Kyrkely, Church lees, Kirklees, Kirkleys,
Kirkleahs - church fields
In the "Lytell Geste of
Robyn Hode" the earliest surviving ballad about Robin Hood, the prioress
is referred to as "The Pryoresse of Kyrkely". The assumption has been made that this priory of 'Kyrkly'
was at Kirklees in West Yorkshire. However, there is now good evidence
to indicate that this assumption is incorrect. 'Kirkly' was no more a reference
to Kirkless as 'Lochesley' was to Loxley. John de Savile who purchased Kirklees
estate from Pilkington [and therein lies a tale in itself] being appointed
sheriff of Yorkshire in the early 1600's had an interest in the office of
the sheriff and undoubtedly read the Robin Hood ballads, falsely concluding
that Robyn was buried at Kirklees. In his conviction, he had constructed,
a grave cover, which he placed on the highest vantage point of the
estate, overlooking Calderdale. Savile's belief that his estate contained
the body of the 'outlaw' has never been verified by any primary means
From this assumption has descended a myriad of impossible constructions
designed to prove a false hypothesis.
A more correct interpretation is that the suspected author Stephen II
Le Waleys was buried at the priory of Healaugh near Tadcaster by his own
desire as given in his will and that another person added the last few
verses in the Geste after his death in 1347. 'Kyrkly' merely referring
to the church fields. When much of what is in the Geste is so cryptic,
it would, unless it was a large well-known town or city, be highly unlikely
to have a distinct place-name which can be geographically identified.
Kirklees Priory existed in the early 1300's within the western
division of the Wakefield Manor . Various names of Prioresses have been
suggested as the inspiration, but according to Joseph Hunter
she may have been Elizabeth de Staynton1.
of Kirklees Priory
Period of tenure*
|Margaret de Clayworth
|Alice de Scriven
says until 1328]
|Elizabeth de Staynton
|Margaret de Savile
|Mentioned as prioress
in 1350 [Walker 1952] &1359 [Thoresby 1715] Possibly prioress 1350-1360
J. W. Walker says that she was acting
prioress in 1349
* Lists have been produced by early researchers
[see below] which may still be at the
stage of revision by others6
By 1348 Margaret de Savile*
was known to be the acting Prioress and Ralph Thoresby3
records that she was the prioress here at Kirklees in 1350 and
1359. Margaret de Savile was officially appointed the prioress of Kirklees in
1350 by the then archbishop of York, William la Zouche. The years
of her tenure partly encompass the Elland Feud culminating
in Sir John Eland's murder at Lane Head, Brookfoot in 1353 while riding
to a tourn at Brighouse. Although the Saville and Eland genealogies are
poorly understood, it appears that Margaret de Savile was the
daughter of John de Savile [d. 1353] and sister of John de Savile who married Isabel de Eland. Sir John Eland
also Warenne's steward and lord of the manor
of Brighouse and High Sheriff of Yorkshire in 1341 was the brother-in-law
to Sir John de Savile through his sister Isobel de Eland.*Margaret Savila, sister of Sir John de Savile of Thornhill [d. 1405]
who married Isabel de Eland, the grand-daughter of Sir John de Eland the rapacious High Steward of the Wakefield manor
and High Sheriff of Yorkshire murdered by assailants in 1353 with his
son John who were embroiled in what came to be known as the 'Elland Feud'.
The demise of
Robyn Hode in the Geste appears to be intertwined
with the murderous dispossessions of the Elland Feud which
to a number of commentators, appears to be partly fiction and partly fact, much
like the Geste.
if Margaret de Savile was the prioress in waiting in 1347,
she may well have had a hand in the death of the outlaw through her
influence upon the prioress of Kirklees and through her kith, one time
Sheriff and all-round dastardly person, Sir John de Eland. The hunt
for the prioress might start with Margaret de Savile, whether
in fiction or in reality. J.W. Walker noted Alice de Scriven
was a prioress of Kirklees from 1307 until 1328, after which year
Walker states that there is no record of any prioress until
1359 when Margaret de Savile is mentioned. The tenure of Elizabeth de Stainton appears very
poorly recorded. Dodsworth and Dugdale's Monasticon
merely state that Elizabeth de Staynton was prioress in the '13th
century'. The chances are that Margaret de Savile was the superior in 1347 but her inclusion' if she were the model for the prioress in the Geste,
appears to be more symbolic than actual..
Elizabeth's de Staynton's remains lie
in what is called the "Nun's Grave" which supposedly includes
others [two sisters13], which was discovered in 1706 a mere
eighteen yards east of the priory church1.
Camden's first edition of Britannia in 1607 did not have
an illustration of the grave slab for an obvious reason but the
1789 revised edition showed a flat stone with a raised buttony cross.
on the grave was in Norman-French probably in a 1300's style
DOVCE : IHV : DE
: NAZARETH : FILS : DIEV : AYEZ : MERC : A ELIZABETH :STAINTON
: PRIORES : DE : CEST :
This is translated as:
"Sweet Jesus of Nazareth, son of God have mercy
on Elizabeth Stainton, prioress of this house"
or "Nunnery" had a priory church, recorded by Hunter. About 18
yards from the east end of this priory, Hunter recorded Elizabeth
de Staynton's gravestone constructed in the form of a Lombardic cross
probably dating from the 1300's. This Lombardic cross called a bottony
cross or perhaps a crosslet in heraldry may be the same incorporated
into the Armytage Arms and is still found in their Arms today12.
site was bricked and railed in the 1800's by George Armytage in
the same style as that of the "Robin Hood" grave on the nearby ridge.
Elizabeth's grave now resides in Lady Armytage's back garden6.
It is important to notice that there is
no death or burial date given on the gravestone and thus this has
led to much debate and "listing" to either confirm or deny that Elizabeth
de Staynton was the "murderess" or the "careless nurse"of the
Hunter attempted to show as described
in the "Geste" that Robin Hood and a prioress were related.
Hunter concluded that
this Elizabeth de Stainton, was the relative of Robin Hood who
Some have suggested that the form of
the cross [Lombardic] on Elizabeth's grave as found on a similar
one to that supposedly of Robin Hood's at Loxley [Warwickshire,
not South Yorkshire] is that of the Knights Templar. These knights
were hounded by king Phillip of France, a proclaimation was issued
by the Pope and Edward the II in 1308
was reluctantly complied with his father-in-law to strip these
knights of their properties, which were granted to various lords and later
to the Knights Hospitallers.
Lists of prioresses for Kirklees priory.
Sir William Dugdale9
provided a list of Prioresses as follows:
| 1a. Elizabeth de Staynton [late 13th century]
[1b. Perhaps others ommitted in this interim
2. Margaret de Clayworth confirmed prioress
3. Alicia de Screvyn January 1307
4. Margaret Seyvill
5. Cecilia Hill
6. Joanna Stansfield 1491
7. Margaret Tarlton April 24th 1499
8. Margaret Fletcher March 10th 1505
9. Cecillia Topcliffe July 9th 1527
10. Joan Kepast, the last prioress of Kirklees,
house surrendered November 24th 1530.
She was buried
at Mirfield church where her name is entered in the registry.
gives the following list:
|Elizabeth de Staynton-
Mary de Hopwood 1187
Maud Clayton 1211
Marion Pinkerley 1225
Elizabeth de Scervin 1252
Mary de Inchclife [Hinchcliffe-T.M.] 1270
Judith de Startinly 1289
Margaret de Claysworth 1306
Alicia Screvin 1307
Elizabeth Jepson 1329
Mary Startin 1344
Alicia Bradley 1393
Margaret Allen 1417
Elizabeth Kitcheman 1453
Celicia Hill 1476
Johanna Stansfield 1491
Margaret de Tarleton 1499
Margaret Fletcher 1505
Celicia Hopecliffe 1527
Joan Kepasser[Keps] 1532
In the Tolson Museum in Hudddersfield10
a list of prioresses was published which combined with Dugdale's
|1155? Elizabeth de
Staynton - as the first prioress.
1187 Mary de Hopwood
1211 Maud Clayton
1225 Marian Pinkerley
1240 Sybil [Sibill] -The murderess if the
"Robin Hood" grave date of 1247 and John Major's work
1252 Elizabeth de Scervin [Scriven]
1270 Mary de Startinly
1306 Margaret de Clayworth [Clatsworth]
1307 Margaret de Screvyn
1329 Elizabeth Jepson
1344 Mary Startin
-The Prioress if Hunter and Baine's works are used. Mary
could have died of the
"Great Pestilence" in 1348-916.
A prioress is noted to have died in 135017.
1350 Margaret de
Seyvill [Savile]- daughter of Sir John Savile who married into
the Thornhill estates of Thornhill.
1361 Elizabeth Rhodes
1393 Alicia Bradley
1402 Alice de Mounteney
1417 Margaret Allen
1453 Elizabeth Kitcheman
1476 Cecilia Hyk [Hill]- sister of Roger Hik,
Vicar of Huddersfield 1466-1508. William Hyk was appointed to
Emley rectory in 1474 perhaps he assisted in Cecilia's appointment
if he were
her brother. [Kirklees held land at Emley].
1491 Johanna Stansfeld [Joan Stansfield]- from
the well known Stansfield family of Heptonstall.
1499 Margaret de Tarlton
1505 Margaret Fletcher
1527 Cecilia Topcliffe [Hopecliff] b. 1479
1538 Joan Kepast.[Janet Kepax, Kepapax, Joanne
Kyppes, Joan Thepassed]
The last prioress of Kirklees, Joan Kepast may
have been the daughter of a Thomas Kyppes.
Sir Robert Kyppes [Keppax, Kippax, Kepas] [1490-1513]
her brother, was sometime chaplain of Kirklees and later vicar
of Mirfield. Joan was buried Mirfield 5th February 1562.
A further incomplete list gives:
Sibil or Sigil 1240- The murderess if the 1247
grave date is used.
Margaret de Clayworth 1306
Alice de Screvyn 1307-1328
Margaret de Sayvill 1350-1361
Elizabeth de Staynton- period of office uncertain.
Alice de Mountenay 1403
|Cecilia Hyk 1476
Joan Stansfield 1491
Margaret Tarleton 1499
Margaret Fletcher 1595
Cecilia Topcliffe 1527
Joan Kyppes or Keppax 1539.
the lists are inconclusive as far as Hunter's death date of 1347
goes. From three of the lists it might be concluded that Hunter
could have assumed that the prioress, who is reputed to have bled
Robin Hood in the "Geste" was the first prioress of Kirklees but from
the lists Mary Startin looks a better
choice, she apparently died in 1348 from the "Great Pestilence"16
However we could consider that Margaret de Savile was the
acting prioress in 1347.
From the "Geste"
it would appear that Robin Hood and the Prioress, whoever she
was, were related. In Munday's Downfall of
Robert Earle of Huntington and the Death of Robert
Earle of Huntington, Gilbert de Hood is described as being
Robert Earle of Huntington's uncle and held the position of Prior
of York. If it could be shown that there was a prior of York by
the name of de Hood then it might raise questions about the role
of the church in Robert of Huntington's death.
nobility had strong links with the church hierarchy, for their
own families were often in positions of ecclesiastical power and
In 1539 Kirklees
was dissolved. The prioress at this time was Janet Kyppes
aged 50 with the following nuns listed:
aged 60, Isabella Hopton aged 50, Agnes
Brook aged 50, Joan Leverthorpe aged 60, Isabella
Rhodes aged 40, Katherine Grice aged 25 and Isabella
Saltynstall aged 24.
in bold type took up residence in Mirfield in a house later known
as Papist or Paper Mill, now demolished. The other three may have
taken over the running of the tavern, afterwards called "The Three
Nuns". The prioress and nuns were given pensions.
Geste of Robyn Hode was probably written about 1489,
this is half a century before the dissolution of the priory in 1539
and indicates that the tradition was accepted around Kirklees and
spread by the ballad to many other parts of England.
to the "Geste", Robyn Hode repaired to
a nunnery, Kyrkly, from where it was claimed he shot his
arrow from one of the two rooms in the upper part of the priory
Gate House. The point at which the arrow landed marked the site
of his final chosen resting place. The prioress is supposed to have
hastened his demise by blood letting .
to the Priores of Kyrkesley which some say was his aunt, a woman
very skylful in physique and surgery; who perseyving him to be
Robyn Hood and waying how fol an enimy he was to religious persons,
tok reveg of him fior her owne house and all others by letting him bleed
Hood is calculated by Hunter & Baines to have died in 1347 at the
age of 77, based upon the gravestone at Kirklees, the year Elizabeth de
Staynton may have been removed from office [others say he died aged 57.]
We might note that this would make Robyn's birth about 1270 . There is absolutely no evidence that the Robert Hood
of the Wakefield Court Rolls was the same person as that supposedly buried
at Kirklees or the he "Contrariant" of Hunter. Hunter calculated his
death date for Robyn from the time since a Robyn left Edward II's service.
Is it partial coincidence or a transcription error that the "gravestone
of Robin Hood" was inscribed with the date 1247 not 1347,
very probably by an over zealous Armytage? Did the prioress die
of natural causes? Was she removed from office by the Bishop
of York or did she commit suicide?2. Perhaps like a
third of the population in the mid 1300's, this person died of the
'pestilence', the Black Death.
relationships by J.W. Walker, Wakefield historian.
is regarded in the "Geste" as being "of Robin Hood's kin". In the
1940's, J.W. Walker found a deed from Woolley Hall near Wakefield
which showed "on John de Staynton's death, his widow Joan [nee Notton]
married Hugh de Toothill of Toothill Hall, Brighouse7.
Elizabeth and her younger sister
may have been sent to Kirklees by William de Notton their guardian
and uncle. Hence it is possible that Robertus Hood of Wakefield was
related to the Prioress of Kirklees through marriage5.
However, others have shown that if Elizabeth entered the priory as
a novice in 1344 at the age of 12 then she would have been too young
perhaps to be prioress in 1347 at the age of 15. [usually they were at
least 30 years of age]
There is also a
reference to a John de Stainton who married Joan [?Notton], their
child being Joan de Stainton. This Joan married John de Dronsfield.
This Joan de Stainton may have been Elizabeth de Stainton's sister.
John and Joan had three children, Agnes, who married John Wentworth
of North Elmshall, Isabel who married John Bosvile of New Hall,
Ardsley and [Sir] William
On William's death [dsp] it is interesting to note that his
estates were divided between the Bosviles [of Ardsley] and the
Wentworths [of North Elmshall], i.e. his sister's families for
in a document from Woolley Hall we have a reference to Elizabeth de
Staynton's admission from the priors of Bretton Priory to Kirklees
Priory [J.W. Walker].
This was the
beginning of a long line of Wentworths'
at Woolley Hall.
A Matilda Hood [nee de Toothill?] perhaps
Elizabeth's step sister, perhaps daughter of Hugh de Toothill in
the Wakefield Manor Rolls in 1314 was fined for collecting firewood
for the manor estate. This Matilda
may have married Robertus Hood of Wakefield. However much of this
appears to be circumstantial and assumed, Walker could have
been drawing a long bow. There is no proved nexus between Matila
Hood and Matilda Toothill. For this reason some doubt has
been cast upon the reliability of Walker's findings by later researchers.
Elizabeth's lover was described in the
"Geste" as Sir Roger of Doncastre. This would have brought
her under the scrutiny of the
Church hierarchy, but such "licentiousness" was often tolerated.
At another de Warenne estate
priory [at Castle Acre in Norfolk] established in 1090 by William
2nd Earl Warrrene for Cluniac monks, there were also reports
of a series of scandals in the 1300's which suggested laxity on
the part of the incumbents.
as always, nothing is so simple as a complication. John Major
concluded that Robyn's death occurred on the 24th December
1247, which is the date given on the false gravestone at Kirklees. However,
it is believed that much of John Major's 'evidence' is of the red-herring
variety. Major's date is exactly 100 years before Hunter's calculated
date [mentioned in the "Geste" as the 22 years spent in Barnsdale
since leaving the king's employ for which in "real life" there is
an account record].
Near his death, Robyn reputedly blew
three blasts on his horn to summon Little John and then supposedly
shot an arrow from his death-bed, in the priory Gate House asking to
be buried where the arrow fell - 580 yards away! [in reality good archers
could project an arrow perhaps 200 paces others claim a maximum of 200
yards. See Battle of Crecy]
Thus it is more likely if this legend is to be believed, the original
grave would have to have been closer to the priory. It may have been
removed later to its present position on the ridge or more likely erected
there primarily to commemorate the death of the man who was supposedly buried
In the 1800's
The Armitage family who owned Kirklees Park, erected railings
around the supposed grave on the ridge to protect the gravestone
from those who believed that fragments of it had curative properties
for toothache and other ailments. The grave was damaged during the
construction of the Yorkshire-Lancashire railway when navvies sought
dental relief from the stone. An inscription probably from the 1600's
inserted on a wall beside Robin Hood's grave in Kirklees Park reads:
text from Leodensis
Hear undernead dis laitl stean
Laiz robert earl of Huntingtun
Nea arcir ver az hie sa geud
An pipl kauld im robin heud
Sick utlawz as hi an iz men
Vil england nivr si agen
Obiit 24 kal Dekembris 1247
The style of the lettering and the abyssmal
phonetic spelling has cast doubt on the date of the inscription.
The fact Gale vitrually hid the piece of paper upon which this record
appears indicates that he himself did not put much store by it. Excavations
failed to reveal any signs of interment. There is circumstantial
evidence that the Armitage family, probably Sir John the Yorkshire
sheriff, had the inscription made.
In 1856 the diary of a John Swallow records somewhat differently19:
"Went to Dewsbury - from thence to Thornhill Lees and dined. Took
to Cooper Bridge and walked to Kirklees Hall. Obtained permission to see
Robin Hood's grave which is enclosed within pallisades. The inscription
perpendicularly, is as follows-
'Under this stone
lies Robin Hood
His death was caused
by letting Blood.
His friend, little
John, has also gone
To stand his trial
and await his doom'
The ballads never claimed Robyn
was the earl of Huntington. This tag did not appear widely until 1598
in Anthony Munday's The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington.
Thus the inscription would appear to be post 1600, the year 1247
probably taken from John Major's work11. This date
does not agree with that of Joseph Hunter's of 1347, exactly one hundred
The Priory History
4 We know that the priory
was founded in 1155 by the son of a William Flandrensis [Fleming]
lord of Clifton,*
one Regnerle Fleming [Reyner or Reginald le Fleming], lord of the manor of Clifton12, in the first or second year
of Henry II. The land grant
was not dated but it was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and
St. James. Here were all orders of the Benedictine nuns including
a strict form of rule called Cistercian, after its foundation at Citeaux
in 1098. The priory's foundation was confirmed by William earl of Surrey
in1236 which was supported by a donation from Regnerle.4 * He
held Clifton and the
vill of Dalton nr.
Kirkheaton of earl de
Warenne and land
in Wath-upon-Dearne as
part of the honour of
le Fleming held
Hartshead Hall which
lay a little to the
east of the original
Kirklees Hall. This
estate passed to the
Radcliffe family while
the manor of Clifton
was retained by the
1200 William de
Lancashire granted all
of Hartshead to his
son Hugh for one
pound of pepper. The
estate passed from
Hugh to his brother Adam
who gave the town of
Harshead to his son
Robert for which he
rendered a pair of
white gloves yearly. Richard de
Hartshead in 1316.22
then sold in 1317 to John Fleming
and it was then
likewise sold to the
Stansfield family, the
Knights of St. John of
Jerusalem and finally
into the Armitage
family of Kirklees.21
Reynald le Flemyng who
was of full age in
1307 is recorded as
the son and heir of
William le Flemyng who
was deceased. Reynald
gave fealty for
Clifton to John de
Warenne 8th earl
of Surrey &c. [W.C.R.
1297-1309, p. 106; C.
I. P. M ., Ed. I vol. IV, (1913) pp.
The Priory Buildings
buildings consisted of a Gate House [still extant], church, cloister,
refectory and a dormitory. The present stone farm buildings may
be from these times. The foundations of the main buildings were
revealed under the guidance of Sir George Armytage in 1902. He concluded
in 1908 that the priory buildings or parts of them had been used as
a residence and the stonework was then removed to build Kirklees Hall
about 1610 which by 1983 had been relinquished and converted into
a priory garden [a garden wall is still evident] and the surrounding
fields were tended for both crops and cattle [the latter evidenced
by disputes with neighbours]. No doubt there would be a dovecote,
orchard and cattle for milk. The Gate House was separate from the
ecclesiastic buildings and would be used for non-church visitors.
There is dispute as to whether the Gate House here is part f the
old priory, certainly the upper structure looks later although this
could be built upon earlier foundations.
Roger Dodsworth a historian from the
1600's states that Robyn came to "Clifton on Calder" and suggests
he may have made the aquaintance of "Little John", such hearsay
was most likely gleaned from the local folk tales of the public house
That a person
by the name of Robin Hood did die and was buried here, Baines
is convinced [providing no evidence] but he correctly
contested the notion that the inscription and date on the grave
cover of 1247 were at all genuine4.
1. 1347 appears
to be a better death date than 1247 for "Robyn Hode" or the suspected
author of the Geste.
2. There does
appear to be a family relationship between "Elizabeth de Staynton"
and "Robert Hood" of
the Wakefield Court Rolls but this is a deflection from the
3. There may
well be a person referred to as "Robert Hode" buried somewhere in
the grounds of the Kirklees
estate but there is no absolute evidence for this
nor is there any evidence that such a person could be the ballad outlaw.
4. There appears
to have been a prioress named Elizabeth de Staynton buried on the
same estate but her
exact period of tenure is not yet known.
5. There are
other contenders for the title "Robin Hood" in the north
6. We had
two great historical phenomena occurring in the 1300's in Yorkshire
|i)The "Great Pestilence"
of 1348-9 which killed 1/3-1/2 of the population in some districts
may have led to the death of many ecclesiastics [who attended burials],
the very young, the old and the sick, not the least of whom could
have been some of the aforesaid characters.
ii) The Elland Feud involving the local nobility.
7. There is a tangible if tenuous link
between the Shire-Reeve's agenda and Margaret de Savile, the
"prioress in waiting".
that arises is in resolving the conflicts presented between
the narrative of the Geste and possible historical
links and other traces of the legend. Further archaeological excavations
and historical references may be required to determine more than
the above bare statements.
Further research supports the concept that the Kirklees gravestone is
a hoax perpetuated from a single conflation of the ballad name 'Kyrkely'
and real place-name, Kirklees. Later imitative ballads and folktales added
to this single error and compounded it until this original speculation has
become considered to be 'fact'.
1. Hunter, Joseph., The Ballad Hero : Robin Hood, London,
Robin Hood's Garland, printed by C. Dicey, early 1700's.
Thoresby, Ralph., Ducatus Leodiensis, 1715
Thomas, Yorkshire History, Past and Present.
G. and Keatman M., Robin Hood, The Man Behind the Myth, O'Mara,
Email communication with Barbara Green, 2001.
Walker, J.W., A copy of a reference to a deed found at Woolley
Hall, in the possession of
Lt.-Cdr. Wentworth [kindly provided by Barbara Green, President
of the Yorkshire Robin
Micheil., The Clans of Scotland, Brian Trodd Ltd., 1991.
Dugdale, William, Sir., Dodsworth, Roger., Monasticon
3 vols folio, London
10. From a
letter to local newspaper by E.R. Short of Brighouse.
[Mair], John., History of Greater Britain, 1521.
Barbara., Secrets of The Grave, Palmyra Press, 2001.[Sketch by
from Leslie Morgan of Wisbey to local newspaper 28th October 1960
by Barbara Green.
Huddersfield: Its History and Natural History.
Manuscript about 1600.
16. From Eileen
Powers book Medieval Nunneries according to Barbara Green, email
Eileen, Medieval Nunneries [after Thompson, Hamilton, The Pestilence
Fourteenth Century of the Diocese of York [Barbara Green, email
19. The Diary of John Swallow, by Sally Walker.
20. Munday, Anthony. The
Downfall of Robert
Earl of Huntington
21. Horsfall, Joseph. The
History of Brighouse,
p. 201. [pdf: 26.9 mb]
Another useful reference if you can
Chadwick, Mirfield Parish Magazine,
Copyright © Tim Midgley 2000, internal
links revised July 2023.