West Yorkshire Archaeology Service
The Tudors in
of the Roses
In 1530, there were eight religious house in what is now West Yorkshire. In 1540, there were none, such was the effectiveness of Henry VIII's religious reforms. The Dissolution of the Monasteries, as it became known, was a by-product of Henry VIII's quarrel with the Pope over his divorce with Catherine of Aragon. Henry desperately need a male heir to ensure the succession of the throne. When the Pope refused to grant this request, Henry had little choice but to refuse to acknowledge papal authority and to place himself at the head of the Church in England. Following this, the property of the Catholic church in England became an obvious target for the money-hungry Henry.
The eight religious houses actually situated in West Yorkshire were: Arthington Nunnery (Cluniac Nuns), Esholt Nunnery (Cistercian Nuns), Kirklees Priory, (Cistercian Nuns), St Richard's Friary, Pontefract (Dominican Friars), St John's Priory, Pontefract (Cluniac monks), Kirkstall Abbey (Cistercian monks), Nostell Priory and its cell at Woodkirk (Augustinian canons). However other Yorkshire abbeys such as Byland and Rievaulx also has considerable land holdings in the modern county. The different orders of monks and nuns took a slightly different attitude to the religious life. The Cistercians, who wore white habits, had in the twelfth century, been the radical wing of monastic reform. They believed that churches should be kept simple with whitewashed walls so that the monks and nuns would not be distracted from their religious observances. They also believed in a regime of hard physical work. The Cluniacs were more interested in the liturgy and developed sung masses to take up most of the monk's day. The Augustians, on the other hand were a fellowship of priests living a communal life. In the medieval period rich landowners often established Augustinan houses as a way to deal with pastoral problems in a given area. None of these groups, however, saw their major role as going out to preach to the world at large. This was the role of the Friars who preached sermons to the public in English, something which to us may seem an obvious thing to do, but which was a radical conception in the Middle Ages when the language of the church was Latin.
All the Yorkshire monasteries were visited by the King's Commissioner, Doctors Layton and Leigh in 1535. The commissioners were less interested in the moral standing of the monks and nuns than in the financial situation of the religious houses themselves. In 1536 the smaller monastic houses in the county were closed down. It is impossible to say for certain whether Henry intended to stop there, but the Pilgrimage of Grace gave him an excuse to view the northern religious houses as being disloyal to the crown. Further commissioners were appointed and by 1540 all the religious houses had been closed.
The experience of Kirkstall can be taken as typical of many. The last Abbot John Ripley was present at a meeting of religious leaders held at Pontefract on 2 December 1536 during the Pilgrimage of Grace, even though he took no active part in the proceeding. After this his name disappears from the records. However he seems to have escaped punishment, unlike the abbots of Whalley, Sawley and Jervaulx who were executed for their part in the rebellion. The house was surrendered by one John Brown, described as 'prior' to the commissioners 22 November 1539, at which time there were 31 monks in the house. Brown was given a pension of 100 marks. He was also allowed to live on in the former abbey gatehouse until his death. The other monks were given smaller pensions and some found posts as priests elsewhere in Yorkshire.
After their suppression the lead was removed from the roof of the monasteries, partly to ensure that the buildings were unlikely to be re-occupied and partly because the lead itself was a saleable commodity. After this the buildings were used as quarries for stone for other building projects. St John's at Pontefract, for example was demolished to provide stone for Pontefract New Hall. Some of the stone from Arthington Priory may be incorporated into a private house called the Nunnery. The church at Woodkirk still remains but all trace of the other monastic buildings has gone. Only Kirkstall stands in any measure of completion, a reminder of how impressive some of these buildings must once have been.
Jennings, B., 1999, Yorkshire Monasteries
Ryder, P., 1982, Medieval Buildings of Yorkshire
This material was compiled by Dave Weldrake, Education Officer for