Ask me to name the monastic houses that Henry VIII “dissolved” in the North East of England and my first response would be Rievaulx, Fountains, Mount Grace; the ruins that I visited as a schoolboy. Give it a little more thought and I might venture Whitby, Tynemouth, Jervaulx, Monkwearmouth, Finchale and Lindisfarne.
I might say “there’s another north of York”, meaning Byland but as I’ve never been its name would escape me.
Show me the full list and I’d probably kick myself for omitting Hexham, Newcastle’s Blackfriars and Bolton Abbey, but then there’d be others that would produce a shrug because I’ve never heard of them.
I came across one of these recently on my way to Richmond (North Yorks). Having passed a sign for Easby Abbey I remarked that I’d never heard of the place, prompting J to tell me that she was a regular visitor when she lived in the area. On reaching Richmond and finding the car park full (it was the first sunny day in some time!) we decided to head to Easby and walk along the river from there, giving me the chance to see the abbey.
Like many of Henry’s victims there is ample evidence of damage and neglect, with carefully crafted masonry emerging from patches of rough and broken stone. English Heritage must be well employed here preventing further collapse.
Henry’s decision was more than a statement of vengeance against Rome – he also benefitted from seizing the land and assets of the monasteries, so the contents of this 12th Century structure are mostly lost but for a notable exception. A visit to Richmond Parish Church reveals a fine set of canopied choir stalls; furniture from the abbey that has found a new home.
Of course the trouble with visiting such a site in ignorance, especially when it isn’t your main reason for being out and about, is that you might miss something and I did. The real gem here is the small church adjoining the abbey site. St Agatha’s may not look much from the exterior but it may be even older than the abbey; a stone cross from the 8th or 9th century was found broken up and recycled as masonry within its walls, but the church also contains some beautiful medieval frescoes that lay protected for years under coats of whitewash. And I missed them.
Ah well. At least it gives me a reason to return to this beauty spot.