Handale Priory was a real place in the fourteenth century. Although after the Reformation little of it remained, now there’s a rather lovely Georgian farmhouse set in the deep seclusion of the valley, three miles from the sea. With only an undulating farm track to it or a long walk uphill through the woods its solitude is complete and enchanting. It’s easy to see that the priory it replaced must have been impressive when it was at the height of its power.
Originally a priory for Benedictine nuns dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, it was founded in the year 1133 by Richard de Percy. He gave two tofts, ten acres of demesne land, and enough common pasture for 200 sheep. Later more land was given by Engram de Bavington when Avicia was prioress. She held it at a rent of four quarters of wheat, one half to be paid at the feast of St Martin and the other at Whitsuntide. Later it became Cistercian for the practical reason that, unlike the Benedictines, that Order did not pay taxes to the Crown. The advowson was granted in the time of King John to Richard de Malbisse and his heirs forever and, in lieu of all services, it yielded one pound of incense yearly at the Feast of Pentecost. After the Reformation Henry VIII granted the site to Ambrose Beckwith, a descendant of Richard Malbisse.
Its claim to a dragon is not unusual in this wild region of northern England. There was also a dragon at nearby Loachy Wood, a serpent at Slingsby, and another dragon at Saxhow. I’ve mentioned before how the dragon was supposed to have the power to beguile young girls and afterwards fed on their limbs. Luckily a young knight called Scaw came by and decided enough was enough so, buckling on his armour, he sought out the dragon’s cave. The creature immediately sprang from its den breathing fire and rearing its crested head to transfix the intruder with its poisonouse sting. Undaunted, young Scaw fought bravely and after a savage fight killed the monster. He then married the earl’s daughter he found in the cave and obtained vast estates. The wood where he slew the dragon is still called ‘Scaw Wood’ and the stone coffin where Scaw was eventually buried lies in a thicket near the site of the priory to this very day.