Mt Grace Priory was founded in 1398 by Carthusian monks. It is one of the most complete Carthusian priories remaining in England. The earliest stone buildings were the gatehouse and the church. These were followed by the building of the stone walls. The site is that of a typical medieval charterhouse based on two enclosures: a cloister and an inner court.
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Between them is the church and prior’s cell (he was the only one with access to outside world). Later 15th century buildings can be seen today in the two areas created soon after founding. Also on view are the provisions for water to be piped to each of the 25 cells, 15 of which were around the cloister with 10 others grouped around the inner court. The water originated from a spring and was pumped to storage tanks. There was a stable, granary, guest hall, kitchen brew house, bake house, prior cell, chapel, church, and chapter house.
Mt. Grace was a wealthy house with an annual income of 323 pounds originally endowed by Richard II and later by Henry V. After 1415 the priory’s fortunes improved and enlargement took place with more stone buildings being constructed. The monks were successful sheep farmers and were able to establish farms in the area and further afield. They were occupied with weaving, tailoring, and writing manuscripts (their specialty) in addition to the business concerns related to the running of the monastery.
The Mount Grace monks, one of nine Carthusian priories in England, dismissed communal living; they felt that living as hermits was appropriate and held that the church had become too degenerate. Each monk had a three room down—living room, bedroom, and study, and one big loft upstairs, two corridors, a fireplace, a chest, a table and even running water to their “cell” and their own private toilet. At the back of each cell was a private walled garden to grow herbs. Meals were brought to them. A hatch in each cell opened to allow a lay brother to pass food through. They were vegetarians except in the case of fish. They farmed carp in stew ponds. It was a comfortable life compared to other priories.
Excavations at the site have found two needles, scissors, comb, razor, whetstone, writing tools (pen, ink, parchment, ruler, stylus), several books, oyster shells with coloured pigments, spatula for mixing the pigments, a corner plate from a book cover, pen nibs, and more.
The abbey was unroofed and partially dismantled in 1539 after the dissolution of the monasteries. Sir James Strangeways was the first owner of the priory after the monks left. He left the site to decay, because all he really wanted was the 139 acres of farmland, 100 acres of woods and the home farm water mill and guest lodging. Subsequently it passed through many hands before being purchased by Thomas Lascelles who converted the rooms of the priory guesthouse into the core of the present house. The guest house, as seen today, is due to Sir Lothian Bell, a wealthy industrialist (1899-1930). He owned the building which had become a 17th century house, complete with kitchen, hall, parlour, and bedroom. He repaired and extended it, did some repair work around the cloister, and rebuilt one of the monk’s cells to show their way of life. The herb garden for the cell has been restored. The herbs were used for medicine, cooking, and religious rites. Examples are fennel, hyssop, sweet woodruff, marjoram, and rue.
Today there is much wildlife in the woodland around the priory and the wildflower meadows. Bats (well fed on the insects in the area), buzzards, deer, woodpeckers, fox, rabbits, tawny owls, and stoats abound. Around the ancient fish ponds are frogs and newts.
Mt Grace Priory
Staddle Bridge, on the A19, seven miles north-east of Northallerton, Yorkshire
Tel. 0 1609 883 494
Open: April-end Sep, Thu-Mon, 10am-6pm; Oct-end Jan, Thu-Sun, 10am-4pm, closed 24-26 Dec and 1 Jan
National Trust property, managed by English Heritage; shop; herbs for sale May-Aug; parking; picnic area; wildlife events
Photos © by Barbara Ballard