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Kirkham Priory: Church, Yorkshire, East Riding

(54°4′55″N, 0°52′35″W)
Kirkham Priory: Church
SE 736 657
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, East Riding
now North Yorkshire
medieval York
now York
medieval Holy Trinity
  • Rita Wood
13 and 26 April 2007, 20 and 27 May 2016

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The priory is about 5 miles SW of Malton. It is sited on sloping ground beside the Derwent which, between Huttons Ambo and Howsham, has cut a steep-sided valley. A 13thc bridge crosses the river close to the gatehouse. Most of the buildings are reduced to anonymous low walls, but one bay of the 13thc E facade of the church and much of the 12thc outer parlour stand up above them. The church is not orientated, but lies NE-SW due to the sloping site; in this report conventional E-W directions are used for buildings.

The first stone church for which there is evidence is thought to date from the late 1130s; it was a cruciform building with an aisleless nave. The structure was simple but sophisticated, having rubble walls inside and out, but possibly coloured glass and a shingled roof (Coppack et al. 1995, 131).

Around 1160-70 that first church was altered, starting from the east; the extended presbytery of this second church was itself replaced in the 13thc. The presbytery ‘appears to have had elaborate wall arcades which can be paralleled in Archbishop Roger of Pont l’Éveque’s choir at York Minster’ (Coppack et al. 1995, 66; figs. 3, 4) and, perhaps one could add, at Bolton Priory. The crossing tower was given thicker piers; it is likely to have been a lantern tower, as at Fountains in the 1150s and Byland in the 1170s (Coppack et al. 1995, 132). Westward of the presbytery, transepts and nave were rebuilt on the original plan. The S wall of the nave and the W wall of the S transept remain, thickened on their inner faces to take a more elaborate superstructure; the N wall of the nave was rebuilt. The nave remained without aisles. It is thought that an axial W tower was made on the nave.

Early published plans (Peers 1985, 6-7; Pevsner & Neave 1995, 588) show a pair of towers flanking the W end of the nave, ‘[west], as it were, of non-existent aisles’, but latterly it has been recognised that no evidence has been found for a NW tower, and it is now thought that there was one central W tower at the end of the nave (Coppack et al. 1995, 69; fig. 2; Harrison 2003, 18 and 28-9). See Comments.

The following parts of the church are given a 12thc date: N and S transepts; the first and second crossing and the nave.

Other parts of the priory outside the church having 12thc remains are dealt with in three further reports, these parts are:

Undefined areas S of the S transept: these areas may include remains of an early phase chapter house and later phase inner parlour. The string course seen on the S wall of the S transept is interpreted as an interior string course relevant to these areas. Also illustrated in this report is a blocked doorway with a plain lintel but no sculpture or mouldings; this is in an early length of walling between the dormitory and the refectory blocks, SE of the cloister, on the E side.

Refectory doorway: some phased plans do not distinguish this delightful Romanesque doorway reused on the late 13thc S wall of the cloister.

Outer parlour: a large upstanding structure adjacent to the W end of the church.


Almost certainly there was a church here from the late Anglo-Saxon period, and there was one in the 12thc predating the priory (Coppack et al. 1995, 55; VCH Yorkshire III, 219). The priory was founded by Walter l’Espec in 1122, and his uncle William, rector of Garton-on-the-Wolds and a canon of Nostell, became the first prior. Among properties given were the churches of Kirkham itself, Helmsley, Garton and Kirby Grindalythe in the East Riding, 20 carucates of land, and a house in York belonging to the founder (VCH III, 219). It has been suggested that there may have been 26 canons (Harrison 2003, 18); there were 17 canons and a prior at the Dissolution.

In 1132 Waltheof (Waldef) became the third prior. About 1135/39, and perhaps encouraged by both Walter l’Espec and Waltheof, there arose a plan for the community to become Cistercian or, since some demurred, for them to leave and let the Cistercian party take over Kirkham. The continuing canons would have had another establishment provided for them at Linton-on-Ouse, and a surviving agreement states that they would have taken their coloured glass windows and other movables. For details of the requirements of the canons for this new site (Burton 1995, 6-11). Their stipulations for what would be required in their new church - buildings of squared stone with shingle roof to the church and reeds (thatch) elsewhere – may equate to what they had left at Kirkham. The plan was never acted upon and the community remained Augustinian to the Dissolution.

Harrison (2003, 21) says: ‘the daily routine [of the Augustinians] was not quite as rigorous as that of the Cistercians or Benedictines, and some of the canons were expected to serve as priests at churches held by the priory. These canons thus obtained a break from the monotony of monastic life though the majority of the churches held by the priory were served by vicars, in return for a regular fee or stipend.’ Sculpture at Helmsley and especially at Garton-on-the-Wolds suggests that at least some canons in the mid 12thc were actively concerned with parish duties. The churches at Garton and Kirby Grindalythe are described as minsters in the foundation document; Helmsley also had a carucate of land with it, and was perhaps something similar. As Janet Burton notes (1995, 3) such churches might have been expected to be served by canons from Kirkham. After the Dissolution, there are records of bequests between members of the community (Harrison 2003, 24; Burton 1995, 26-7; Cross 1993, 40-41, 46).


Exterior Features


Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches

Loose Sculpture


Hildenley limestone was used in 1180s ‘for church and tower’ – presumably the resurfaced nave and the parlour are meant, and the refectory doorway. The quarries are about 3½ miles away. The W front at the Gilbertine Old Malton Priory also used this stone about this time. (Senior 1990). Much other stone is oolitic and presumably obtained from the exposed rocks of the Derwent gorge.

The 1978-84 excavations gave knowledge of the early development of the church, and a 12thc gatehouse was identified. A ceramic water main of later 12thc date was found (Coppack et al. 1995, 97, 99; pls. XIIA and B; Fig. 13)

E doorway from cloister to nave, or the ‘E processional door of the first church… has paired attached shafts with a prominent arris between. The bases are tall and undeveloped, indicating a date towards 1140’ (Coppack et al. 1995, 63-5; pl. XIA).

The W end of the church

Surviving structures show that there cannot have been a W doorway into the church (Coppack et al. 1995, 69). The W end of the church is not a conventional one and its liturgical or pastoral functions, inside or out, are not clear. It used to be thought that the extensive foundation walls preserved at the W end of the church together with the outer parlour represented a pair of ‘W towers of which the S one remains… the towers stood outside the nave, or due W, as it were, on non-existent aisles, and there was between them a vestibule reached by steps from the W.’ (Pevsner & Neave, 1995, 587, following the suggestion by Sir Charles Peers). Recent work suggests there was a single axial tower at the W end of the nave, that this had a large E arch open to the nave, and that the outer parlour was added to the side of this tower when the W claustral range was rebuilt at a later date (Coppack et al. 1995). The English Heritage guide (Harrison 2003, 4), describes a recess on the W side of the W tower, and this is shown in a representation of the priory at the time of the Dissolution which is mounted at the site. No evidence has been found of a W doorway, and the main entrance for parishioners is assumed to be that on the N side of the nave, where ‘the very lowest part of it still survives’ (Harrison 2003, 5).

While this structure at the W end of the nave gains some of its oddity from the constraints of the site, it must also have been functional in liturgical terms. A font is mentioned in the 15thc, and presumably in the 12thc baptisms took place in the parishioners’ part of the church. Given the layout of the aisleless nave, baptisms probably took place under the arch at the W end of the nave, which brings to mind the possibility of the use of W towers in this way at Etton, Nunburnholme and Hotham in this Riding. The unusual elaboration of the inner face of the doorway into the cloister at the W end of the nave may be involved too. The use of the exterior recess in the W tower is uncertain. The entrance under a large arch recalls the (later) W entrance to Bolton Priory church: is it possible that a doorway might have existed here but has not been recognised? With or without a door, the W arch and the space in front of it overlooking the slope towards the river would have made a platform from which to preach to a crowd on special occasions.


Janet E. Burton, Kirkham Priory from Foundation to Dissolution (Borthwick Paper no. 86), York 1995.

G. Coppack, S. Harrison and C. Hayfield, 'Kirkham Priory: the architecture and archaeology of an Augustinian house', Journal of the British Archaeological Association, CXLVIII (1995), 55-136.

C. Cross, The End of Medieval Monasticism in the East Riding of Yorkshire (East Yorkshire Local History Series, 47), 1993.

J. P. Greene, Norton Priory; the archaeology of a medieval religious house, Cambridge 1989.

S. Harrison, Kirkham Priory, North Yorkshire, London 2003.

C. Peers, Kirkham Priory, HMSO 1980.

N. Pevsner and D. Neave, Yorkshire: York and the East Riding, 2nd edition, London, 1995.

J. R. Senior, 'Hildenley Limestone: a fine quality dimensional and artifact [sic] stone from Yorkshire', In Stone: Quarrying and Building in England, AD 43-1525, ed. D. Parsons, Chichester 1990, 146-168.

Victoria County History: Yorkshire, II (General volume, including Domesday Book) 1912, reprinted 1974.

Victoria County History: Yorkshire, III (Ecclesiastical History; Religious Houses; Political History; Social and Economic History) 1913, reprinted 1974.