Surprisingly little history is known about this North Yorkshire priory, whose fragmented ruins have been allowed to rest peacefully beside the River Derwent. It was sometime during the 1120s that Walter l'Espec founded Kirkham Priory with a community of Augustinian canons. As Lord of Helmsley he later established two houses of the Cistercian Order, the great Rievaulx Abbey close to his estate, and a smaller abbey in Bedfordshire. But, legend has it, that Kirkham Priory was founded in memory of l'Espec's only son who had died close to this site after a fall from his horse.
A simple stone church was soon under construction, but before the end of the 12th century it had been rebuilt and greatly extended with the addition of western towers. It was further enlarged at the eastern end during the next 50 years, but the project seems to have stopped at the crossing, possibly through lack of finance. Later building appears to have consisted of additional chapels, one adjoining the north transept and another on the south wall of the presbytery, and various domestic outbuildings. A solitary standing block of the 13th century east front is the only real clue to the detailed appearance of the Kirkham Priory church.
The entire site has been excavated and, as a result of this exercise, it has been possible to determine the ground plan of Kirkham Priory. Among the scant remains left standing is sufficient evidence to get a flavour of the ambitious schemes undertaken to make Kirkham Priory an ornate place for worship, work and living. A perfect example of this is the late 13th century, twin-bayed lavatorium set in the west wall of the cloister. Despite the disappearance of the lead-lined water troughs, the arched bays contain some splendid decoration. There is a section of the vaulted entrance to the cloister set beneath the remains of the south-west tower, and a fine moulded Romanesque arch that was possibly the doorway from the cloister to the refectory. Perhaps most impressive is the remarkable survival of the front wall of the late 13th century gatehouse, still displaying several heraldic shields, and much of its figure sculpture. As a piece of monastic architecture in the Decorated style it is of rare quality.
In many ways it is sad to see so little left of what surely was a lovely monastery, but on the other hand Kirkham Priory faced the prospect of demise just 20 years after its foundation. With the growing popularity of the Cistercians, it seems an attempt was made to re-site those black canons wishing to remain in the Augustinian Order, and leave Kirkham Priory to come under Cistercian rule. An agreement was drawn up with the monks at Rievaulx Abbey but nothing more is known, except that Kirkham continued as a priory until the time of Dissolution in December 1539.