CHAPTER VIII. GUISBOROUGH AND THE SKELTON VALLEY
Although a mere fragment of the Augustinian Priory of Guisborough is standing to-day, it is sufficiently imposing to convey a powerful impression of the former size and magnificence of the monastic church. This fragment is the gracefully buttressed east-end of the choir, which rises from the level meadow-land to the east of the town. The stonework is now of a greenish-grey tone, but in the shadows there is generally a look of blue. Beyond the ruin and through the opening of the great east window, now bare of tracery, you see the purple moors, with the ever-formidable Roseberry Topping holding its head above the green woods and pastures.
The destruction of the priory took place most probably during the reign of Henry VIII., but there are no recorded facts to give the date of the spoiling of the stately buildings. The materials were probably sold to the highest bidder, for in the town of Guisborough there are scattered many fragments of richly-carved stone, and Ord, one of the historians of Cleveland, says: 'I have beheld with sorrow, and shame, and indignation, the richly ornamented columns and carved architraves of God's temple supporting the thatch of a pig-house.'
The Norman priory church, founded in 1119, by the wealthy Robert de Brus of Skelton, was, unfortunately, burnt down on May 16, 1289. Walter of Hemingburgh, a canon of Guisborough, has written a quaintly detailed account of the origin of the fire. Translated from the monkish Latin, he says 'On the first day of rogation-week, a devouring flame consumed our church of Gysburn, with many theological books and nine costly chalices, as well as vestments and sumptuous images; and because past events are serviceable as a guide to future inquiries, I have thought it desirable, in the present little treatise, to give an account of the catastrophe, that accidents of a similar nature may be avoided through this calamity allotted to us. On the day above mentioned, which was very destructive to us, a vile plumber, with his two workmen, burnt our church whilst soldering up two holes in the old lead with fresh pewter. For some days he had already, with a wicked disposition, commenced, and placed his iron crucibles, along with charcoal and fire, on rubbish, or steps of a great height, upon dry wood with some turf and other combustibles. About noon (in the cross, in the body of the church, where he remained at his work until after Mass) he descended before the procession of the convent, thinking that the fire had been put out by his workmen. They, however, came down quickly after him, without having completely extinguished the fire; and the fire among the charcoal revived, and partly from the heat of the iron, and partly from the sparks of the charcoal, the fire spread itself to the wood and other combustibles beneath. After the fire was thus commenced, the lead melted, and the joists upon the beams ignited; and then the fire increased prodigiously, and consumed everything.' Hemingburgh concludes by saying that all that they could get from the culprits was the exclamation, 'Quid potui ego?' Shortly after this disaster the Prior and convent wrote to Edward II., excusing themselves from granting a corrody owing to their great losses through the burning of the monastery, as well as the destruction of their property by the Scots. But Guisborough, next to Fountains, was almost the richest establishment in Yorkshire, and thus in a few years' time there arose from the Norman foundations a stately church and convent built in the Early Decorated style.
One of the most interesting relics of the great priory is the altar-tomb, believed to be that of Robert de Brus of Annandale. The stone slabs are now built into the walls on each side of the porch of Guisborough Church. They may have been removed there from the abbey for safety at the time of the dissolution. Hemingburgh, in his chronicle for the year 1294, says: 'Robert de Brus the fourth died on the eve of Good Friday; who disputed with John de Balliol, before the King of England, about the succession to the kingdom of Scotland. And, as he ordered when alive, he was buried in the priory of Gysburn with great honour, beside his own father.' A great number of other famous people were buried here in accordance with their wills. Guisborough has even been claimed as the resting place of Robert Bruce, the champion of Scottish freedom, but there is ample evidence for believing that his heart was buried at Melrose Abbey and his body in Dunfermline Abbey.
The central portion of the town of Guisborough, by the market-cross and the two chief inns, is quaint and fairly picturesque, but the long street as it goes westward deteriorates into rows of new cottages, inevitable in a mining country.
Mining operations have been carried on around Guisborough since the time of Queen Elizabeth, for the discovery of alum dates from that period, and when that industry gradually declined, it was replaced by the iron mines of today. Mr. Thomas Chaloner of Guisborough, in his travels on the Continent about the end of the sixteenth century, saw the Pope's alum works near Rome, and was determined to start the industry in his native parish of Guisborough, feeling certain that alum could be worked with profit in his own country. As it was essential to have one or two men who were thoroughly versed in the processes of the manufacture, Mr. Chaloner induced some of the Pope's workmen by heavy bribes to come to England. The risks attending this overt act were terrible, for the alum works brought in a large revenue to His Holiness, and the discovery of such a design would have meant capital punishment to the offender. The workmen were therefore induced to get into large casks, which were secretly conveyed on board a ship which was shortly sailing for England.