Houses of Cistercian Monks: The Abbey of Byland

scanned from "A History of the County of Yorkshire", Vol. iii.

In 1134 twelve monks with their abbot, Gerald, left the abbey of Furness to establish and inhabit a daughter house at Calder, on a site granted by Ralph Meschin. They were settled at Calder for four years building their monastery, when the Scots, under King David, demolished their work and despoiled their property. They returned to the mother house at Furness, but were refused admittance, because Gerald refused to resign his office of abbot or release his monks from their vows of obedience to him. It was urged, on the part of the Abbot and convent of Furness, that it would be inconsistent with monastic order and discipline for two abbots with their separate convents to inhabit the same monastery together. No allowance being made for the unfortunate Abbot and monks of Calder, who were only seeking temporary shelter in the mother house, Gerald and his monks determined to renounce both Furness and Calder, and seek a new and independent site for their monastery elsewhere.

They had but little with them when they left Furness, only some clothes (vestes) and books in a wagon drawn by eight oxen, and their condition was pitiable in the extreme, but they had heard of Archbishop Thurstan's benevolence to the monks who six years before had left St. Mary's, York, and were settled at Fountains, and they decided to seek his kind offices. As they were approaching Thirsk, on their way to York, they met the steward of Gundreda widow of Nigel de Albini and mother of Roger de Mowbray, a youth then in ward to King Stephen, but soon to come into possession of his vast estates. Being struck with the miserable condition of the unfortunate monks, he bade them go to the castle of Thirsk, where his mistress was then residing, in order that they might sup at her table.

Gundreda watched the approach of the monks from an upper window. Being much edified by their behaviour and conversation, she sheltered them temporarily under her roof, providing for their wants and promising them a place of abode and permanent means of subsistence. As, however, they could not follow her about she sent them to her uncle (or nephew) Robert de Alneto, an ex-monk of Whitby, then living as a hermit at Hood near Thirsk, where she provided for them until her son Roger came of age. While there Abbot Gerald visited Thurstan at York, and sought his help. The archbishop wrote to Roger de Mowbray, who, having entered into possession of his property, granted the monks the tenth of the victuals provided for his household, and a conversus named Lyngulf was deputed to follow Roger de Mowbray's household, and make a daily collection of the victuals which he was to send to Hood. When, however, Roger de Mowbray was away at a distance, Lyngulf sold the victuals and transmitted what he received for them to the abbot. This was obviously inconvenient, and in 1140 Roger de Mowbray, instead of a tithe of his victuals, granted the monks a cow pasture at Cambe and lands at Wildon, Scackleton in the parish of Hovingham, as well as the vill of Ergham.

When the monks had been a little time at Hood and were beginning to acquire property, fear was felt lest the Abbot of Furness should claim a right of paternity over them. Abbot Gerald went therefore to Savigny, and explained why they had left Calder and how they had been rejected by the Abbot and convent of Furness. In a general chapter of the order, held in 1142, a full release was granted from the jurisdiction of the Abbot of Furness. Abbot Gerald returned to England, but died at York on his way home. His body was taken to Hood by his monks, and buried there. Roger, who had been sub-cellarer at Calder, was elected in his place. He was master of the novices at Hood, but had only one novice under him at the time, to whom he was speaking concerning the observances of the rule, when (the chronicler relates) suddenly and without warning, all the monks surrounded him and bore him in their arms to the high altar of the oratory, proclaiming him as their abbot with a loud voice in the name of the Holy Trinity. In Easter week following he was blessed as abbot by the archbishop at Sherburn, on the presentation of Roger de Mowbray, who was present at the ceremony.

When the monks had been four years at Hood and many persons had joined them, the place became too small, and in 1143 Roger de Mowbray gave them his vill of Bellalanda super Moram, [Old Byland] with its church and all its appurtenances. Having made this grant, he caused the monks to build a small cell by the River Rye, not far from Rievaulx Abbey, which had been founded twelve years before by Walter l'Espec. Here Abbot Roger and his monks stayed for five years. At the desire of Roger de Mowbray Hood was given to the Augustinian priory which he founded at Newburgh.

As Old Byland, from its nearness to Rievaulx, was unsuitable for the new abbey, Roger de Mowbray gave the monks in 1147 two carucates of land near Coxwold, and the monks set to work to clear the ground, and built a small stone church, a cloister, and other buildings and offices. But when Roger de Mowbray had left for Normandy troubles arose. Robert Dayville, lord of Kilburn, greatly hindered the monks, asserting that they had inclosed part of his vill of Kilburn. Hugh Malbys, lord of Scawton, also harassed them, as did Guy de Boltby. In consequence of these difficulties Abbot Roger went in 1147 to Savigny, where he attended the general chapter (which gave Jervaulx as a daughter-house to Byland). He assured Abbot Serlo and those present that his monastery was amply endowed, if he and his monks were allowed peaceable possession of their property. He left before the chapter was ended, and hastened to Roger de Mowbray, who promised speedy and efficient help. Fortified with letters from him to the disturbers of the rights of the monks, he returned to England. On Roger de Mowbray's return a settlement was effected.

These troubles ended, new ones arose, the Abbot of Calder asserting that Roger and his convent belonged to that house, and not to Savigny. Abbot Roger replied that had there been an Abbot of Calder when Hood was given, there might be some claim for Calder, but as Calder was vacant at the time, the gift was to Savigny, to whom he and his monks were subject. The next year the Abbot of Savigny held a visitation of his houses in England, and the question was referred to Aelred, Abbot of Rievaulx. The Abbot of Furness put in his claim above that of the daughter-house of Calder, but Aelred decided against the claims of Furness. With this, the troubles of the monks of Byland in maintaining their property and independence came to an end, but Roger de Mowbray, in order to make everything sure for the future, confirmed all his gifts to Byland before the Archbishop and chapter of York.

The monks remained thirty years at Stocking, and while there cleared the woods and drained the swamps, and no doubt began the abbey church on the site now occupied by its ruins. On the eve of All Saints (30 October) 1177 they made their fourth and final move to what was then called Whiteker, but to which they conveyed the name of their house of Bellalanda, and which has since borne the name of Byland from it. Abbot Roger ruled the convent for the long space of fifty-four years, at Old Byland, Stocking and Whiteker (Byland). He had often wished to resign, but when he had pleaded this with St. Bernard he was persuaded to continue in office. At length, worn out and enfeebled by age, he resigned, but lived nearly three years longer as an inmate of the monastery. There seems some difficulty in accounting for the removal from Stocking, where the monks had built a stone church and cloister, and other offices and structures. Possibly these were too small, for the church is described as a small one, and it may be that on that account they thought well to begin a new monastery close by, on a larger scale.