GUISBOROUGH AND THE SKELTON VALLEY
Although a mere fragment of the Augustinian Priory of Guisborough is standing to-day, it is sufficiently imposing to convey a powerful impression of the former size and magnificence of the monastic church. This fragment is the gracefully buttressed east end of the choir, which rises from the level meadow-land to the east of the town. The stonework is now of a greenish-gray tone, but in the shadows there is generally a look of blue. Beyond the ruin and through the opening of the great east window, now bare of tracery, you see the purple moors, with the ever-formidable Roseberry Topping holding its head above the green woods and pastures.
The destruction of the priory took place most probably during the reign of Henry VIII., but there are no recorded facts to give the date of the spoiling of the stately buildings. The materials were probably sold to the highest bidder, for in the town of Guisborough there are scattered many fragments of richly-carved stone, and Ord, one of the historians of Cleveland, says: 'I have beheld with sorrow, and shame, and indignation, the richly ornamented columns and carved architraves of God's temple supporting the thatch of a pig-house.'
The Norman priory church, founded in 1119, by the wealthy Robert de Brus of Skelton, was, unfortunately, burnt down on May 16, 1289. Walter of Hemingburgh, a canon of Guisborough, has written a quaintly detailed account of the origin of the fire. Translated from the monkish Latin, he says: 'On the first day of rogation-week, a devouring flame consumed our church of Gysburn, with many theological books and nine costly chalices, as well as vestments and sumptuous images; and because past events are serviceable as a guide to future inquiries, I have thought it desirable, in the present little treatise, to give an account of the catastrophe, that accidents of a similar nature may be avoided through this calamity allotted to us. On the day above mentioned, which was very destructive to us, a vile plumber, with his two workmen, burnt our church whilst soldering up two holes in the old lead with fresh pewter. For some days he had already, with a wicked disposition, commenced, and placed his iron crucibles, along with charcoal and fire, on rubbish, or steps of a great height, upon dry wood with some turf and other combustibles. About noon (in the cross, in the body of the church, where he remained at his work until after Mass) he descended before the procession of the convent, thinking that the fire had been put out by his workmen. They, however, came down quickly after him, without having completely extinguished the fire; and the fire among the charcoal revived, and partly from the heat of the iron, and partly from the sparks of the charcoal, the fire spread itself to the wood and other combustibles beneath. After the fire was thus commenced, the lead melted, and the joists upon the beams ignited; and then the fire increased prodigiously, and consumed everything.' Hemingburgh concludes by saying that all that they could get from the culprits was the exclamation, 'Quid potui ego?' Shortly after this disaster the Prior and convent wrote to Edward II., excusing themselves from granting a corrody owing to their great losses through the burning of the monastery, as well as the destruction of their property by the Scots. But Guisborough, next to Fountains, was almost the richest establishment in Yorkshire, and thus in a few years' time there arose from the Norman foundations a stately church and convent built in the Early Decorated style.
Glimpses of the inner life of the priory are given in the Archbishop's registers at York, which show how close and searching were the visitations by the Archbishop in person or his commissioners, and one of the documents throws light on the sad necessity for these inspections. It deals with Archbishop Wickwaine's visit in 1280, and we find that the canons are censured for many short-comings. They were not to go outside the cloister after compline (the last service of the day) on the pretext of visiting guests. They were not to keep expensive schools for rich or poor, unless with special sanction. They were to turn out of the infirmary and punish the persons lying there who were only pretending to be ill, and the really sick were to be more kindly treated. There had evidently been discrimination in the quality of food served out to certain persons in the frater; but this was to be stopped, and food of one kind was to be divided equally. A more strict silence was to be kept in the cloister, and no one was to refrain from joining in the praises of God whilst in the choir. There seems to have been much improper conversation among the canons, for they are specially adjured in Christ to abstain from repeating immoral stories. Some of the canons who had made themselves notorious for quarrelling and caballing were to be debarred from promotion, and were commended to the Prior and Subprior for punishment.
In 1309 Simon Constable, a refractory canon of Bridlington, was sent to Guisborough to undergo a course of penance, change of residence being always considered to give an excellent opportunity for thorough reform. However, in this case no good seems to have resulted, for about five years later he was sent back to Bridlington with a worse character than before, and, besides much prayer and humiliation, he was to receive a disciplina every Friday at the hands of the Prior. This made no improvement in his conduct, for in 1321 his behaviour brought him another penance and still greater severity. A few years after this the Archbishop seems to have reproached the community for the conduct of this unruly brother, which was scarcely fair. The last vision of Simon Constable shows him to be as impenitent as ever, and the Archbishop makes the awful threat that, if he does not reform at once, he will be put in a more confined place than he has ever been in before! Can this suggest that the wicked canon was to be bricked up alive?
These internal troubles were not, however, generally known to the outside world, but the unfaltering searchlight of the records falls upon such great folk as Peter de Mauley, fifth Baron Mulgrave, whose castle at Mulgrave, near Whitby, is mentioned elsewhere; Lucy de Thweng, wife of Sir William le Latimer; Sir Nicholas de Meynyl; and Katherine, wife of Sir John Dentorp, whose conduct merely reflected the morals of medieval times. It was, indeed, no uncommon event for the congregation to hear some high-born culprit confessing his sins as he walked barefoot and scantily clothed in the procession in York Minster. An exceedingly beautiful crucifix of copper, richly gilded, was discovered during the early part of last century, when some men were digging amongst the foundations of an old building in Commondale. There seems little doubt that this was a cell or chapel belonging to the monastery, for the crucifix bears the date 1119, the year of the founding of Guisborough Priory. Another metal crucifix, probably belonging to the thirteenth century, was discovered at Ingleby Arncliffe. It was beautifully inlaid with brilliant white, green, red, and blue enamels, and the figure of Christ was discovered to be hollow, and to contain two ancient parchments, written in monkish Latin and scarcely legible. One of them was a charm, addressed to 'ye elves, and demons and all kind of apparition,' who were called upon in the name of the Trinity, the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, Martyrs, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, and the elect generally, to 'hurt not this servant of God, Adam Osanna, by night nor by day, but that, through the very great mercy of God Jesus Christ, by the help of Saint Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, he may rest in peace from all the aforesaid and other evils.'
Another intensely interesting relic of the great priory is the altar-tomb, believed to be that of Robert de Brus of Annandale. The stone slabs are now built into the walls on each side of the porch of Guisborough Church. They may have been removed there from the abbey for safety at the time of the dissolution. Hemingburgh, in his chronicle for the year 1294, says: 'Robert de Brus the fourth died on the eve of Good Friday; who disputed with John de Balliol, before the King of England, about the succession to the kingdom of Scotland. And, as he ordered when alive, he was buried in the priory of Gysburn with great honour, beside his own father.' A great number of other famous people were buried here in accordance with their wills. Guisborough has even been claimed as the resting-place of Robert Bruce, the champion of Scottish freedom, but there is ample evidence for believing that his heart was buried at Melrose Abbey and his body in the church of Dunfermline.
The memory of Mr. George Venables—that most excellent man who devoted many years to gathering funds for a charity school in the town—is preserved on a monument in the church. He had retired from business, but, in order to find the means to start the school, he resumed his labours in London, and devoted the whole of the profits to this useful object.
The central portion of the town of Guisborough, by the market-cross and the two chief inns, is quaint and fairly picturesque, but the long street as it goes westward deteriorates into rows of new cottages, inevitable in a mining country.
Mining operations have been carried on around Guisborough since the time of Queen Elizabeth, for the discovery of alum dates from that period, and when that industry gradually declined, it was replaced by the iron-mines of to-day. Mr. Thomas Chaloner of Guisborough, in his travels on the Continent about the end of the sixteenth century, saw the Pope's alum-works near Rome, and was determined to start the industry in his native parish of Guisborough, feeling certain that alum could be worked with profit in his own county. As it was essential to have one or two men who were thoroughly versed in the processes of the manufacture, Mr. Chaloner induced some of the Pope's workmen by heavy bribes to come to England. The risks attending this overt act were terrible, for the alum-works brought in a large revenue to His Holiness, and the discovery of such a design would have meant capital punishment to the offender. The workmen were therefore induced to get into large casks, which were secretly conveyed on board a ship that was shortly sailing for England.
When the Pope received the intelligence some time afterwards, he thundered forth against Mr. Chaloner and the workmen the most awful and comprehensive curse. They were to be cursed most wholly and thoroughly in every part of their bodies, every saint was to curse them, and from the thresholds of the holy church of God Almighty they were to be sequestered, that they might 'be tormented, disposed of, and delivered over with Dathan and Abiram, and with those who say unto the Lord God, "Depart from us; we desire not to know Thy ways."'
Despite the fearful nature of the curse, the venture prospered so much that the Darcy family, about the year 1600, set up another works in the neighbourhood of Guisborough; and as this also brought considerable wealth to the owners, a third was started at Sandsend in 1615. Many others followed, and in 1649 Sir Hugh Cholmley started the works close to Saltwick Nab, within a short distance of his house at Whitby. But although there must have been more than twenty of these works in operation in the eighteenth century, owing to cheaper methods of producing alum the industry is now quite extinct in Cleveland.
The broad valley stretching from Guisborough to the sea contains the beautifully wooded park of Skelton Castle. The trees in great masses cover the gentle slopes on either side of the Skelton Beck, and almost hide the modern mansion. The buildings include part of the ancient castle of the Bruces, who were Lords of Skelton for many years. It is recorded that Peter de Brus, one of the barons who helped to coerce John into signing the Great Charter at Runnymede, made a curious stipulation when he granted some lands at Leconfield to Henry Percy, his sister's husband. The property was to be held on condition that every Christmas Day he and his heirs should come to Skelton Castle and lead the lady by the arm from her chamber to the chapel.
The old church of Upleatham, standing by the road to Saltburn, is a quaint fragment of a Norman building. The tower, bearing the inscription 'William Crow, Chvrchwarden Bvlded Stepel—1664,' is an addition to what is probably only part of the nave of the little Norman building. It is now used merely as a cemetery chapel, but it is picturesquely situated, and on the north wall the carved Norman corbels may still be seen.