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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 9, Number 3, September 2015

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Claire Everett
Northallerton, North Yorkshire, England


Byland Abbey
North Yorkshire

cloud shadows
skirt the lay-brothers’ quire . . .
without the scribe
what would it be,
this temporal life?

It was scenes like this that persuaded Thomas Girtin to abandon his usual palette in favour of indigo, purple, warm browns, slate greys. Here stands Byland Abbey, etched in ink, awash with the greenish grisaille-glass light of a late spring day. Soon enough, autumn, that richest of patrons, will add the full spectrum of her stain.

black leading,
ruby, sapphire, quartz . . .
a flight of swallows
through the ghost roundel
of the rose window

Turned away at Furness, the first monks came on foot, with little more than their cowls and habits, a small library of books, a cart and some oxen. Pitied by a noblewoman and housed awhile with a hermit at Hood, the expanding colony eventually ventured on to the village of Old Byland, ousting the locals from their church and lands and thwarting their Cistercian neighbours’ plans to extend their holdings south of the Rye.

soon at odds
with the white monks of Rievaulx
across the moor
bells of church and abbey
in counterpoint

So then to Stocking where they remained some thirty years while, stone upon stone, their own abbey prepared to receive them.

All Saints’ Eve
in the year of our Lord
1177
here may they remain
prosperously forever

And would that it were so, but time is what it is: by turns, merciless and benevolent. While the choir swelled to four-score monks in the mid-thirteenth century, once the Black Death had done its worst, those voices numbered eleven. Now safely in the bosom of the Cistercian family, the abbey prospered from its sizeable sheep flock, supplying dapple-grey palfries to kings and wool to the merchants of Italy and Flanders. Such is the weave of Byland’s history, snagged or threadbare here, wrought with colour there, offering glimpses of the yarns as they passed through the hands of its makers.

the Chapterhouse
echoes with tales
of a restless soul
whose dread casket was dug out
and cast into Gormyre Lake

the monk Wimund
fisher-turned-hunter of men
had he only
a sparrow’s eye, he would
see himself avenged

Not merely houses of God these ‘lights of the North’ were now counting houses for the Crusades, refuge for cowardly kings.

the Scots
are marching on the Wolds!
in Rievaulx
a half-eaten supper
on a silver platter

But ultimately such loyalty was not rewarded. In the winter of 1535, Byland received a visitation from the notorious royal commissioners, Layton and Legh, and three years later the Abbot, his prior, and the two dozen remaining monks assembled in the Chapterhouse one last time to quietly surrender the abbey and all its property to the Crown. The commissioners wrote to Henry VIII, reassuring him that the religious houses of the North had been gracefully relinquished without “murmur or grudges in any behalf.”

each day
after the Collation
bowing in greeting
for like the sun, moon and stars
His door is in the east

the silent Cloister—
prayer and meditation
between ablutions
parchment and laundry
laid out to dry

the Warming Room
perfect for boot grease,
and scripture inks,
for the mason, sketching . . .
and the letting of blood

fully clothed
on his mattress of straw
each brother alert
for the peal of night Vigils . . .
the footfall of the Lord


Author’s Notes: Thomas Girtin (18 February 1775 – 9 November 1802) an English painter and etcher. A friend and rival of J. M. W. Turner.

By the close of the 12th century Byland was regarded as one of three 'lights of the North', Fountains and Rievaulx being the others. The Abbey cloisters were among the largest in Europe and the magnificent rose window reportedly inspired that of York Minster.

quire: traditional Monastic spelling of ‘choir’, also four sheets of paper or parchment folded to form eight leaves, as in medieval manuscripts/or one twentieth of a ream.

The restless soul was alleged to be that of one James Tankerlay, a former rector of Kereby, who was buried at Byland. One evening his wandering spirit is reported to have gouged out the eye of his concubine in nearby Kereby.

Wimund, the former bishop of the Isle of Man, is said to have become a seafaring warlord sometime in the years after 1147. He retired to Byland after he had been blinded and castrated by his Scottish foes.

The Battle of Byland was fought against the invading Scots on Blackhow Moor, north of Byland. It was the most significant Scottish victory since Bannockburn. In October 1322, the Earl of Richmond was captured by the Scots, and on hearing news of this, King Edward II (1307-1327), fled from his refuge at Rievaulx Abbey, leaving behind him the royal plate. The Scots went on to raid the monastery. Some years later, Byland was granted permission to appropriate the church at Rillington, as recompense for the damage they had suffered at the hands of the Scots.

Little is known of the fate of Byland’s library, but there is evidence to suggest that more than forty years after the Dissolution, the vicar of Driffield was taking pains to safeguard the monastic books.

Henry VIII granted Byland to Sir William Pickering, and over the ensuing centuries it passed through generations of the Wotton, Stapylton, and Wombwell families. It is now in the care of English Heritage.

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