Yorkshire – Mount Grace Priory

We’ve been in Northumberland for a week – the churches I visited I have been to before, but I had some lovely walks which I’ll blog next. On the way home (on Friday 18 May 2018) we stopped at Mount Grace Priory, which is an English Heritage property I hadn’t been to for years – website. It is at SE 449984, just off the A19 – it is much easier to get to when you are heading south. They now have a nice café, although it was all very busy when we visited.

We walked up to the House, which was created in the C17 from the remains of the Priory guest house. It was refurbished at the end of the C19 by the industrialist Sir Lowthian Bell, who was a supporter of the Arts and Crafts movement. Some nice rooms, and a display about the history of the site (sadly the display is upstairs which meant Julie (in a wheelchair) couldn’t get to it). An interesting model of the Priory when fully occupied.

The Priory was a Charterhouse, a Carthusian priory, built on the main road from York to Durham (at least in those days they didn’t have to turn right across a dual carriageway going in that direction). The Carthusians began in 1084 when St Bruno Hartenfaust, a canon and later chancellor of Reims in northern France rejected  what he deemed a corrupt church. By 1117 it had become a new monastic order. They arrived in England under Henry II (reigned 1154-89) who brought them here as part of his penance after the murder of Thomas Becket. They had a more austere life than many monks, and it took a while to catch on – the Black Death (1348-9) and plague of 1362 drew a demoralized population to them. The London Charterhouse was founded in 1371, and Mount Grace in 1398. It tended to attract literate monks from the upper orders of society and, as you can see from the model, they did not live in large dormitories, but in smaller houses – more of this later. The Priory had quite a precarious existence for the first century of his life, but by 1535 it had an income of over £300 a year, about the same as Rievaulx Abbey. But in 1534 the order refused to accept the Act of Succession, by which Henry VIII legitimized his second marriage (whatever the Pope said). The prior of the London house was executed in 1535. The prior of Mount Grace accepted the Act, but it didn’t do them much good. The general suppression of the English monasteries began in 1536, and Mount Grace was closed in 1539. The prior got a pension of £60 a year, and a property in Osmotherley, just down the road. Once closed, the movable possessions were sold and the priory partially demolished. Some monks just took their stuff with them, but in the garden of Cell 8 they found a pile of broken pottery which looked as if the departing monk had chucked them all against the wall in a fit of anger (and who can blame him). It sometimes seems amazing that anything is left.

Because the Carthusians said most of the daily officers in their cells, the church is not on the scale we expect in a monastery. Originally it was 27 metres long and 8 metres wide, monks in the eastern bays, lay brothers to the west. It was rebuilt in 1415 by Thomas Beaufort, grandson of a king (Henry IV) uncle to the future king (Henry V), and half-brother to the one after that (Henry VI) – he had been given permission to be buried there, so needed to make it good.

In this photo you can see a statue which I rather like – The Madonna of the Cross, by Malcolm Brocklesby. I can do no better than quote his words: “This Madonna is not the meek and subservient figure portrayed in so many paintings, but a determined and intelligent young woman who understands the wonder and the importance of her calling as she dedicates her Child to the purpose of the Creator. She is also aware of the suffering that this will entail. The figure of the Madonna is integral with that of the Cross, the stark and terrible symbol at the heart of Christianity, which is an inescapable part of her existence. Her expression, however, is more of serenity than anguish. She is looking beyond Calvary to the Resurrection, and the way in which she holds the Christ Child high suggests the subsequent Ascension rather than the immediate prospect of a sacrificial death. The statue combines the three facets of Christianity which establish the Atonement of Mankind – the Nativity, the Crucifixion and the Ascension.” (Malcolm Brocklesby, 1996)

Reading his obituary – here – it turns out he was a mining engineer. One of his very thought-provoking works is in Bradford’s Peace Museum – see their blog.

There are 15 cells – each with a living room (with fireplace), bedroom and oratory, and study. All have windows looking onto the garden at the back of the cell. The rebuilt one seems very pleasant – but I would not survive the silence, the solitude, when even your food was passed through in silence. They said two of the seven daily offices together, and only ate in the Refectory on Sundays and Feast Days. It was a vegetarian diet (plus fish). Each cell did have a latrine over a running stream – so not all bad! Prayer and work is all very well, but I would miss the company.





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