Set in the tranquil valley of the river Derwent, the former Augustinian priory of Kirkham is one of the jewels in the monastic heritage of Yorkshire. Many of the structures and buildings have been lost since the 16th century, particularly the great priory church being almost completely reduced to ground level, with only the magnificent presbytery surviving to hint at its former glory. One survival however is the monastic gatehouse, and a visit to Kirkham would be well worth it to see this building alone.
Monastic gatehouses come in all shapes and sizes, from the grand and almost military style found at Thornton Abbey, to the simpler functional type at Easby Abbey, near Richmond. What all of these buildings do is make a statement, and the Kirkham gatehouse is no exception. The Priory, which was dedicated to The Holy Trinity, was a house of Augustinian canons founded around 1122 by Walter Espec, Lord of Helmsley, who was later responsible for the foundation of Rievaulx Abbey in 1132. The gatehouse, which itself was not built until the later part of the 13th century, has a magnificently decorated front elevation depicting, among other things, the arms of England, and the shields baring the arms of the main patrons of the monastery, including founder Walter Espec and the de Roos family, later lords of Helmsley. Among the religious imagery there is a sculpture of Jesus ‘Christ in Majesty’ flanked by images of Saints Bartholomew and Philip.
Sculptures of David and Goliath, and St George and the Dragon, can be seen on the left and right side of the gatehouse respectively.
St George was originally introduced to England from the Balkans in the 12th century, although his veneration as a saint goes back at least to the 6th century. The first known reference in the British Isles to St George, is from the Abbot of Iona in the 7th century, who received word via a well-travelled French bishop. The Venerable Bede also mentions St George in his writings, however, the George and the Dragon legend is medieval in origin. St George’s Day is celebrated on 23 April, considered the date of his Christian Martyrdom. The theme of good over evil continues with the David and Goliath sculpture, depicting the Old Testament account of the victory of David, a small shepherd boy, over the gigantic warrior Goliath.
The gatehouse included the heraldry and figures, are the beautiful architectural details, such as the gabled crocketed label above the large arched entrance, and the first floor openings and niches; they look a little like waves, and further enrich the architecture.
The priory site was used for the 1944 D-Day Landing practice and was visited by PM Winston Churchill.