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Yorkshire Mount Grace Priory, North Yorkshire

One of the best preserved Carthusian Priories in Europe

Mount Grace Priory is one of the best preserved Carthusian priories in Europe. It is a lovely site on the edge of the North York Moors nestling under steep wooded hillsides. The family of stoats living around the ruins became famous after featuring in a TV documentary in 2005 and many people still come just to watch them.

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The Carthusian Order was established in 1084 by St Bruno of Cologne who set up a new monastic order in Grande Chartreuse in the Haute Savoy in France. The communitywere based in Charterhouses and led a simple live as hermits away from the rest of the world.

Mount Grace Priory was founded in 1398 by Thomas de Holland, Duke of Surrey and a nephew of Richard II. It was a fairly small establishment with a prior and 23 monks.

After the death of Richard II, many of the priory lands were confiscated. Thomas Beaufort, Duke of Exeter and half brother to Henry IV decided to be buried at Mount Grace in 1429, paying for five additional monks to pray for him. The church was extended beyond the choir for his tomb. The monks continued to accept other burials and extended the church to accommodate them. They also obtained additional funding from saying obituary masses for those buried elsewhere. Even so, the priory was never as wealthy as the other major Yorkshire abbeys.

It was one of the last monasteries in Yorkshire to be dissolved and the monks received generous pensions. After the Dissolution, the guest house of the Priory became a manor house.

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This passed through a series of owners before being bought by the Bell family in 1898. They owned the house until 1953 when it was given to the National Trust in lieu of death duties. The priory ruins were placed in the guardianship of the state, eventually passing to English heritage.

The manor house has terraced gardens in front and contains the ticket office and a small shop. On the ground floor are two arts and crafts rooms, furnished as they might have been during the time the Bells lived there. The first is the entrance hall, with stone flag floor and oak panelling around the walls. The fireplace has an attractive tiled surround.

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Behind it is the sitting room with green patterned Morris wallpaper and tall ceiling.

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A lovely old wooden staircase with shallow treads leads up to the first floor. One room with Morris wallpaper is now a reading room for visitors with easy chairs and a selection of books about the Arts and Crafts movement. The other rooms contain an exhibition and information about monastic life. There is also a model showing what the priory would have looked like.

A doorway leads into the priory grounds which have the typical ground plan of a Carthusian Priory, with two enclosures, separated by the church, chapter house and accommodation for the prior and sacristan. The monk’s cells with their small gardens, were around the inner court, with the lay brother’s cells, guest house, kitchens and other outbuildings around a second smaller enclosure. The Prior was the only member of the religious community allowed access to the outer world.

The church and gatehouse were built first around 1400. This was followed by the cloister and the monk’s cells between 1425-50. More cells for lay brothers were added in the C16th along with the stables and guest house.

The church was small as the monks spent most of their time in their cells, only coming together in the chapel for night services and on Sundays and Feast Days. The monks used the east end of the church. The lay brothers who were responsible for running the domestic side of the priory, used the nave.

The Carthusians were a silent order and strict vegetarians. The monks lived as hermits and each had his own cell with a small garden attached where they worked, prayed and slept. Water was supplied by three springs on the hillside to a well house and then to the individual cells, kitchens and guest house. The Carthusians were very conscious of hygiene and sanitation and each cell was provided with a latrine.

The tall slender tower of the cruciform church still dominates the site.

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The pointed arches supporting the tower are still standing as is the north transept arch. The transepts and nave stand nearly to their full height. Only the foundation of the chancel are left with a few medieval tiles. Steps lead up to the position of the high altar. A modern carving of the Madonna of the Cross now stands where the high altar stood. The Virgin, with her arms forming the arms of a cross, is holding a baby. A sign explains she is “dedicating the Child to the purpose of the Creator”. The rest of the buildings are just foundations.

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The cloister was enclosed by a tall stone wall, still standing to its full height. Round the outside are the foundations of the monk’s cells. The drains can be seen in some of them.

In the north wall of the cloister is a reconstructed cell with its garden. The cells had a blank wall facing the cloister with a single doorway with the dog legged hole next to it, their only contact with the outside world.

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Inside is a screen passage with a step into the parlour designed to cut down on draughts round the feet. This has a small fireplace and a glazed window with shutters overlooking the garden. It is furnished with a table, chair, stool and a small cupboard.

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Off it are two smaller rooms separated by a wooden screen. At the front is the bedroom with a small four poster bed with hessian hangings, thin mattress and hessian covers. There is a chest and cupboard and a small glazed and shuttered window looking out to the wall of the adjacent cell.

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Behind is the study with a sloping writing desk and a big chest with a carved and painted front. Light comes through a glazed and shuttered window overlooking the gardens.

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Steep wooden stairs lead off the main room up to the workroom in the attics. This has a large trestle table, hand loom, spinning wheel and a large cupboard. It is lit by four small glazed windows.

A passageway to the left of the entrance door leads to a corridor with windows overlooking the garden.

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To the right, a roofed but open corridor runs along the side of the wall to a small latrine at the far end.

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Two water barrels collect rain water and there is the remains of the pipe supplying water in the wall.

The garden contains low, neatly trimmed box hedges surrounding a small herb gardens. Gooseberry and currant bushes are planted along the open corridor.

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Mount Grace is a delightful setting and makes a pleasant stop on the A19. There are picnic tables in the grounds, or there is a cafe on site. It is owned by the National Trust but operated by English Heritage. There is a refundable charge for the car park. The post code is DL6 3JG and the grid reference is SE 447985.
 
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