Timeline | Monasticism

The word "monk" derives from a Greek word meaning "alone". 

People have sought religious enlightenment throughout recorded history and the first monks lived isolated lives.  By the middle of the 4th century however they were beginning to live in small organised communities, with other, non-religious or "lay" people assisting with the day to day chores so that the monks could concentrate on their spiritual duties.

Small religious communities flourished throughout Europe following carefully planned routines of prayer, work and study based on the Rule of St Benedict (c.480-550).  Monks were required to make a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience, and all property was held in common.   Different religious orders developed over time, with slightly different approaches to life, but the basic principle remains the same to this day.  

Monastery   - general term meaning a building occupied by a community of monks

Abbey  - a monastery governed by an abbot – the appointed head of the community who does not have to refer to a bishop or other authority in making any decisions / also a church which was formerly part of a monastery

Priory   -  group of monks or nuns governed by a prior  (second in rank to an abbot) - dependent on the parent house of the order

As well as religious centres,  monasteries became the focus of learning, scholarship and historical record keeping.  Many of them offered accommodation for travellers.  Some of them were dedicated to looking after the poor and sick, especially elderly people.  Most had extensive farm lands and other small industries, intended to make them self-sufficient but also incidentally creating sometimes substantial incomes and much local employment.

The present church at Ellerton is on the site of the original priory church which formed part of the Gilbertine Priory, founded there in about 1203, principally to care for 13 poor, elderly men.

Monasticism in North Yorkshire – a selection of religious foundations

  657   Whitby Abbey – Benedictine
1055   St Mary's Abbey York – Benedictine
1089   Holy Trinity Priory York – Benedictine
1119   Gisborough Priory – Augustinian
1120   Kirkham Priory – Augustinian
1132   Fountains Abbey – Cistercian
1132   Rievaulx Abbey - Cistercian
1135   Byland Abbey – Savignac/Cistercian
1150   Malton Priory - Gilbertine
1150   Watton Priory – Gilbertine

1151   Bolton Abbey - Augustinian
1152   Easby Abbey - Premonstratensian
1156   Jervaulx Abbey - Cavignac/cistercian
1158   Rosedale Abbey - Cistercian
1190   Coverham Abbey - Premonstratensian
1203   Ellerton Priory - Gilbertine
1398   Mount Grace Priory – Carthusian

These foundations mainly date from the Norman conquest, when  a major programme of building saw the founding of many new monasteries and the rebuilding of many older ones which had been ravaged by the Vikings in earlier centuries.  Expansion and development continued over the next few hundred years to a greater or lesser extent until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII in 1536-1540.

Religious communities had always been subject to harassment by the Crown, partly on account of the wealth which they accumulated and partly because they owed allegiance to the Pope above the King.  When Henry VIII had himself declared Supreme Head of the Church in England in 1531 he finally had the freedom to clamp down completely.  On the pretext of sorting out monasteries which had become lax, ill disciplined or had fallen into poverty, he started a programme of closure.  The monks and nuns were offered re-location or a payment to return to ordinary society and the buildings, contents and lands were taken by the Crown.  Resistance was treated as treason and executions followed. 

Popular discontent with this whole process, and with the gradual erosion of Catholic traditions and practices, led to the Pilgrimage of Grace, an uprising of the common people which started in York in 1536, led by Robert Aske, a London barrister from Aughton, the next parish to Ellerton.  Initially about 9,000 strong, the rising had attracted 30 – 40,000 people by the time the King's negotiators met them at Doncaster.  The King promised a general pardon and a parliament to be held in York, and the people dispersed.

The King failed to keep his promise and another uprising started in Cumbria and Westmoreland, which Robert Aske tried to prevent, however he was arrested, convicted of treason and executed with the other leaders of the movement, lords, knights, monks, abbots and priests – 216 in total.

By 1540 the monasteries had gone.  Worship continued in parish churches and collegiate churches but the great monastic buildings were made uninhabitable and fell into ruin, the stone usually being re-used.  The major losses however were the destruction or dispersal of the great libraries, the religious hospitals, the care of the sick, elderly and the poor, the massive loss of employment on the monastic farms etc. and the focal point of many hundreds of communities. 

For more on the Pilgrimage of Grace please click on the Pdfs below for talks given at Aughton church by Phil Thomas

Pdf      talk given in 2002       Pdf   talk given in 2008

Alreton / Elreton / Ellerton

Founded about 1203 by canons of St Gilbert of Sempringham
1536 – Pilgrimage of Grace
1538 – dissolution of Ellerton Priory  - part of the priory church was adopted as the parish church.
1811 – Methodist chapel built in Ellerton, drawing some worshippers away from the church
1846  - Ellerton Priory Church was about to collapse due to neglect
1846 – John Loughborough Pearson was appointed to build a new church on the same site
1970's – Ellerton Church declared redundant
1996 – Ellerton Church Preservation Trust established
1997 – restoration work begins  -  for a rundown on the restoration work carried out to date please click on the Pdf below