‘Kirkstall Abbey: Founded On Guile’, by Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson’s October instalment for the Big Bookend blog takes us to Kirkstall Abbey. Read on to learn the history of one of Leeds’ most fascinating and picturesque sites.

Live in Leeds and you know Kirkstall Abbey. It’s one of our grandest and best-loved historical sites. You may even know the history of its founding: in 1147 a group of monks left Fountains Abbey, hoping for somewhere wilder and more isolated. They were granted land at Barnoldswick. Finding it inhospitable, in 1152 they moved and came to the Aire Valley, finding a spot in Kirkstall, and so Kirkstall Abbey came into being, lasting until 1539 and the Dissolution under Henry VIII.

All true…but not the full story.

It’s worth knowing that the people around Barnoldswick and the monks didn’t get along too well. When the villagers attended services on feast days, they disturbed the quiet of the monks. So the newly-elected abbot, Alexander, had the parish church pulled down. When the villagers complained to the Papal Court, it sided with the monks, although the abbey was moved and a new parish church built.

High up in the Pennines, the monks faced a very harsh climate, and also robbers. They needed somewhere wild…just not too wild.

And that brings us to Seleth, a character often written out of the history of Kirkstall.kirkstall

He lived somewhere in the South, apparently not originally a pious man. But one night he experienced a vision, where a voice told him, ‘Arise, Seleth, and go to the province of York, and seek diligently in the vale called Airedale for a certain place called Kirkstall, for there shalt thou make ready a future habitation for the brethren who serve my son.’ When he asked whom the voice meant by ‘son,’ he was told: ‘ I am Mary, and my son is Jesus of Nazareth the Saviour of the world.’

Apart from the fact that this seems to vividly identify Yorkshire as God’s Own County, it was a demand that Seleth couldn’t deny, so he began the journey north, finally finding Kirkstall. The shepherds gave him some land, and Seleth lived on what he could forage, as well as the charity of local people.

Initially a hermit, a few others joined him and they built a community that didn’t belong to any religious order. They survived happily for six years, until Abbot Alexander, passing on business, began talking to them. He saw that their site would be perfect for his new abbey, in a peaceful area with plenty of farmland and a river close by.

Not short on guile or ambition, Alexander warned Seleth and the others that their souls were in danger, being laymen with no priest, and men with no master. Then he called on Henry de Lacy, who’d given the monks the Barnoldswick grant, who persuaded the lord who owned Kirkstall to give land for a new abbey.

Seleth and those with him, simple people following their hearts, were quickly outmanoeuvred. Some were given a little money by Alexander, others became monks at Kirkstall. On May 20, 1152 they moved to the new site. De Lacy gave them money and provisions, and even laid the foundation of the church there.

And knowing how it came into being, you might never look at Kirkstall quite the same way again.

Chris Nickson
Chris Nickson


Chris Nickson is a Leeds novelist and music journalist. His Richard Nottingham series of mystery novels is set in Leeds in the 1730s.

Gods of Gold, a mystery set against the backdrop of the 1890 gas strike in Leeds and the first in his new Victorian series, was published in August 2014.


Don’t miss out on Chris’ two events in the next couple of weeks, both at Jackrabbits Pottery, 633a Roundhay Road, Leeds LS8 4BA. Both are free events, part of the Roundhay and Oakwood Festival, with no ticket required.

Kicking off on Monday 27th October, Chris teams up with fellow mystery novelist Frances Brody to discuss the art of writing and reading crime fiction.

Chris is then joining Peter Mills and Rob Endeacott for a musical evening on Thursday 30th October, intriguingly named ‘Writing about music is like writing about economics’.

Come along to meet the authors and get your questions answered – hope to see you there!

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