruins of Monk Bretton Priory, a monastery originating in 1154, can be found at Abbey Lane, Cundy Cross, two miles east of Barnsley town centre, hidden behind housing just off the A628 Pontefract Road. The priory was of the order of Cluny, originally established in La Charite-sur-Loire in France. The Cluniac monks had originally established a priory at Pontefract in the 1090s and Monk Bretton was set up as a daughter of that priory. As well as the ruins of the stone-plundered monastery there is a gatehouse dating from a rebuild in the 15th century which is almost intact and an administrative building, originating from the 13th century with a 17th century upper storey, recently renewed and reroofed. The site has free admission, is open most days from 10am to 3pm and is managed by English Heritage. Several bus services operate from Barnsley along the road to Cundy Cross, from where it is a short walk.

More information at the  English Heritage - Monk Bretton Priory website.
 Find Monk Bretton Priory on map

Mount Grace Priory

Staddlebridge, near Osmotherley, North Yorkshire
Mount Grace Priory, situated around 6 miles north-east of Northallerton (7.5 miles by road), is the best preserved Carthusian priory in Britain. The priory gives an insight into how the small group of monks who lived there spent their lives 600 years ago with a reconstruction of a cell, or small house, of one of the hermit monks, with its herb garden and work spaces. Founded in the mid-14th century it was the last monastery to be founded in Yorkshire in medieval times and it was also one of the last in Yorkshire to be supressed, in December 1539. The priory guest house was redesigned in the 17th century as a mansion and now houses an exhibition of the life of the former priory while outside are attractive formal gardens. The Priory can be accessed by car from a minor road leading from the busy 70mph A19 dual carriageway requiring particular care when entering or leaving the site. The priory is also accessible by footpaths. Mount Grace Priory is managed by English Heritage but is owned by the National Trust.

More information at the  English Heritage - Mount Grace Priory or  National Trust - Mount Grace Priory websites.  Find Mount Grace Priory on map

Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx, near Helmsley, North Yorkshire
The first Cistercian abbey in the North of England was founded in 1132 but became one of the most important in the country, quickly growing to a 650-strong community within its first 30 years. However by the time of supression of the monastery in December 1538 the number had fallen to 23 monks. The abbey in the valley of the River Rye in the North York Moors National Park has substantial remains, particularly of its 13th century church which were saved from further collapse by repair work 100 years ago. The abbey also has a museum containing architectural stonework and other artefacts found at the site, including chess pieces, coins and small personal possessions. The visitor centre also has a tearoom. Rievaulx is 2.5 miles west-north-west of Helmsley and about 11 miles east of Thirsk. The abbey is managed by English Heritage.

More information at the  English Heritage - Rievaulx Abbey website.  Find Rievaulx Abbey on map

Roche Abbey

Near  Maltby
Situated near Maltby, 8 miles east-south-east of Rotherham town centre (9.5 miles by road), are the remains of Roche Abbey, a Cistercian order monastery dating from the 1170s. The abbey's excavated foundations show one of of the most complete ground plans of any monastery remains in the country. Despite the dismantling after the supression of the monastery in 1538, much of its early Gothic transepts survive as does a section of the gatehouse built around 1300. There are also bridges crossing the attractive stream through the site. The area around the monastery was landscaped by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown in the 1770s and a Banqueting Lodge created from stonework from the ruined abbey at around that time. The abbey can be reached by car or via the public footpath adjoining the site. Roche Abbey is managed by English Heritage.

More information at the  English Heritage - Roche Abbey website.
Locate on map:  Roche Abbey


Whitby Abbey

The hilltop of the East Cliff at Whitby was first settled with a monastery in 657. It is of religious significance as the location of the Synod of Whitby of 664 where Christians in the then Kingdom of Northumbria adopted Roman rather than Ionian traditions as the norm when both had prevously been practised. The abbey church ruins exisiting today date from the 13th century. They are a significant landmark high above Whitby, which can be reached from the town via the flight of 199 steps. For the less energetic there is a bus service and a car park nearby. Though a substantial part of the abbey remains, it has over the years suffered the damage of storms and an attack on Whitby by the German navy in 1914. Fascinating finds are exhibited in the Abbey House, an extension of what was probably the abbot's house after the supression of the monastery. The abbey hosts events for wildlife spotters and for fans of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Whitby Abbey is managed by English Heritage.

More information at the  English Heritage - Whitby abbey website.  Find Whitby Abbey on map


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