By indexer
2 years ago

Mount Grace Priory, North Yorkshire

Mount Grace Priory was one of ten Carthusian monasteries, or “Charterhouses” that were founded in England prior to the dissolution of the monasteries, which took place during the reign of King Henry VIII. Its ruins are the best-preserved of the ten, and are well worth a visit if you are in the area.

The Carthusians originated in 1084 as a reaction to what was regarded by some as corruption in the Church at that time. Bruno of Rheims sought a means of withdrawing from the world to a life of prayer and meditation, and founded a small community at Chartreuse, a remote mountainous location in eastern France. Life there was particularly austere, and the monks became known as “Christ’s Poor Men”.

In time, the Carthusian ideal spread throughout France and then into England, with the Mount Grace Priory being founded in 1398. It closed in 1539. It is sited on the western edge of the North York Moors, with a steep wooded hillside rising up on one side. It is very accessible to visitors, being close to several main roads and rail lines that sweep from south to north through the Vale of York, but at the time of its building this would have been a very remote location. Modern visitors are still struck by the tranquillity of the site.

The most striking difference between a Carthusian monastery and those of other monastic orders, such as the Cistercians at nearby Rievaulx, is that the monks did not live communally but as hermits, only meeting for worship in the church three times a day. On Sundays, a communal meal would be eaten in silence, followed by a meeting in the Chapter House. The rest of a monk’s time was spent in his private cell, where he prayed, worked, ate and slept on his own.

There was only room for seventeen monks, plus the prior, and six lay brothers who worked in the kitchens, maintained the priory grounds and performed other domestic duties. This meant that there was no call at Mount Grace for a large church, dormitory or refectory, which are typical features of other monasteries.

The considerable overall size of the site, and particularly of the Great Cloister, is because each monk had his own self-contained cell, a two-storey building with a small garden plot attached. Although these cells were not large, either in dimensions or number, they still needed to fit around a quadrangle, which is what we can see today as the Great Cloister, a larger area than is common in monasteries of other orders that accommodated many more monks than at Mount Grace.

Although the site is largely in ruins, one of the cells has been reconstructed and furnished to show visitors exactly how a Carthusian monk would have worked. This reconstruction was originally done in 1901-05, so the stonework and roof tiles have mellowed over time to give today’s visitors a real sense of how it would have been in the early 16th century, as has the more recent refurbishment with items that a monk would have had at his disposal.

Next to the cell door is an open hatch, into which a lay brother would place a tray containing the monk’s simple meal, twice a day. The arrangement meant that the monk and lay brother did not have to communicate in any way at these times.

The ground floor was divided into small rooms by wooden partitions, so that the monk had a living-room with a fireplace, a study, a bedroom and an oratory (a private prayer room). He also had a private cloister, a small covered passageway in which he could walk up and down for exercise and which also gave access to the garden. In the corner of the garden was the latrine, flushed by spring-water channelled from the nearby hillside.

The upper floor was the monk’s workroom. Every monk had to practice a trade, the produce of which was shared by the other monks or went towards the upkeep of the monastery. The upper floor of the restored cell was equipped with a spinning wheel and loom when I visited some years ago, but we can imagine that some monks would have been engaged in trades such as woodcarving, pot-making or illuminating manuscripts. The upper rooms would have had the advantage of good natural light for delicate work.

As well as working at their trade, the monks had to tend their gardens, perhaps growing medicinal herbs or vegetables for the kitchens (Carthusians did not eat meat). They also had a fixed timetable of religious offices, for although they did not meet together for all the prescribed services, they celebrated the others in private.

Visitors can also see the ruins of the priory church, with its bell tower, and the outlines of the walls that mark the locations of several other buildings, such as the granary, kiln and stables.

The original monastery guesthouse was incorporated in the 17th century into a manor house built by the then owner of the site, Thomas Lascelles, and this was further extended in 1900-01 by Sir Lowthian Bell, and furnished in the style of the Arts and Crafts movement. Not all of the manor house is open to visitors, but the exhibition that tells the full story of Mount Grace is located on the upper floor.

The property is now owned by the National Trust but managed and maintained by English Heritage.

English Heritage recommends allowing an hour and a half for a visit, but you may wish to stay longer to drink in the atmosphere and listen to the birdsong, if the weather is fine. You could combine a visit with one to Rievaulx, reachable via narrow roads across the moors, and compare and contrast the monastic life of the two communities.