Guisborough Priory was an Augustine priory that was founded by Robert de Brus, 1st Lord of Annandale, an ancestor of Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland, and was one of the wealthiest abbeys in Yorkshire. The surviving remains are very impressive and sit at the eastern end of modern Guisborough. The priory was probably founded in 1119, during the reign of Pope Calixtus (died 1124). Robert de Brus was a generous patron, granting the new priory twenty-nine carucates (around 3,480 acres) of land and the advowsons of ten churches, setting a pattern of patronage that saw the Priory accumulate large estates in Cleveland, Hart in Durham and Annandale in Scotland.
The Brus or Bruce Family
Robert was the first member of his family to hold lands in Scotland, where he was made Lord of Annandale by King David in 1124. At this stage King David was on good terms with Henry I, but after Henry's death David sided with his niece Matilda against King Stephan. In the 1130s David captured large parts of Northumberland, and in 1138 he launched an invasion that was defeated at the Battle of the Standard (22 August 1138), but despite this setback he was still able to force Stephan to concede control of much of the far north of England. This conflict forced the Brus family to pick sides. Robert de Brus sided with Stephan, renounced his homage to David and fought at the battle of the Standard. This triggered a split in the family, with Robert keeping the English lands, which went to his son Adam de Brus, Lord of Skelton. His Scottish lands went to his second son, Robert de Brus, Second Lord of Annandale.
This early split must have been fairly acrimonious, but family harmony appears to have been restored fairly quickly. When Robert II died (1189 or 1194) he was buried in Guisborough Priory and the priory continued to receive donations from both branches of the family. Robert II gave the priory the churches of Annan, Lochmaben, Kirkpatrick, Cummertrees, Redkirk and Gretna.
Robert II's son William, third Lord of Anandale (d.1212) donated land to the canons of Guisborough. His son Robert IV de Brus (c.1195-1226) was buried in the Priory, as was his more famous son Robert V de Brus, 5th Lord of Annandale (c.1210-1295), one of the contenders for the Scottish throne in 1290-92. His son, Robert VI de Brus, 6th Lord of Annandale, was buried at Holm Cultram in Cumberland, keeping up the English connection. He also confirmed the family grants to Guisborough Priory.
The English connection was rather firmly broken during the life of Robert VI's son, Robert the Bruce, or Robert I, king of Scotland.
Robert I de Brus's English lands were inherited by his son Adam after his death in 1142. This family also thrived, and the estate were passed from father to son from Adam I to Adam II (1134-1196, Peter I de Brus (1172-1222), Peter II de Brus (1196-c.1247) and finally Peter III de Brus (1226-1272).
Peter III died without heirs and the family estates were inherited by his four sisters. The priory gained more patrons from this split - the daughters married into important local families - Agnes married Sir Walter de Faucomberge, Lucy married Sir Marmaduke de Thweng, lord of Kilton Castle, Margaret married Robert de Ros and Laderina married John de Bellow. The patronage of the priory went to Agnes, Lucy and their husbands. One of their first acts was to grant the canons of Guisborough the right to elect a new prior without having to gain a licence, but that the new prior must present himself alternately to the Fauconbergs at Skelton or the Thwengs at Danby.
For much of its history Guisborough Priory was one of the wealthiest monastic establishments in Yorkshire - at the dissolution it was fourth in value, behind St. Mary's York, Fountains Abbey and Selby Abbey - but it did suffer during the prolonged medieval wars with Scotland, partly because it had Scottish lands that would be cut off during times of conflict and partly because of damage done to its English lands by Scottish raids. In 1276, before the start of the wars, their lands in England were valued at 2,000 marks (£1,320). By 1292 they were in debt. In 1323 and 1324 they asked for permission to sell some of their possessions. By 1328 their Yorkshire properties were assessed at £360 and their contribution to a tenth (a grant of taxation) was only £36.
The Priory's situation can't have helped by an accidental fire in 1289 caused by workmen in the roof, and which destroyed the church, nine chalices, books on theology, the vestments and other valuable items in the church. Work on the new church must have lasted to at least 1311 when Richard de Kellaw, bishop of Durham, offered an indulgence of forty days to anyone who contributed to the rebuilding.
In 1223 the Priory was granted Cleveland, and Peter de Brus gave them the iron ore in parts of Glaisdale. The priory became involved in industry, with five small forges in operation in Danby and two in the forest of Glaisdale.
In 1435 the priory had a clear annual income of £628 6s 8d and was committed to giving out £24 5s 8d in alms each year.
We have the occasional snapshot of the size of the community at Guisborough. In 1380-1 the priory contained the prior, twenty-five canons and two converse. At the dissolution of the monasteries there were twenty-five inhabitants.
The remains of Guisborough Priory sit in a well maintained park at the eastern end of the town. The most impressive feature is the massive east window, which survives to its full height of 71ft. Most of the surviving ruins are in the early Gothic style and date to the early fourteenth century rebuilding of the abbey. Most of the remaining buildings only survive as fragments or foundations, but they do give an idea of the impressive scale of the priory at its peak.
Grid Reference: NZ 619 161