Pilgrimage to Easby Abbey

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Sowing the Seed (c) John Bainbridge 2019

It’s not a long walk from the Yorkshire town of Richmond to the ruins of Easby Abbey, but you do go back a long way into medieval history. And there’s some fine scenery along the River Swale along the journey. Not to mention the chance of seeing some particularly fine medieval wall paintings in the church at Easby.

The town of Richmond is a wonderful place to just stroll around, with one of the best castles in England – I mentioned it in my blog of September 27th last year. I won’t say much about Richmond here, as I intend to describe a town walk in the near future, but enough to say it’s worth a visit.

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The Drummer Boy’s Stone (c) John Bainbridge 2019

 

 

We walked down to the River Swale and took the path to Easby. Not far along the way is the Drummer Boy Stone. Legend has it that towards the end of the 18th century soldiers in Richmond Castle discovered a tunnel under the keep. As it was very tiny, they selected a drummer boy to explore its depths, telling him to keep drumming as he walked, so that they could track his progress by following him above ground.

After half a mile, in Easby Wood, they heard no more drumming and the drummer boy was never seen again. The stone marks the place where the drumming ceased. Is it true? Who knows?

A footpath leads on to the ruins of Easby Abbey. The Abbey of St Agatha, is a Premonstratensian house right on the banks of the Swale. founded in 1152 by Roald, Constable of Richmond Castle. The white canons must have led a very quiet life here in general, though there were interruptions to the tranquillity. An English army camped on their way north to the Battle of Neville’s Cross and caused a great deal of damage.

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St Agatha’s Church and the Abbey (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Unfortunately for the canons, they opposed Henry VIII during the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1537. The vengeful king instructed the duke of Norfolk who was leading the royal army to crush the rebels to “at your repair to … St Agatha and such other places as have made resistance … you shall without pity or circumstance … cause the monks to be tied up [hanged] without further delay.”

It’s unclear whether the canons were so executed or not, but their resistance did strengthen Henry’s hand during the suppresion of the monasteries. The possession of the monastery was handed back to the Scrope family of Castle Bolton and by 1539, the abbey had already had the lead stripped from the roof.

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The Abbey (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Even so, this romantic ruin gives a good idea of the layout of the abbey and monastery. Turner painted it (he seems to have gone everywhere!) and there’s still a lot to see.

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Easby Abbey and Monastery (c) John Bainbridge 2019

The parish church of St Agatha, once part of the religious complex, and almost certainly pre-dating the abbey, remains as a place of worship. A modest church building, it retains some quite excellent wall paintings, dating back to around 1250. Very well worth making the journey to see. They were rediscovered during the Victorian restoration of the church, having been covered up during the Reformation.

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Adam and Eve (c) John Bainbridge 2019

They were, of course, probably never intended to be permanent, and might have been replaced from time to time by journeyman painters. They were an instruction to probably illiterate worshippers of the Christian message.

The wall paintings show the birth of Christ and the resurrection, the Annunciation, the fall of Adam and Eve and expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

But the paintings that get to you the most are those illustrating early medieval life. There’s a gentlemen out hawking, labouring peasants back-breakingly digging the land.

My favourite is the painting of a labourer sowing seed, watched by a hungry crow even as he scatters the seed.

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Arrow Scratches? (c) John Bainbridge 2019   

It’s like time-travel, you are looking back almost through a window at the medieval world. You could study these paintings a thousand times and always find something new. It was hard to tear ourselves away.

But as you leave, on the side of the church door, are some very clear scratch marks. I may be wrong, but I suspect they were made by medieval archers sharpening their arrow heads.

We crossed the Swale and followed the course of the disused railway line back to Richmond, enjoying the walk but rather mourning the fact that Dr Beeching scrapped the railway line – a source of regret, though the old station has been imaginatively transformed into a rather pleasant community centre, complete with cafe and cinema.

You wonder what the Richmond drummer boy, the white canons and the journeyman painter of the medieval wall painters would have made of that?

 

 

 

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Author: John Bainbridge

Rambler, hillwalker, stravaiger and trespasser, access campaigner. Novelist writing historical and period crime fiction.

5 thoughts on “Pilgrimage to Easby Abbey”

  1. We Americans like to envy all of those marvelous ruins… Yet I daresay we overlook our own. It is as though we are determined to dismiss and overlook anything not new, preferring to think our nation so newly minted that what we have as ruins are instead “blight” and just “old or outdated”… Yet one has only to look at an economically aged city like Detroit to see the marvels of an “earlier” grand age of architecture…At out-of-the-way places built by lovelorn suitors whose loves never came West, at our various attempts to find our own historical and architectural identity via presidential homes or abandoned downtowns and castles made of printing plates– even those kitschy 1950’s roadside motels… We have historical places; but like you, we must take the time to stop and SEE them. And preserve them. Before it’s too late, replaced by something with sharp angles and no soul.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderful walk, John. And the church of St Agatha seems quite unique. I’ve never heard of medieval wall paintings that extensive and well preserved. Amazing. Another one for my list.

    Liked by 1 person

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