I lived around the Handale area for ages but never came across any mention of the priory nor of the nearby Kilton Castle which was strange as they are both real places and important in their way in the middle ages. It was only when I started to read around in the archives that I found any reference to Handale Priory. Here is what I found.
‘In a lovely glen with a distant view of the sea, Richard de Percy (of the earl of Norhumberland’s dynasty) founded Handale Priory in 1133 for the Benedictine nuns.’
The writer goes on to tell us that the archbishop of York at the time, Romanus, had written a letter to the Leper Hospital at Sherburn (a nearby village) asking them to admit Basilda, one of the nuns who had contracted the disease. When I wrote THE DRAGON OF HANDALE the name Basilda seemed appropriate – but now maybe here’s a clue as to what happens to her after the story ends.
The anonymous writer goes on to say that discipline was very strtict at the priory. A nun sent from Rosedale Abbey for punishment at Handale had to do penance and fast on bread and water on six church festivals. On four of them she had to receive discipline in other words flogging with a whip studded with lead pellets. After that ordeal she had to eat her meals from off the ground.
They really knew how to punish in those days.
There’s no mention of what her crime was and maybe it was one of the usual ones, disobedience, fornication, running away. And who now could blame any of those young women imprisoned up there, most of whom had no choice in the matter.
Sometime in the 1400’s and because of the crippling taxes on the wool staple that kept the priory solvent, they decided to call themselves Cistercians as that Order was exempt from tax.
Handale continued as a priory for another hundred years until the dissolution in 1532. The local story is that the King’s Commissioners couldn’t find the buildings because they lay in such thick woodland but just as they were about to ride away they heard bells tolling through the trees for the next Office. The sound led them back to the ultimate doom of Handale.
When I was up there last summer I found no trace of the priory itself but the grey stones had evidently been used for the handsome farmhouse that now stands at the bottom of the dale. Excavations were carried out around 1830 and a Mr Turton found sixteen skeletons and a stone coffin with the inscription ‘Snake Killer’ on the lid. Inside was the skeleton of a man and a rusting sword. These items have never been found although I was shown the coffin under some bushes with a sort of celtic design round the edge. I wonder where the sword is now?
It’s well worth the two mile walk from Loftus along the valley, by- passing the remains of a monks’ trod on your way.
Peaceful and lovely in summer, in the dark days of a northern winter it is a place only for the tough and intrepid explorer.