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The huge gatehouse that once was the main entrance to the Abbey grounds stands to its full height. The rest of the complex has been reduced to its foundations with the exception of part of the Chapter House. The earthworks of  Barrow Haven Castle are visible off West Hann Lane although they are on private farmland that is not accessible to the public.

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Managed by English Heritage.




Thornton Abbey

DN39 6TU

53.655339N 0.313984W

Barrow Haven Castle

DN19 7HD

53.688782N 0.387430W

Notes:  The Abbey is a major tourist attraction found off College Road between Barrow-upon-Humber and East Halton. There is a dedicated car park. Barrow Haven Castle is found to the north of Barrow-upon-Avon near the intersection between Ferry Road and West Hann Lane. There is no public access and car parking, even on-road, is difficult.

In the medieval period the River Humber ran further south than today and the site of Barrow Haven Castle (sometimes called ‘The Castles’) would have been directly on the banks of this major waterway. It was also in close proximity to a stream known as The Beck, which would have been navigable to modestly sized ships, and accordingly it has been mooted the site of the later castle was first fortified by the Vikings. This is entirely feasible - the existing earthworks could conceivably have been part of a 'D' shaped rampart providing defence for a settlement or camp. Barrow Haven was also known to be a Saxon estate - owned by Morcar, Earl of Northumbria - and it is possible he had a fortified manor house here. It seems probable then that the Norman fortification, an earth and timber motte-and-bailey castle, re-used some existing earthworks. Based on a twelfth century reference to Barrow Haven Castle (Castellum de Barewe) it was probably built by Drogo de la Beuvriere, a Flemish mercenary who had been granted the Lordship of Holderness and other lands in Lincolnshire in 1071. The most likely reason for construction was to control a ferry crossing over the River Humber that routinely ran between Paull and Barrow Haven.


The castle consisted of an oval motte surrounded by a wide, flooded moat. Probably topped with a timber tower and/or palisade, a single bridge allowed access to a rectangular shaped bailey, located to the north (and now partly occupied by the farmhouse), which contained the Great Hall and supporting buildings. A second bailey, triangular shaped and also surrounded by a moat flooded from The Beck, was located to the south-east of the motte. At some point during the castle's occupation this second bailey, which was seemingly prone to flooding, was abandoned and the northern enclosure expanded.


Drogo fled from England in 1086/7 after he accidentally killed his wife, a relative of William I. His estates were forfeit and Barrow Haven, as part Holderness, passed to Odo of Champagne, brother-in-law to William I, through his marriage to Adelaide of Normandy, sister to Robert, Duke of Normandy. Thereafter the history of ownership of the castle is not fully known - Odo rebelled against William II in 1088 and his English estates, presumably including Barrow Haven, were taken into Crown control. The site was restored to his son - Stephen, Count of Aumale - and when he died in 1127 it passed to his son, William le Gros. It was William who founded Thornton Abbey and at some point thereafter the castle was transferred to the new institution; a record from 1189 states the Abbey was in ownership at this time.

Knowledge of the later history of the castle is sketchy. Whilst archaeological evidence suggests abandonment no later than the fourteenth century, it is the likely the actual date was much earlier and it is possible the Abbey only ever owned the land after the castle had been decommissioned. This said, church ownership of castles was a common occurrence throughout the period and presumably the ferry crossing over the Humber continued to provide a significant income worth protecting.





The religious community at Thornton was founded by William le Gros, Count of Aumale in 1139. Aside from his continental holdings in Aumale, William inherited extensive lands around Holderness and North Lincolnshire from his father Stephen. This was a turbulent time for England as the country was on the brink of civil war - the Anarchy - over the succession to the throne. When Henry I had died in 1135, Stephen of Blois took the throne rather than allowing the King's daughter, Matilda, to inherit. William strongly supported King Stephen's claim having been created Earl of York by him following his command of the English army at the Battle of the Standard (1138). It was against this backdrop that William sponsored foundation of Thornton Priory, perhaps to ensure the salvation of his soul should the war have gone awry. He concurrently invested in more tangible protection in the form of Scarborough Castle.


Augustinian Abbey


Thornton had been initially established as a Priory based around a small Romanesque style church building. Its status was raised to an Abbey in 1148. The community followed the Augustinian Order living a communal life following monastic rules on a similar, but less strict, principle to the Benedictine monks. Benefiting from the patronage of the de Forz family, descendants of William le Gros, the Abbey was substantially rebuilt from 1264. The church was re-modelled and the Chapter House, Cloister, Dormitory, Kitchen and Refectory were all constructed at this time. The work took a long time and was still ongoing in 1308 when records show the pavement of the Chapter House was being laid down. By this time the de Forz line had failed and the estates of the family had passed to the Crown as had the patronage for Thornton Abbey. Upgrades to the site continued apace however with a new Cloister and Kitchen being built in 1322 and a new Refectory in 1326. By the mid fourteenth century the Abbey was one of the richest of the St Augustinian Order.




In 1382 Thornton Abbey was granted a licence to crenellate (fortify) by Richard II. Although the site had probably been protected by some form of wall or water feature earlier, the upgrades made to the defences were significant. The dominant feature was the three storey Gatehouse which was built between 1377–82 over and around an existing structure (work started before the Royal licence had been granted). Constructed largely from brick, the entire building was rendered and whitewashed to give a uniform appearance. Highly decorative, it was adorned by numerous religious statutes, it also had defensive features included a portcullis and arrow-loops. The intent behind the building was probably one of awe as much as defence and its primary use was seemingly to host the Abbey Court where the Abbot would hear cases related to his tenants. A moat was also excavated around the Abbey site that was flooded by water from East Halton Beck.


Precisely what prompted the fortification of Thornton Abbey is unclear. One theory is the upgrades were made as a result of the Peasants Revolt; a period of civil strife in 1381 caused by the impact of the Black Death on the feudal society of England against a backdrop of heavy taxation to fund the Hundred Years War with France. In May 1381 Beverley, just to the north of River Humber, had been the scene of violence. News would have quickly spread to North Lincolnshire and this is perhaps what prompted the fortifications at Thornton. Certainly nearby Thornholme Priory built defences - in the form of a deep ditch - at this time. Nevertheless the scale of the work at Thornton implies a carefully planned scheme built over an extended period whereas defences required urgently to counter a particular threat were almost always earthworks.


A second licence to crenellate was granted in 1389. At this time the fortifications around the Abbey were enhanced with the construction of the extended barbican providing a causeway over the moat. As with the earlier defences, it seems likely this was more for show than defence as there was no gate or drawbridge barring access.




The reign of Henry VIII saw significant upheaval to the English church. In 1534 he signed the Act of Supremacy making himself, rather than the Pope, "supreme head" of the Church of England. This led to Royal appropriation of religious property and lands and Thornton, with an annual income of around £591, was firmly in the sights of the King's Commissioners. Perhaps keen to prevent the changes, Abbot John Moor allegedly gave money to Lincolnshire rebels opposing the religious reform in 1536. If so it was unsuccessful, Moor was the last Abbot and on 12 December 1539 they Abbey was handed over to the Crown.




Soon after taking over the site, Henry VIII refounded it as the College of the Holy Trinity of Thornton. Responsible for the "ministration of the sacraments, care of the aged...and the instruction of the young", the new college was suppressed by the Protestant Government of Edward VI just six years after its foundation. Thornton then passed to Henry Randes, Bishop of Lincoln before being sold to Sir Robert Tyrwhitt in 1575.

New House

In 1602 Viscount Skinner purchased Thornton Abbey and it was he who demolished most of the Abbey buildings but left the gatehouse intact to serve as an elaborate approach to a mansion he built within the grounds. The projects seems to have bankrupted Skinner however and his house stood for a few years before being demolished so its material could be used to settle some of his debts. The ruined site later passed through numerous owners before coming into the possession of the Earls of Yarborough. Around 1832 Charles Anderson-Pelham, Earl of Yarborough partially restored the Gatehouse including re-roofing the structure. In 1938 John Pelham, Earl of Yarborough handed the care of the ruins to the Ministry of Works.

The huge gatehouse at Thornton Abbey was the centrepiece of defences that were built to surround the wealthy religious community at a time when the country was embroiled in the Peasants Revolt. The Abbey was suppressed following the Reformation and subsequently passed through numerous private owners.

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