The Priory of St Mary of Gisborough was founded in 1119 by the Norman feudal magnate Robert de Brus, who was an ancestor of the Scottish king, Robert the Bruce.
The town of Guisborough was well-established at the time of the priory’s founding. A priest, church and mill were recorded in 1086 in the Domesday Book which refers to the town as “Ghigesburg”. Following the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror’s Harrying of the North left the region in a severely depressed and depopulated state. In particular, there were few monasteries north of the River Humber. The Augustinian order – communities of canons living under the rule of St. Augustine, wearing dark robes that earned them the name the “Black Canons”. – came to England at the start of the 12th century and established houses in England.
The foundation was authorised by Pope Calixtus II and Thurstan, Archbishop of York.
The priory may have had two foundation charters, a shorter one dating possibly to 1119 and a detailed one dating to 1129 that may have been the definitive document. According to the priory’s founding charter, Robert de Brus “founded a certain Monastery of a religious order in Gysburne [sic], to the honour of God, and the holy Virgin Mary”. He gave “to the same Church and the service of God in it, all Gysburne, with all things pertaining thereto it”. The gift included lands amounting to twenty carucates and two oxgangs (roughly equivalent to about 2,500 acres), churches, mills and other possessions, and grants from others. The charter started that the endowment was to provide “material for ever for their buildings, and all other necessities of their house”.
The priory became known for its strict observance of the Augustinian rule and religious precepts.
The Yorkshire line of the de Brus family died out with the death of the childless Peter IV de Brus in 1272 but the priory was still patronised by the local nobility. The Fauconberg and Thweng families took over the patronage which continued for several centuries.
The priory prospered and the Valor Ecclesiasticus survey ordered by Henry VIII in 1535 found that Gisborough Priory had an annual net value of £628.6s.8d., which made it the fourth wealthiest monastic house in Yorkshire.
The priory was formally dissolved on 8 April 1540 and surrendered to the king’s men on 22 December 1540, making it one of the last monastic houses in England to be suppressed.
The priory buildings were demolished and the stone re-used in other buildings in Guisborough. The east end of the priory church was left standing with its great window forming a distinctive arch, a well-known landmark used as a symbol for Guisborough. It became part of the estate of the Chaloner family, who acquired it in 1550. The east window was preserved by them as part of a Romantic vista adjoining their seat, Gisborough Hall, from which the priory takes its idiosyncratically spelled name.
Some fragments of the priory travelled further afield. At Hardwick Hall near Sedgefield, a mock ruin was built incorporating sculptured stones brought from the priory.
Gisborough Priory was significant as it became one of the richest monastic foundations in England with grants from the crown and bequests from de Brus, other nobles and gentry and local people of more modest means.
The Priory is also significant because many prominent local nobles were buried there: at least nine patrons and their families were buried in the priory between 1295 and 1411. In addition, the Scottish Robert V de Brus, grandfather of King Robert the Bruce is buried in the Priory.
Today, whilst little remains of the original Priory buildings, the Priory remains that do exist are regarded as among the finest surviving examples of early Gothic architecture in England. These remains reflect the rebuilding that took place after much of the Romanesque Norman priory was destroyed in a fire in 1289. The rebuilding was in the Gothic style and on a grander scale than that which existed prior to the fire.
Suggested Places to Visit:
Gisborough Priory, Guisborough
Gisborough Hall, Guisborough
Hardwick Hall, Sedgefield