Guide to Richmond » St Agatha's Abbey & Church, Easby
Before the arrival of the Franciscans, the area around Richmond had seen several other religious foundations. The first was that of the Benedictines, a community of black monks (so called because of the colour of their habit) who built St. Martin's Priory on the south bank of the Swale.
There is now little left of the ruins of this comparatively small religious house. On the opposite side of the river, about a mile downstream, are the more easily identifiable remains of Easby Abbey or the Abbey of St. Agatha.
This was a house of the Pre-monstratensians founded around 1152. The Order took its name from the Abbey of Premontre in the diocese of Laon, it having been inaugurated there by St. Norbert in 1120. The Premonstratensians wore a white habit and became known as the White Canons.
The White Canons followed a simple and austere life but, unlike monks of other orders, they were exempt from Episcopal jurisdiction and were not subject to the same strict discipline.
They were in constant danger of being raided by the Scots and were obliged to call in the English army for protection. They got it - but at a fearful cost. In 1346, an English army, on its way to the Battle of Nevilles Cross, was billeted in the abbey. The soldiers spent most of the time in drunken brawling and inflicted as much damage as the Scots would have done.
Eventualy the abbey suffered further looting and destruction with the dissolution of the monasteries and was finally abandoned. At the time of dissolution, a bell was taken and installed in the belfry of the parish church of St. Mary along with the stalls and miserere seats.
The exact date of Easby Church is unknown, but is thought to have been built before the Abbey. However, except for parts of the chancel, little of the original church remains.
There are fine examples of wall decorations in the chancel of Easby Church. The pictures on the north wall depict subjects from the Old Testament; those on the south wall are from the New Testament. Before the discovery of painting in oils, the method used for murals such as those at Easby was for watercolours to be laid on the wall before the plaster was dry.
Also in Easby Church is a plaster replica of the carved stone Easby Cross. The original, which dates from the late 7th or early 8th century, is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The significance of the cross (apart from its value as an example of early medieval art) is in the part it played in the introduction of Christianity to Britain. It was the practice of the early Christian missionaries to roam the country, carrying with them "rood staffs" which were long wooden stakes with a cross at the head. These were set up in the centre of village communities and the villagers would come out to the spot to hear the priest preaching the gospel. These village folk were the very first churchgoers in Britain, even though there was as yet no church building. Prior to the coming of the missionaries, however, it had been a Celtic custom to mark important places with rough stone pillars.
Eventually, the Christians adopted the Celtic idea and set up stone crosses in place of their "rood crosses", the sites of the stone crosses later becoming sites for the building of churches. As the "rood crosses" had been made of wood, they were usually ornately carved and this idea, too, was carried over and applied to the stone crosses.
The survival of the Easby Cross illustrates yet another historical paradox: for when the church was being built on the site of the original stone cross, the cross (which was regarded as being too crude) was broken up and used as convenient building stone in the new church. It was thus preserved in the safest possible place until it was found in the wall of the church and pieced together in the 20th century.