A 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 30 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, while Ampleforth’s Abbey of St Laurence is more than a couple of centuries old, but remains a living and dominant feature of local life.

Many earlier abbeys and priories are 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 remains such as 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 is known as the Abbot, while 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 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 encouraged family life in their 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 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, then a small wooden building along with eleven members of his household and Edwin was later baptised. From that time, Christianity flourished in the North of England with St Cedd’s monastery at Lastingham (654) probably being the first in Yorkshire.