A BRIEF visit to the fascinating new Stanbrook Abbey in the hills above Wass, near Coxwold made me realise that, living in the vicinity as I do, my home is surrounded by abbeys, priories, minsters and churches. A rough count produced about thirty within, or very near to, the North York Moors National Park boundaries but not all have survived – some are spectacular ruins such as Byland Abbey, Guisborough Priory and Whitby Abbey.

However, Stanbrook Abbey is a stunning modern building whilst Ampleforth’s Abbey of St Laurence is little more than a couple of centuries old but remains a living and dominant feature of life in Ryedale. Many earlier abbeys and priories are little more than ruins and some have disappeared either in whole or in part, such as Rosedale Priory, sometimes called an abbey. Only a staircase remains.

Many Catholic priories were ransacked and closed during the Reformation and sold as private estates – several were in this region and their remains, like Rievaulx, are now open to tourists. This gives rise to the distinction between an abbey and a priory. An abbey is defined in my Oxford dictionary as an establishment occupied by monks or nuns.

If the abbey is occupied by monks, the person in charge will be known as the Abbot whilst if nuns are sole residents, then its head will be an Abbess. In contrast, the head of a priory is a prior and if the congregation comprises only nuns, then she will be the Prioress.

Whitby Abbey was somewhat different in its heyday as its company comprised both monks and nuns with a lady in charge – she was the famous St Hilda. Some all-female monastic establishments are known as nunneries whilst a convent is a community of nuns living under monastic vows.

With so many religious happenings in this part of England, it is not easy to determine when Christianity first arrived in what is now the North York Moors. There is a suggestion that the Romans brought Christianity to our shores even though some of them worshipped Pagan gods and for a time, their presence generated a form of security for the natives of our country. However, there was a massive shake-up of that peaceful existence when the north was invaded by the tall, fair-haired Angles.

They were principally farmers who grew corn and bred cattle, but they arrived in rowing boats and were heathens who worshipped the sun, the moon and other pagan gods. One was Woden who guided the winds and tides, and after whom Wodensday is named – we call it Wednesday. Thor, the god of thunder was another – hence Thursday. The goddess Freya was also worshipped on Freya’s Day – Friday,

Although the Angles respected and encouraged family life in their own villages (usually places whose names ended with ham or ton, such as Lastingham or Otterington), they exercised a vicious and cruel streak by killing the early Christian priests and burning their churches. Another of their practices was to marry local women who were already married, but keep their first husbands as slaves.

During their occupancy, the region to the north of the River Humber up to the Firth of Forth in Scotland, was first known North Humberland and the part which is now the North York Moors was named Deira with the area north of the Tees being called Bernicia. One warlike ruler of Bernicia was Ethelfrith who ruled between 593 and 617. When he tried to conquer Deira, it caused the rightful heir, Edwin, to flee to East Anglia.

During his rampage, Ethelfrith is said to have killed a thousand Christian monks, and he scorned their faith by claiming their God had abandoned them. But Ethelfrith was a mere human and died in 617. This encouraged Edwin to return and this marked a new beginning for Deira and the people of the moors. It has been seen as an important new beginning for Christianity in this region, and there is no doubt that Deira, now the North York Moors, has made a lasting contribution to the survival of Christianity in England. It began with an attempt on Edwin’s life close to the site of today’s Fylingdales Early Warning Station.

An assassin had been sent by the king of the West Saxons to murder Edwin with a poisoned sword. As the assassin struck, a Christian called Lilla leapt between the King and his assassin, and died instead. Lilla’s Cross can still be seen on those moors and that incident led to the erection of one of Europe’s most impressive Christian churches, the original York Minster.

Edwin allowed his baby daughter to be christened in that church, a small wooden building at that time, along with eleven members of his household and Edwin was later baptized too. From that time, Christianity flourished in the North of England with St Cedd’s monastery at Lastingham (654) probably being the first in Yorkshire.

Guy and the giant

Sessay is a small village to the south of Thirsk, Little Sessay is nearby with Hutton Sessay forming a trio of rather quiet communities. However, it has not always been quiet.

One of Sessay’s famous sons was Thomas Magnus who was a parson here at St Cuthbert’s Church as well as being Archdeacon of the East Riding of Yorkshire in the 16th century. He died in 1550 and is said to have been the last master of St Leonard’s Hospital in York. Another tale is that he was a foundling child abandoned in the church porch. It is said he was found by some tailors who decided to bring him up and he became known as Thomas Amang Us, changing to Thomas Magnus.

However, Sessay had a terrible creature living among the people. It was a huge cruel giant who lived in nearby woods. He fed himself by raiding farms and smallholdings and could carry off whole bullocks and cows to eat raw in his cave, and then toss the bones outside to create piles of stinking, rotten flesh.

If he was unable to find cattle or other food, he turned his attention to babies in their cradles. His fearsome roaring noise always warned the people he was in their vicinity but they were helpless against him. The Lord of the Manor had died and his daughter, Joan, then ran the Estate but was powerless to help the people.

Then as in all good stories, it was a windy day as a brave knight in shining armour happened to be passing. He was Guy Dawney, the son of John Dawney from Cowick Castle in South Yorkshire. He chanced to call at the Manor where he met Joan and was offered refreshments and, as in all good stories he fell in love with her. Just at that moment, they heard the roaring of the giant but he was not raiding cattle – he wanted sacks of flour from the mill and reached through an open window. Then Guy released the sails…and they whirled around in the wind and killed the giant. Guy then married the woman of his dreams.