Easby Abbey, Richmond, Northern England

Easby Abbey was known in the Middle Ages as the Abbey of St Agatha by Richmond. It was founded in 1151-2 by Roald, constable of nearby Richmond Castle.

Easby was a house of Premonstratensian canons, the third house of this order to be founded in England. They were an order of regular canons, meaning communities of ordained priests living together, rather than monks – who take vows but are not ordained.

There had been a Saxon ‘minster’ at Easby before the Norman conquest, a church served by a small community of priests. This older church is likely to have been on the site of the present parish church of St Agatha, which remains in use and is open to the public.

Reconstruction of Easby Abbey at the time of its suppression circa 1537

The refectory

The refectory or dining room is the most impressive part of the abbey ruins. Probably dating from the later 12th century, it was magnificently rebuilt in the late 13th century, with large windows to bring in more light. Here the canons ate their simple, mainly vegetarian meals in silence.

The building was divided into two floors, with the ground-floor undercroft probably used for storage. The arches of its vaulted ceiling are still visible along the lower walls. Above this was the refectory itself.

At the far end of the refectory is the great east window, beneath which was the abbot’s table. To its right, the second window housed a fine raised pulpit from which one of the canons read from the scriptures during the meals.

The food was prepared in an adjacent kitchen and passed through a hatch in the refectory wall. The foundations and central hearth of the kitchen can be seen in the grass, to the south, outside this building.

A reconstruction of the refectory at Easby Abbey

First-floor refectories like this are characteristic of houses of regular canons. Their design may have been a conscious re-creation of the ‘cenaculum’, the room where Christ and his disciples ate their ‘Last Supper’ before Christ’s crucifixion.

The cloister

This was the bustling heart of the abbey. The cloister and its surrounding buildings followed a standard monastic plan in most respects.

These pictures show the east range of cloister buildings. Its ground floor housed the chapter house, the room where the canons gathered to discuss daily business. Above this we would normally expect to find the canons’ dormitory. But this was not the case at Easby, where in the later Middle Ages the upstairs space was rebuilt as a grand T-shaped room which might have been the abbey’s library.

The Premonstratensians, who built Easby, probably modelled their abbeys on those of the Cistercian order, such as Roche or Kirkstall, also in Yorkshire. Unlike these sites, Easby’s cloister has an irregular shape, rather than the standard square plan. This was probably because the canons were constrained by the site, adapting their plan to allow for the landscape and existing buildings.

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Key: 1 The chapter house; 2 Evidence of the original windows circa 1200, probably a row of five lancets replaced with one large window in the late Middle Ages; 3 Sacristy; 4 South transept; 5 Spiral staircase, added in the later Middle Ages; 6 Large first-floor room created in the late Middle Ages, perhaps housing the library; 7 Double-height section of the first-floor room, with fireplace; 8 Upper storey overlooking the double-height space.

The west range of buildings housed the canons ‘warming room’ where they were allowed a fireplace, on the ground floor, and their dormitory on its now-lost upper floor.

The abbey church

The abbey church at Easby was built in the late 12th century and enlarged in the 14th century. It was almost completely demolished following the monastery’s suppression by King Henry VIII.

The church was built in about 1160-80 to a standard Cistercian-inspired plan, but only traces of its architecture survive in its north and south transepts.

In the early 14th century the patronage of the abbey passed to the Scropes, lords of Bolton in Wensleydale. They extended the eastern arm of the church to serve as their burial place. The niches in the north wall of the presbytery may have been for two of their monuments.

The difference between the original 12th-century presbytery and its 14th-century extension can be seen in the design of the plinth and buttresses.

Reconstruction of the abbey church at Easby in the later Middle Ages

The Pilgrimage of Grace

Easby’s downfall came during Henry VIII’s suppression of the monasteries. In 1536 Easby took the fateful decision to support the Pilgrimage of Grace, a popular rebellion in the north of England, against Henry’s break with the Catholic Church.

As a consequence of Easby’s part in the Pilgrimage of Grace on 22 February 1537 King Henry ordered:

At … St Agatha [Easby] and such places as have made resistance … you shall without pity or circumstance cause the monks to be tied up [hanged] without delay.

Lost buildings and hidden uses

The large group of buildings to the north of the abbey church probably began as the abbey infirmary, where the sick and aged were cared for.

There was a kitchen, recognizable by its large fireplaces, and a servery linked this to the infirmary hall.

Key: 1 Infirmary hall; 2 Infirmary kitchen; 3 Abbot’s chamber with private chapel at upper level; 4 Chambers with attached latrines on two floors; 5 Two private chambers, above a passage linking the infirmary to the church; 6 ‘Misericord’, or meat refectory; 7 Bread ovens; 8 Yards and service buildings; 9 The abbey church; 10 Entrance court with paved path; 11 Site of gateway to entrance court.

The buildings do not all follow normal monastic planning. There were several more domestic looking spaces, opening off and above these rooms, equipped with fireplaces and latrines.

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A long first-floor room with a small chapel opening off it may have been the abbot’s private chamber. Other well-appointed rooms might have provided accommodation for honoured guests, such as the Scropes of Bolton. This rich and powerful family remained patrons of Easby until its suppression by King Henry VIII in 1536-7, and subsequently took over the abbey and many of its estates.

St Agatha’s Church (Easby Church) stands in the grounds of Easby Abbey. Little of the original church remains, but it is thought to predate the abbey.

An early 14th-century gatehouse is also close by.

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