I thought that that my trusted satellite navigation system had let me down when I recently visited Monk Bretton Priory near Barnsley in South Yorkshire. I knew that I was very close to the remains of this 12th century monastery as I had been following a string of road signs for a couple of miles. Suddenly after a quick left turn onto a housing estate at the back of a row of shops my Sat Nav proudly announced that I had reached my destination. I looked around at the rows of houses and was just about to curse under my breath when I noticed that I was on Abbey Lane, which seemed rather promising. I parked up and peered over a stone wall that ran along the length of this road and there it was, nestled somewhat uncomfortably adjacent to a modern, post war sprawling housing estate.
Of course, nine and a half centuries ago when this Cluniac Monastery was constructed all around here would have been green, open fields. Monk Bretton Priory was actually constructed in 1154 as an overshoot from Robert de Lacy's stronghold at Pontefract Castle. It was only a small monastery and would have only held between eleven and thirteen monks. These monks eventually broke away from their ties with Pontefract Castle after many years of rivalry and in 1281 Monk Bretton Priory became an independent Benedictine House. It was after this date that the priory was extended slightly but as far as English monasteries go it enjoyed a relatively peaceful existence and thrived until 1538 when it was eventually surrendered to King Henry V111 under the act of reformation.
Following the dissolution of the monasteries Monk Bretton was stripped of all of its assets but the main church was saved, albeit after being dismantled and reassembled at nearby Wentworth.
Today, Barnsley District Council in partnership with English Heritage now own Monk Bretton Priory. The site itself is mainly ruins but the gate house, which all visitors that enter here have to pass through is remarkably well preserved. This gate house dates from the 14th century. Elsewhere the majority of the other buildings now only remain at foundation level but these can be clearly seen and the central courtyard is well marked out in an almost perfect square.
Some evidence of one of the former churches still exists and the chancel and transepts can be seen in one of the highest remaining walls on the site that still stands about three metres high. Even two of the original church windows still exist, albeit these days without any stained glass.
One of the things that impressed me the most about Monk Bretton Priory was the elaborate drainage system that the monks had devised. There are numerous wells (now dried up) across the site, which would have once provided a fresh supply of drinking water for the inhabitants. There is a also a stream that runs straight through the site, the nearest natural river to the site is almost half a kilometre away so the stream that we find here is a man made creation, devised by the monks who ingeniously diverted the course of the original river. This man made stream is deep and narrow, ensuring that the water runs quickly even in times of low rainfall. At each end of the site there are steps cut into the steep grassy bank that lead down to the edge of the stream and at the water's level there is a small level platform. The platform that is upstream would have been used for washing clothes and also for the personal grooming of the monks whilst the river at the lower end of the site would have provided a form of 12th century sanitation.
It could be said that there is not a great deal to be seen at Monk Bretton Priory, but this is an argument that I personally would strongly dispute as I find the whole site thoroughly fascinating. There is something very tranquil about standing within the priory's walls and imaging the monks going about their everyday business almost a thousand years ago. Once I entered through the gate house I quickly forgot about the modern urban environment in which it now stands as the nearby housing estate is completely hidden by high walls. One of the best things about Monk Bretton Priory however is that it is completely free to visit.
It is open daily throughout the year, except the 24th, 25th, 26th December and 1st January. It is open from 10am until 6pm during the summer months and from 10am until 4pm during the winter months.
Monk Bretton Priory
Founded in the 1150s, Monk Bretton Priory belonged to the powerful French order of Cluny. Its monks followed the 6th-century Rule of St Benedict.