St Robert of Knaresorough and the Trinitarians
When the chapel was built in 1408, there were already religious associations in this part of Knaresborough with which the chapel became linked. For many years it was mistakenly referred to as 'St Robert's Chapel' and some people have wondered whether the knight is meant to be symbolic representation of St Robert (who would never have worn armour, but he could be said to have been a spiritual warrior!). Who was St Robert, and what is the story? Like the founding story of the chapel, we do not know how historical all the details of his life are, but Robert certainly was a real person who lived in this area in the high Middle Ages.
You can see evidence of Robert's life about a mile downstream from the chapel on the banks of the Nidd, walking down Abbey Road. There you will find St Robert's Cave. This cave was occupied by Robert Flower, a hermit and holy man born in York of well-to-do parents between 1160 and 1180. From an early age, he showed signs of having a vocation to the religious life and tried staying at several monasteries. He was ordained to the sub-diaconate, but eventually chose the life of the hermit and withdrew from ordination to the priesthood. He settled with an established hermit on the banks of the Nidd and when the other hermit returned to the secular life, Robert was left alone. After thieves broke into his hermitage and stole all the food Robert had gathered for the poor, he moved to Spofforth for a while, but reports of his holiness spread and crowds of people arrived to honour him and ask for his blessing. This so distracted Robert from his prayers that he resolved to move back to the Knaresborough hermitage.
Meanwhile, Robert's fame as a holy man had reached the ears of his brother Walter, who was now Mayor of York. Walter visited Robert and was shocked to discover that he dwelt in a cave. He tried to persuade him to leave and relocate in a monastery, but Robert was having none of it, resolving to remain in his hermitage. However Walter managed to persuade Robert to accept some building to be done on the site and the Chapel of the Holy Cross was constructed. Some of the Norman herringbone masonry can still be seen today.
So great was Robert's fame that even King John (who had a hunting lodge in Knaresborough) visited him. However, when the king arrived Robert was at prayer, and he would not be disturbed until his devotions were completed. When he came to the king, he produced an ear of corn and asked John, 'can you produce this from nothing?' The King answered, no he could not, and Robert retorted that his devotion was given to one who could create such a thing from nothing. On another occasion, Robert forced the king to wait while he finished his prayers. Fortunately, the famous Plantagenet temper did not explode. Instead, the king granted Robert as much land in neighbouring royal woodland as could be cultivated by one plough. Such legends are common in the Middle Ages, confirming the superiority of God and the Church over the Crown.
Robert died in September 1218 and was buried in his chapel, which became a place of pilgrimage after his death. The side of his original grave may still be seen. However, the body was transferred to the Church of the Trinitarians in Knaresborough around 1252 (which no longer exists). The Trinitarians became an important part of Knaresborough's history not long after Robert, and the name 'Abbey Road' derives from their Priory, as its site was on the road between the Chapels of our Lady of the Crag and the Holy Cross. There is little there now except a plaque and a few stones that were used in the building of the priory.
The Knaresborough Trinitarians were first referred to in a papal bull from 1252 that supported the construction of a church, and it is in this church that the remains of St Robert were laid to rest. In 1257 Richard, Earl of Gloucester granted a charter to the house which confirmed a grant of lands originally given to Robert. In common with the other houses of their order, the Knaresborough Trinitarians offered hospitality to pilgrims visiting the shrine of St Robert, and were licensed to hear pilgrims' confessions on Trinity Sunday. They were also responsible for many parish churches in the area, for example, Pannal, Whixley, and Hampsthwaite. The Trinitarian priory was dedicated to St Robert rather than to the Holy Trinity as was usual for a Trinitarian House. This shows the great esteem in which Robert was held. Indeed, so strong was the Trinitarian association with Robert that in England they were known as the Robertines.
The Priory was badly damaged in an attack by the Scots in 1318, but by the 16th century, the small community was thriving and, in addition to the church, it had a gatehouse, residences, a smithy, barns and brew houses. Then in 1538 came the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Thomas Kent, the minister and seven priests of the order surrendered the house to the King's commissioners. All the buildings, together with the livestock, equipment, hay and grain were listed in the accounts, and the buildings had their roofs removed so that they would not be reoccupied. The lead from the roofs was given to the King, whilst the bells were sent to Knaresborough parish church (now St John's). There was not much else in the way of wealth - the Trinitarian's were not a rich order. There were only a few vestments and ornaments in the church itself. Only two chalices and a cross were noteworthy. The title of the property passed to the Crown to gain income and the estates came eventually to the Slingsby family, who retained them until the 20th century.
In 1949, Col Merrylees conducted a site survey and drew the outline of Church foundations, whilst geophysical Survey in the 1970s showed that structural remains still survive below ground.