A Brief History of St Robert of Knaresborough by Derrick McRobert
When Robert Flower was born in York between 1160 and 1180 AD there was a strong programme of Christian building, including work which can still be seen at Knaresborough and Goldsborough churches. Robert of Gargrave, one of the thirteen who had established Fountains Abbey (1132) had moved north to start the “New Minster” at Morpeth (1138). Noted for his good works and help to the poor, perhaps Took and Siminima Flower named their son after this holy man who died in 1159.
Young Robert Flower had a very good education and was sent by his parents to study at Newminster. He didn’t stay long and left suddenly “without the knowledge of his parents” who, presumably, had provided funds for Robert’s education. Perhaps ashamed to go home to York, where his father was twice Mayor, Robert went to Knaresborough and lived in a cave with an outlawed knight, but this knight eventually returned to his family, leaving Robert alone.
Robert sought help from a “devout matron”, Juliana, who let him stay and work the land around the Chapel of St Hild at her estate at Rudfarlington, about 2 miles from Knaresborough. Thieves broke into his cell and stole the food he was keeping for the poor, and Robert ran away to the nearby village of Spofforth, where he stayed for some time. His fame as a holy man and friend of the poor spread, and people came to visit and praise him. Robert didn’t like this adulation, and “being tempted to sin by women”, he was offered shelter by the Abbot of Hedley, near Tadcaster. Robert soon left. He insisted on wearing the white Cistercian cowl he acquired at Newminster, but the Benedictines at Headley dressed in black... and he probably found them to be too free and easy.
Robert returned to Rudfarlington. Juliana gave him a barn in which to store his produce, and Robert established a mini-monastery. He had a staff of four; two people to work the land, and a third probably looking after the animals. The fourth, Yvo, accompanied Robert on his rounds begging for alms for the poor. Robert established a monastic life by not allowing talk during meals and often praying all night, alone.
Robert’s confrontation with William de Stuteville starts at Rudfarlington. Stuteville had replaced his brother-in-law, Hugh de Morville (one of the murderers of Thomas Beckett who stayed in the castle in the year 1171) as Constable in 1174. While hunting, Stuteville saw the new barn and despite being told of Robert’s holiness, ordered his men to pull it down and turn Robert and his colleagues out.
Robert, and his flock moved into the chapel of St Giles, near to the cave by the river Nidd, where Robert went to pray. The people soon heard about this and “there flowed to him a stream of nobles and commoners of either sex”. The people of Knaresborough handed over to him a little field which he could cultivate with his own ploughs.
During Richard’s reign, an enormous ransom for the King was raised by taxes. Robert asked Stuteville directly that he should be given a cow for the benefit of the needy who were suffering through their extreme poverty. He gave Robert a most ferocious wild cow that no-one would approach. Finding the beast in the forest Robert twined his hands around her neck and led her, peacefully, back home. One of Stuteville’s men tried to get the cow back by disguising himself as a pauper/cripple. Robert agreed, but when the man tried to lead her away he had become.... a cripple. Asking forgiveness he recovered the use of his limbs. A window showing this story made in 1437 was in the chancel of the parish Church until the Civil War.
Stuteville saw smoke rising from Robert’s fire near the cave and again ordered him to leave, but had a dream about having hand-to-hand combat with Robert’s defenders. He asked for forgiveness and gave Robert more land, two horses and two cows and a yearly grant and alms to alleviate the poor.
When John, a keen huntsman, became King, he ordered all hedges and fences to be thrown down to allow his deer to roam free. Robert protested to the Lord (probably Nicholas Stuteville) complaining of the damage. As a joke Robert was told to shut them in the barn and to “use them with the plough”... which Robert did .There is a medieval window of this tale in St. Matthew’s church Morley, Derbyshire. A similar window also once adorned Knaresborough church.
Robert’s brother, Walter, a mayor of York, sent workman to make the buildings better. William Stuteville, and his young son, both died about the same time, and his brother Nicholas tried to take over the lordship of Knaresborough. John fined him and this debt became the major cause of the Barons’ revolt and Magna Carta in 1215.
John made frequent visits to Knaresborough. In April 1210, he demanded a service on Maundy Thursday and presented gifts to paupers of Knaresborough, the first recorded act of the Royal Maundy, which continues today. After Magna Carta, the northern Barons demanded that the Castle be handed back to Nicholas Stuteville but Brian de L’Isle, the new constable, stood firm and refused. King John and Brian de L’Isle, visited Robert, probably in February 1216. Robert was at prayer and remained kneeling. Brian ordered him to stand for the King. Robert showed John an ear of corn and asked him “is your power such, my Lord King that you can make something like this out of nothing“?
When offered aid by John, Robert said that the Christian only needs Christ, but when prompted by Ivo, asked for help and was given more land nearby. John also let Robert add a small chapel to his cave, just like the chapel of St. Radagrande at Chinon, where he had lived as a child, perhaps he hoped to be immortalised at Knaresborough as he is in a wall-painting at Chinon.
Robert had lived on a very poor diet and feeling that death was approaching, warned Ivo that the monks of Fountains would want to take his body to their abbey, but Robert wanted to be buried in his “house”. The monks at Fountains brought a clean new habit for his burial, which Robert rejected, and after his death they tried to take the body away but were prevented by an armed band from the Castle. Many people came to visit the site.
In 1238 miracles were recorded. Richard of Cornwall (John’s son) added more land to the little monastery, but the buildings become dilapidated and in 1252 the Trinitarians arrived and moved the body to their priory a little upstream. Robert’s shrine at the Priory became a major pilgrimage centre. The King (Henry III) gave three oaks from the forest for the building, and more financial support came with the livings of churches at Fewston, Pannal, Whixley and Thorner. Matthew Paris describes Robert’s shrine as one of the most important 13th century shrines and also mentions the healing waters nearby (probably well at St Giles’s chapel). By 1450s the monks had built a conduit to take water from the dropping-well over the river to the priory.
In December 1538 the priory surrendered to the crown. John Leyland visited the town and the priory but does not mention the shrine. In the 1660s the stone from Robert’s grave was taken by the Slingsby family and used on the grave of Sir Henry in St. John’s (Parish) church. As this is long after the dissolution perhaps it had been used to hide Robert’s grave. In 1745 the body of Daniel Clark, murdered by Eugene Aram and Richard Houseman was buried in the cave, and exhumed in 1758.The foundations of the chapel at the cave were unearthed by Parkinson in the 1840s and in the twenty-first century, St. Robert’s cave is still attracting “pilgrims” though we now call them tourists, and Robert’s memory is still inspiring people.