Medieval Monasteries
Image: Byland abbey and the night sky, Text: Terrifying Tales

Monks and nuns loved scaring each other with spooky tales, and hundreds of ghost stories survive from the Middle Ages. Some of the best ones were written down by a monk who lived at Byland Abbey in North Yorkshire, in around 1400.

Discover the story of Byland Abbey, find out about the ghost stories and then have a go at writing your own using our top tips!

Image: ruins of Byland Abbey

The travelling monks

The story of Byland Abbey starts in 1128, when a group of monks founded a monastery at Furness, in Cumberland.  By 1134, there were lots of monks living at Furness Abbey so a new abbot, called Gerold, set out to build another abbey. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by a Scottish army only four years later. Gerold and the monks returned to Furness Abbey to seek shelter, but the abbot there refused to let them in because Gerold would not give up being an abbot.

For the next 40 years, the monks moved around many different places looking for a new home, until they eventually settled at Byland. The monks moved in on Halloween in 1177. By this time, Gerold had died and there was a new abbot called Roger. The monks farmed sheep and sold wool to support the community living at the abbey. They belonged to an order called the Cistercians, and believed that the hardship and holiness of their life put them on ‘the surest road to heaven’.

Image: an illustration showing how Byland Abbey might have looked during the medieval period

A small community

In the 14th century, the monks at Byland Abbey faced new problems.

In 1322, Edward II and his English army were defeated in Scotland. They retreated back into England, but were followed by Robert the Bruce. The Scottish army attacked and robbed Rievaulx Abbey, Byland Abbey, and some other monasteries in the north of England.  

At the same time, the number of lay brothers living at Byland Abbey was going down, and in 1348-9, the plague called The Black Death reduced their numbers even more. Lay brothers did lots of the manual work in the monastery so that the monks could focus on living a simple religious life. They were an important part of the community.

After all of this, there were just 11 monks and 3 lay brothers living at Byland Abbey by 1391.

Image: Byland Abbey at night with two illustrated ghosts and some illustrated bats

Ghastly Ghosts

The 12 Byland ghost stories were written down by one of the monks in a handwritten book from the abbey’s library in about 1400. Almost all of the tales take place in the area surrounding the abbey. Many were said to be based on eyewitness accounts. Gulp!

The ghostly apparitions took the form of hellish hounds and horrible horses, and were of dead people who were stuck in purgatory (a place where people believed that sinners went after death to atone for bad things they had done in life). In each story, the ghost tells the person being haunted to complete a task, like saying some prayers, so that their soul can go to heaven. These tales confirm one of the main purposes of the Byland Abbey monks – to pray for the souls of the dead.

Image: A young girl doing some writing

Over to you

Now it's your turn to have a go at writing your own short ghost story. Make a plan of your story before you start writing. Here are some useful points to think about: 

  • Who? Give your main character a name. What are they like and how will they react to meeting the ghost?
  • Where? Set your story where you live or at a place you know, so that you can describe it well. 
  • What? What will happen to your character, and what kind of ghost will they meet?
  • How? How will they discover the ghost's problem and help solve it?
  • The end. Does your story have a happy ending? How does your character feel after their experience?

When you’ve finished your story, see if you can scare your friends and family with it!

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