Originally founded by Thomas de Holand, Earl of Kent and Duke of Surrey, Mount Grace Priory is a spectacular place to visit whenever lockdown is over and it is feasible. The English Heritage-managed monastic ruins of a Carthusian charterhouse dating from the late 14th-early 16th centuries (founded in 1398, dissolved 1539). The site is nestled in woodlands against the Cleveland Hills. It is thus the best-preserved Carthusian charterhouse in England.
As well as the distinctive plan of cells around the Great Cloister, one of which has been reconstructed to appreciate the two-storey house and garden.
There is a small yet multi-phased church, typical of Carthusian houses where little attention was dedicated to worship in the building (Carthusians recited daily offices in their cells apart from matins, mess and vespers).
There is the wonderful spring houses from which water was drawn via channels to the laver in the cloister and from there to all the cells.
There are traces of the two later houses. First, there is the 17th-century manor house built by Thomas Lascelles in 1654 over part of the former monastic guest-house.
Later, it was adapted into a larger house of 1900-01 by Sir Lowthia Bell, under the direction of the architect Ambrose Poynter. It is a fine example of the Arts and Crafts movement.
There are attendant gardens.
Since my previous visit, there is now a cafe. Within the house, there are great exhibitions about the medieval monastery and post-medieval country house, and a great model of how the monastery may have looked when still in use.
The church and the memory of patrons
There are four commemorative dimensions for discussion. First is the church was elarged for funerary motives: to fit the grave of Thomas Beaufort, Earl of Dorset and later Duke of Exeter, the priory’s second founder (Coppack 1996: 10) and ‘graves are clearly visible in the floors’ of both chapels added towards the end of the 15th century to the north and south of the nave as burial chapels.
Second, particularly within the lesser cloister and the inner court are memorial benches, the only traces of contemporary comemmoration. Therefore, the contemporary dead join the medieval dead in this tranquil ruin.
Madonna and child
Third, not exactly memorial in nature, but contemplative and perhaps even devotional, we have a fascinating sculpture of Madonna of the Cross. It is situated near the high altar in the church. By Malcolm Brocklesby, who also sculpted warriors at Helmsley Castle, the striking pose of Mary gives the sense of the Christ child being proffered up to God, and also to visitors, while evoking the shape of the cross and thus alluding to Christ’s crucifixion. Thus the monastic church’s use is explicitly evoked through modern art in which the Christ child is presented as sacrificial corpse-to-be.
Again, not mortuary or memorial in nature, the lapidarium does contain architectural stone from across the ruins placed on display: perhaps we can consider this a memorial to the former building itself?
As with other Cadw and English Heritage ruins, the site is largely death-denying and death-defying, with scant attention to dying, death and the dead: monks and patrons. Yet clearly in the past, and in the present, death and memory are key components.
Coppack, G. 1996. Mount Grace Priory. 2nd Edition. London: English Heritage.