Christ in Majesty (without the head, still to be located), testifying to the wealth of Gisborough Monastery in its heyday. © English Heritage
English Heritage curators and archaeologists descended on Gisborough Priory in Yorkshire on Tuesday June 24 to start surveying, measuring and photographing stones to piece together the priory's past.
English Heritage is trying to solve the riddle of the stones by confirming previously unsuspected links between Gisborough Priory and the splendour of York Minster.
The 900 year-old monastery on the edge of the North York Moors was established by Robert Bruce, who was related to his namesake, the celebrated Scottish King Robert the Bruce.
But despite its rich history, there are huge gaps in our knowledge of how the Augustinian community developed. However, an intriguing new theory is being tested – that large sections of the priory’s dramatic architecture were copied from York Minster – Northern Europe’s largest Gothic cathedral.
Artist impression of Gisborough Priory. Courtesy English Heritage
“Tracery panels, the arcade elevation and nave piers at Gisborough all show some remarkable similarities with those at York Minster,” said consultant archaeologist Stuart Harrison.
“It’s not surprising that aspects of church design are shared, but it’s the scale of the imitation at Gisborough that’s so striking. We know the masons of the day kept sketch books and it's possible the builders visited York and took away ideas, or possibly even worked on both sites. Whatever the reason, it could add a fascinating twist to the priory story.”
The work is being undertaken as part of an £80,000 project called Converting Sacred Spaces (CSS) – an exciting venture taking place across North Western Europe to improve our understanding of monastic sites and tap their tourism potential. The initiative is supported by the European Union’s INTEREG programme.
Over 1500 medieval stones from the priory will be surveyed. Some of them are kept in store in Helmsley, but the vast majority are on land in the care of the Gisborough Priory Project – a local charity aiming to restore gardens created on the site following the suppression of the monasteries by Henry VIII.
Masonry will be photographed using a new technique, allowing a ‘three dimensional’ image to be produced on a computer screen, which can then be manipulated. Gisborough Priory Project volunteers will work with English Heritage on the scheme.