At first sight, Mount Grace Priory looks more like a Jacobean house than a medieval monastery. You approach a grand façade with a formal stepped garden complete with pond and sculpted bushes. But walk through the house and you will find the most complete Carthusian priory in England. A ruined church, a grassy cloister and the remains of twenty four monastic cells, all with a spectacular backdrop of hills.
A Carthusian Priory
Mount Grace Priory was built in 1398. It was a wealthy foundation with a church, cloisters and 25 monastic cells, set in the wooded landscape of the North York Moors. But it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539 and the monastery fell into ruins.
In fact, my first impression of Mount Grace was not entirely wrong. The Priory had a separate house for visitors and after the dissolution a manor house was built around the remains of the guesthouse. In the early 20th century it was converted into an Arts and Crafts country house, and today it is an exhibition centre showcasing the Arts and Crafts Movement and the earlier monastic life.
But for many modern visitors it is a day out in the countryside. In the summer people sunbathe on the grass and families picnic in the grounds. And children love to run around the ruins.
The Monastic Life at Mount Grace
For me the most interesting thing was the monastic cells, where the monks once lived in solitary confinement, only coming together for religious services. They gave a fascinating insight into the lives of the monks. Each cell was in effect a small private monastery, with living room, bedroom (with chapel) and workroom, walled garden and a small cloister for meditation. Monks tended to come from wealtlhy families, or to have benefactors, and you can see the remains of heraldic shields above many of the doors.
One of the cells has been reconstructed so that you can see how the monks would have lived. Their time would have been divided between prayer and meditation, work (most monks had a trade, perhaps weaving or writing manuscripts) and labouring in the garden (manual work purified the soul). Each cell had a small hatch by the door for meals to be passed to them at regular intervals.
It was considered a privation to be a monk, a way of preparing oneself for the next life. But by the standards of the Middle Ages the monks were well off, with regular meals and a safe place to live. Mount Grace even had an advanced level of plumbing, providing drinking water and water to flush the latrines, a luxury that would have been unknown to most of their contemporaries. As I wandered around the cells, read about their daily routine, and looked up at the surrounding hills, I reflected that, rather than being deprived, the monks of Mount Grace must have had a rather enviable life.
Visiting Mount Grace Priory: Some Practicalities
- Mount Grace Priory is six miles from Northallerton in North Yorkshire. The easiest way to visit is by car.
- Entrance is free to members of the National Trust or English Heritage. Overseas visitors can buy an English Heritage Visitor Pass allowing access to a selection of EH properties for a limited period.
- The Priory has a shop and a picnic area. There are several pubs nearby where you can buy a meal.