The Monasteries and North Craven


What the monasteries did for  North Craven          Kathleen Kinder    modified - February, 2014

You may have noticed  the little stepped grassy terraces which seem carved into the hillsides near our settlements. The  most obvious are at Stainforth, Clapham, Austwick, Cross Streets, Giggleswick (Eshtons) and  Settle. These little terraces are known as “lynchets” from the Old English word for links or ridges and marked the edge of cultivation strips worked by villagers from Anglo Saxon times to the time of the enclosures in the 17th  and 18th centuries. It is rather interesting that the modern allotments in upper Settle lie just below their Anglo-Saxon counterparts.

 In the fertile, lowland areas of  England, lynchets are marked out  on the flat lands, but here, in North Craven much of the lower land in Anglo-Saxon times was marshy and boggy although recent aerial photography gives some evidence of valley cultivation in the village areas of Langcliffe, Giggleswick and Rathmell  which were better drained than most. While there was some grazing of sheep and goats on the higher ground in Anglo-Saxon times, there was no technology,  will or man power   to clear and drain most of the the lower land for agricultural use, that is, until the coming of the monks. In North Craven. As many as 5 monasteries, 4 Cistercian and 1 Benedictine, eventually made their mark on our landscape. Adjacent lands often had different monastic owners and this could lead to somewhat unseemly quarrels between the monasteries like the bitter feud that arose between Sawley and Whalley, so bitter that it had to go to the highest ecclesiastical court to get sorted out!

Jervaulx owned lands principally around Horton; Fountains Abbey, also around Horton and Fountains Fell.  Furness Abbey had land in Stackhouse and  Giggleswick (Brigholm), while Finchale Priory, (the only Benedictine foundation) had Giggleswick Church and its living. The biggest landowner in the Settle-Attermire- Langcliffe - Rathmell areas was Sawley Abbey, situated just 13 miles away. The others were distant and absent landlords. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the monastic owners were content to rent out the land for others to farm, but their predecessors at least, had done the original spade work.

The founder of European monasticism was St Benedict (d.543). Monasteries organised on his Rule dominated church life in western Europe for 4 centuries. By the 12th century however, many, but not all, of the Benedictine foundations, had become lax and the original Benedictine Rule  all but forgotten. The Cistercian Order began in the 12th century as a  Benedictine reform movement, and a severe and ascetic one it proved to be. The Cistercians sought out the most inhospitable terrain and climate in which to establish their monasteries. There were many areas in Yorkshire which suited their purpose admirably. A monk made a threefold vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. Each day was divided into three:  worship, study and work. A monastery tried to be self sufficient, or have enough funds to cater for the  needs of its inmates and guests. Lay brothers did the most menial tasks. They were illiterate and kept so, not only in accordance with the medieval belief that each person had his or her divinely fixed station in life, but because no lay person had to be sufficiently learned to challenge the authority of the Church or  be a threat to any priest in Holy Orders.

Monks relied on gifts of land and money to sustain their way of life and in the early days of the Cistercian movement  many gifts were forthcoming from landowners who made their donations not simply out of generosity, but because in return, the monks would continually pray for the well-being of the benefactors’ souls in this life and the next. In some cases, the monks had to pledge to look after a donor in his old age. Some monasteries became more like  Old People’s Homes and found their religious Rule of life hampered as a result. In some cases, the gifted  land was so inhospitable that the lay owner was glad to be rid of it to monks who saw as part of their religious duty the need to clear, drain, till and make fruitful an area others considered impossible to work. The lands immediately around the Ribble  fell into that   category. The inclement weather too tested the capacity of the monks to grow anything at all. The Sawley monks in their case against Whalley, complained of both poor land and weather ( see part 2).

The upper slopes of the valley and fells were grazed by sheep which the monks managed more efficiently than their Anglo-Saxon lay forebears. Wool was the main money-spinner in the economy of medieval England.   By the time of the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s-40s, Fountains was the richest and Furness the second richest abbey in the whole country and no doubt, the sheep on our north Craven fells contributed to that wealth. Not surprisingly, Henry VIII wanted to get his hands on it. By this time, many of the monasteries were corrupt and  the monks’ lifestyle had wandered far from the original Benedictine and Cistercian ideals. However, in  North Yorkshire, the monasteries were the main landowners and employers. Ordinary people saw that without the monasteries to sustain them, they could be utterly destitute. That is one reason why there was such support for the ill-fated Pilgrimage of Grace in North Craven.

In 1147,  Fountains Abbey sent a group of monks to Barnoldswick to establish a daughter house, but they only stayed 6 years. Eventually they settled with the Cistercians at Kirkstall Abbey near Leeds. Whether they were driven away by the poor land, inclement weather or the Scottish raids, we do not know. In the same year,1147,  William de Percy founded Sawley Abbey. Its abbot, 12 monks and 10 lay brothers came from Newminster in Northumberland, itself a daughter house of Fountains Abbey. William de Percy  owned no fewer than a hundred manors in Yorkshire including Malham, Gisburn, Hellifield and Bolton by Bowland as well as land in and around  Settle. He was a generous benefactor of three abbeys, Sawley, Furness and Fountains. William de Percy was one of many benefactors of monasteries whose names crop up in the old records. The first gift of land to a monastery (around 1152)  was the gift of Stockdale to Sawley by Richard de Morville followed by that of Stackhouse to Furness Abbey by Adam of Giggleswick.

The Rule of St Benedict gives us some idea as to  what use the  monks would put the land given them. Monks, unless they were sick, were not allowed to eat the flesh of quadrupeds. There was a belief that  red meat inflamed the passions and therefore, not to be eaten by monks and nuns who had taken a vow of chastity. That left “fisshe and fowle” and the latter included song birds as well as duck, geese, chickens, partridge and doves/pigeons etc. Plenty of vegetables like cabbage, onions, leeks, turnips, peas and beans were eaten and these no doubt had been grown from Anglo-Saxon times on the lynchet strips of cultivation that we still see on the lower hill slopes. Vegetables could of course, be grown in the monastery garden on land specially drained for the purpose. Sheep too could be brought down from the fells to fatten on the lower drained  lands. . In 1381, William Staynforth was paid a yearly salary of 22s “for keeping the animals and birds” at Sawley Abbey. In the early 1200s, Hugo de Stainford gave  the monks of Sawley pasturage at Knight Stainforth for 200 sheep and 11 cows. John de Fleming also gave  Sawley Abbey extensive pasturage from his manor of Rathmell. The Coucher Book of Salley (Sawley) in the British Museum,  contains details of over 100 benefactions made between 1200-50. I am indebted to Brayshaw and Robinson’s History of the Ancient Parish of Giggleswick (HAPG)  for much of this information.

 Sheep were also kept for their milk; mutton was not supposed to be on the monastery’s  menu! The first Wensleydale cheese was made of ewe’s milk by the monks of Jervaulx.  According to the Rule, monks were allowed a pound of bread a day and that meant the monastery would require considerable quantities of wheat, oats and barley (the latter also used for brewing beer). There was much more arable land than there is today. Because of the cold wet climate, short ripening season and soggy soil, only a small amount of  wheat was grown in and around Settle. Oats and barley were the principal crops. The accounts of Sawley Abbey for 1381 show that in that year  Gargrave produced 415 quarters of wheat, 620 quarters of barley, 55 quarters of beans and 2080 quarters of oats. All this corn had to be ground and  the monks added to the number of water and wind mills on the banks of the Ribble and its tributaries. We know that oxen were used for ploughing.  In 1160, Adam of Giggleswick gave to Furness Abbey “a carucate of land in Stacus (Stackhouse)”. A carucate was as much land as a team of oxen could plough in a season.

From all this, we get a clear impression that Sawley Abbey was a very flourishing concern. Although never in the premier league, Sawley  during its 400 years of existence, produced scholars of national note. One of them,  William of Rimington, who was prior of Sawley, became Chancellor of Oxford University in 1372-3.  From the 13th century onwards, the quarrels over boundaries became more frequent. Sawley and Fountains squabbled over the eastern edge of Giggleswick parish while the notorious feud between Whalley and Sawley was waged in central Ribblesdale. Joseph Baron  in his Ribbleland Guide (1895)  gives a graphic account of that quarrel. Until 1296, when Whalley Abbey was established,  Sawley did very well indeed. The charges made against Whalley, from the records of the time, while no doubt exaggerated to strengthen Sawley’s case, make  interesting reading and tell us  a lot about conditions in the Ribble valley in the Middle Ages. Sawley is described as being in a foggy and rainy country “in terra nebulosa et pluviosa” – and that standing crops, white to the harvest, rotted in the stalk. Sawley accused Whalley of taking away its means of livelihood, of over-fishing the river, of stealing its markets and food sources and of making every commodity dearer for Sawley to buy. One also gets a  clear impression of how much coming and going there was and that there must have been new tracks and green roads created by the monks to facilitate movement and communication. Indeed, Brayshaw and Robinson in the HAPG  pay warm tribute to the contribution the monasteries made to the economy and well-being of our area, but there came a time when the monasteries like other human institutions, fell into decline. Their final demise  when it occurred, was sharp and cruel, leaving only crumbling masonry to remind us of their great achievements.          

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