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St Mary and St Cuthbert, Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, West Riding

(53°59′1″N, 1°53′19″W)
Bolton Abbey
SE 074 542
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, West Riding
now North Yorkshire
  • Rita Wood
24 September 2009, 31 October 2009, 22 March 2015, 18 and 25 September 2016

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Bolton Abbey is a small village about six miles E of Skipton and the same distance NW of Ilkley; the parish church preserves the nave of an Augustinian priory church. The priory was situated at the edge of wild country, where the river Wharfe runs out of a gorge onto a plain open to the S: the aspect is bright and sheltered.

The parish church was formed from the mainly Gothic nave of the cruciform priory church, its E wall being the blocked W arch of the crossing. The remains of interest to the Corpus in the parish church comprise those capitals of the W crossing arch which remain visible; the lower parts of the S wall of the nave with two doorways into the cloister, and an altar slab. The ruins outside the parish church are maintained by the Bolton Abbey Estate and there is open access except to the interior of the E arm which is restricted by low fences. The Romanesque sculpture in the ruins is on the blank arcades in the E arm, the piers of the crossing, and the blank arcading on the N wall of the cloister; a few bases remain of other buildings.


The Domesday Survey records that the large manor of 'Bodeltone' was held by Earl Edwin in 1066 and included 77 carucates; in 1086 it was held by the king. Around 1090 it was granted to Robert de Romille.

The priory was founded in 1120-1 at Embsay, NE of Skipton, on a site also at the margin of hill and lowland, but more exposed. The place is now occupied by the house called Embsay Kirk [Leach and Pevsner (2009), 246]. The foundation charter records the gift for a church of regular canons made by William Meschin and his wife Cecilia de Romile to Reynold, prior of the church of Holy Trinity at Skipton, along with the chapel of Carleton and the whole vill of Embsay. The community moved to Bolton c.1151 under the patronage of Alicia de Romilly, daughter of the founders: VCH II, 195; Burton (1999), 80-3. Richard Morris, in a lecture at the church in 2015, said that the unusual dedication may have come about through a family link to Durham priory: Ranulph Meschin, elder brother of William, was on the prayer list of the monks there.

To begin with, the canons seem to have made or taken over a church represented by the rougher walling in the W 2½ bays of the E arm. Around 1170-80 that building was extended eastward or was repaired: the crossing-piers were built and N and S transepts added with chapels on their E side, and the two plain archways were cut through the old walls. The S and N walls of the nave must have been begun at this time too, to support the crossing piers [Thompson (1928), 131]. The S nave wall would have been raised sufficiently to enable the cloister walls to be built around 1190 [Thompson (1928), 131-2]. The nave dates from 1240. The W tower to the nave was never completed.

After the Dissolution, the laity kept the nave of the church. The village is mostly, if not entirely, part of the Bolton Abbey Estate.


Exterior Features



Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches



Vaulting/Roof Supports


Interior Decoration

Blind arcades


Piscinae/Pillar Piscinae



Cloister blank arcading

According to Alexander Hamilton Thompson (1928), 131-2, the blank arcading in the cloister dates to c.1190. He notes that the variations in the type of capital are not regularly distributed, and that this arcading is clearly later than that in the E arm, with a simplification of detail and the introduction of new influences: Thompson (1928), 147-8.

Stoup in blank arcade

Thompson (1928), 147, describes 'a recess for a holy-water stoup, with a remarkable projecting cup-shaped bowl, carved thickly with conventional foliage in low relief'. The foliage theme carries on in very similar form into the 13thc W doorway to the parish church, which has a motif on the keystone of similar kind but regularly ordered, and hollowed out behind (see Site Images). Thompson accepts the stoup along with the rest of the arcading on the cloister wall as of c.1190. If the head supporting the bowl of the stoup is a carving of a tonsured and clean-shaven Augustinian canon – and it could hardly be anything else – it might usefully be compared to other depictions of canons. There is a canon carved at Bridlington priory (East Yorkshire) on one of the capitals of the rebuilt cloister arcade, and another one at Melbourne (Derbyshire): see Wood (2006), pl. 7. These canons are both bearded; the one at Melbourne has a tonsure as well. According to Richard Gem the Melbourne carving dates to 1120s; the Bridlington carving is of the third quarter of the century according to Malcolm Thurlby. These comparisons may indicate that the carving under the stoup indicates that at Bolton by 1190 the community was well on the way to becoming fully monastic.

Crossing piers

It is accepted that the arches at the crossing cannot be earlier than mid-13thc. The piers of the E crossing arch have features earlier than those of the W arch. Thompson (1928), 142 says the E crossing piers date from c.1160, while the W crossing piers date to ‘several years’ later.

E doorway between cloister and nave, internal face

Several parts of the 2nd order look suspiciously like a rebuild using the two capitals and the two bases. The arch with angle roll must also be suspect. On this wall, Thompson (1928), 151, mentions a piscina and sedilia, but only the piscina was found by the fieldworker, and that is largely new work.

Archways in E arm at W end

These date to c.1170 and, according to Alexander Hamilton Thompson, served as 'upper entrances to the choir as then planned' - that is, the choir then extended under the crossing tower: Thompson (1928), 135-6, 138; they also communicated with the adjacent transept aisle.


J. Burton, The Monastic Order in Yorkshire 1069-1215, Cambridge 1999.

P. Leach and N. Pevsner, Yorkshire West Riding: Leeds, Bradford and the North, Yale 2009, 132-3.

K. Legg, Bolton Priory, its patrons and benefactors 1120-1293, York 2004.

J. E. Morris, The West Riding of Yorkshire, London 1923.

N. Pevsner, revised by E. Radcliffe, Yorkshire: West Riding. The Buildings of England, Harmondsworth 1967, 109-113.

S. E. Rigold, 'Bolton Priory', Programme of the Summer Meeting of the Royal Archaeological Institute, Leeds 1968, 25-27.

A. H. Thompson, History and Architectural Description of the Priory of St. Mary, Bolton-in-Wharfedale, with some Account of the Canons Regular of the Order of St. Augustine and their Houses in Yorkshire, Leeds 1928.

R. Wood, 'The Romanesque Church at Melbourne', Derbyshire Archaeological Journal, 126 (2006), 127-168.