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Bolton Abbey Stepping Stones Astrophotography by Ben Bush

Creepy Canons?

Sunday 31 October, 2021, by Lily Mulvey

Happy Halloween!

The spookiest time of the year is fast approaching, so now is the perfect time to explore one of our most visited sites, Bolton Priory (Bolton Abbey)…and the spooky tale of the eerie ghost that’s said to roam across it.

Sunny day at Bolton Abbey Priory and stepping stones
The famous stepping stones at Bolton Abbey Estate ©Moira Smith

Monasteries were hugely important in medieval England. They functioned as centres of worship, learning, and charity, as well as landowners with immense political influence. They formed networks amongst each other in both urban and rural environments. Bolton Priory was one of around 700 monasteries established in England. It was founded in the mid-twelfth century by the Augustinian order on land gifted by Lady Alice de Romille of Skipton Castle.

The Augustinians (or ‘black canons’) were canons who followed the rule of St Augustine. They lived and worshipped at the priory, managing the vast estate and following a life of sharing, rather than poverty. Bolton Priory is now one of the only surviving Augustinian monasteries in the UK.

The nearby village is in all likelihood older than the priory itself. At the time of the Conquest the land formed part of the extensive possessions of the Earls of Mercia, but William the Conqueror gifted it (along with other manors) to the Norman baron Robert de Romille. In 1154 a group of Augustinian canons moved to the area from Embsay and the construction of the first buildings was begun. In fact, the remains that stand today retain impressive amounts of this early material.

Bolton Abbey landscape ©YDNPA

In the early 14th century the priory fell on hard times and the canons were forced to temporarily abandon it due to consistent Scottish raiding. However, abandonment did not last long. The priory recovered and in the later years of the century a programme of rebuilding of the church and some domestic buildings took place. 

But fortunes were again to change. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries the priory was seized by the Crown and sold to the Clifford family. At the time of the suppression building work was still ongoing, so part of the site stood ruinous and unfinished. The west tower stood unfinished for more than four more centuries, only to be roofed in 1984.

Luckily, the nave of the priory, which was in use as a parish church from 1170 onwards, was blocked off from the rest of the site and survived. The church still holds services today and so is excluded from the scheduling.

Image shows the ruins of the priory silhouetted against the setting sun.
The ruins of the priory at sunset ©Wiki Commons, subject to Creative Commons Licence

It could be said that the wider relationship of the priory with its landscape setting gives the site its greatest significance. In particular, the relationship of the priory ruins with the Church of St Mary within the surrounding landscape is a special experience for the visitor. This is a landscape which has seen many famous visitors and been the subject of multiple works of art. For example, Wordsworth, whose poem, “The White Doe of Rylstone” was inspired by a visit to Bolton Abbey in 1807, or Turner who visited three times – one of his many paintings of the priory in its landscape now hangs in the British Museum.

Bolton Abbey differs from other famous monasteries in the area (such as Rievaulx and Fountains, both Cistercian houses) due to its moorland (rather than garden) setting. Instead, a closely comparable site is Tintern Abbey (Wales). Both monasteries sit within a wider landscape setting which appealed to both Picturesque and Romantic tastes and both were painted by Turner and the inspiration for poetry by Wordsworth.

To read more about the intriguing landscape of the abbey estate, see the works of Stephen Moorhouse.

Image shows a hand drawn ground plan of the main priory building
A ground plan of Bolton Priory ©Wiki Commons, subject to Creative Commons Licence

Today Bolton Priory is visited by thousands of people every year. It is a much loved visitor attraction and has the legal protection of listing and scheduling. The site includes the standing ruins of the priory, which are Grade I listed, the precinct wall (part of which is Grade II listed), the remains of core monastic buildings (used for day-to-day running of the estate), a medieval tithe barn and the remains of a medieval reservoir. In all, the estate covers 30,000 acres of stunning landscape, which, thanks to the Rev. William Carr and the 6th Duke of Devonshire, is now accessible via a network of walks and resting spots.

A spooky tale

It has been reported that during early evening and at night the echoing sounds of footsteps can be heard around the rectory. These are thought to be the sounds of a phantom canon wandering his old home – a canon, rumour has it, who died shortly before the Dissolution. This eerie figure has been named the Black Canon, after the English nickname given to the followers of the Augustinian order. It is said that the soul of the Black Canon will haunt the buildings of the priory forever, unable to rest.

Image shows the remains of the priory from above
Aerial photo of the priory remains ©Wiki Commons, subject to Creative Commons Licence

If you do make it to the priory this half-term, be sure to let us know if you see any ghostly figures wandering around!

Bolton Abbey Website

Welcome to Yorkshire – Bolton Abbey

Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority – Bolton Abbey Estate

Out of Oblivion – Monastic houses

Out of Oblivion – Bolton Priory

Find out more:

Moorhouse, S, Bolton Priory’s Monastic Estate, (1992)
Watkins, P, Bolton Priory and its Church, (1989)

Picture of Lily Mulvey

Lily Mulvey

Lily is the Authority's Historic Environment Apprentice

One Reply to “Creepy Canons?”

  1. This is wonderful!! If and when i make it across the pond- this is on my list now! Cheers!!

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