Once standing in the seclusion of a wooded valley, Monk Bretton Priory has somehow managed to retain an air of dignity and tranquillity within the crumbling walls that offer some protection from 21st century urbanisation and industrial intrusion. At the time of its foundation c1154, Monk Bretton Priory was a Cluniac monastery colonised from nearby Pontefract. After years of rivalry, competing for supremacy and status, Monk Bretton Priory finally broke away from Pontefract in 1281 and became an independent Benedictine house. Apart from a severe fire towards the end of the 14th century, Monk Bretton Priory settled into a remarkably uneventful phase until the time of Dissolution.
As a relatively small house of between 11 and 13 monks, Monk Bretton Priory survived until 1538 when, in November, it was surrendered to Henry VIII. Stripped of all valuable assets, and part of the church being dismantled and re-erected at Wentworth, the monastery stood neglected until the latter part of the 16th century. Bought by the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1589, Monk Bretton Priory was given to his fourth son, Henry Talbot, as a wedding present. Henry converted the prior's lodging, together with several other buildings along the south and west claustral ranges, to create a home for him and his new wife. Passing through several generations, it was eventually purchased by Barnsley Council in the 1930s.
Today the visitor still enters the site through the remains of the late 14th century gatehouse, though many of the monastic buildings survive only at foundation level. The first monastic church measured just 170ft (51.5m) long with four aisled nave bays, but this was much extended by the end of the 15th century. A few low sandstone walls, indicating the transepts and chancel of Monk Bretton Priory church, are all that now survive. As a result of the residential conversion, incorporating a good deal of the original monastic structure, the south wall of the refectory remains standing to a good height, and even two of the beautiful windows still exist. Parts of the west range also remain remarkably intact. Though fine detail and carved stonework is less prominent throughout the ruinous site, there are some examples to be found of the skilled craftsmanship employed in the creation of Monk Bretton Priory. A surprisingly sophisticated drainage system existed during monastic times, and much of this has been splendidly preserved.
Though the surrounding environment may appear rather urban, and heavily residential, do not be dissuaded from a visit. Look beyond the obvious modernity to focus on the meaning of these medieval priory stones. It is amazing how evocative the ruins of Monk Bretton Priory appear against the backdrop of Barnsley.