In about 1120 a group of black-robed Augustinian canons and their Prior set up a small religious community in the nearby village of Embsay, two miles from Skipton. Some thirty five years later, in 1154 or 1155, they decided to move and make a fresh start in the more accessible and sheltered pastures by the village of Bolton. It was Lady Alice de Rumilly of Skipton Castle who gave them the land on which to build the Priory, ‘for’, as she put it, ‘the salvation of my soul and those of my predecessors and successors’.
The Augustinian canons soon became accepted by the villagers and the people of the surrounding area. They not only lived together like monks but were also ordained priests, and so were very much involved in village life. They preached, taught, ran a hospital, sheltered travellers and ministered to the local community who came to worship in the Priory. However, their prime duty was a continuous round of prayer and worship, seven times a day, seven days a week, starting with Matins for which they left their beds at 2 a.m. Their priorities were summed up by their guidance ’Before all things, dearest brethren, let God be loved, then your neighbour, for these be the commandments that are chiefly given to us’.
As the reputation of the community grew, it attracted donations from other wealthy patrons who asked the canons to pray for their own souls. This money was wisely invested in a number of farms, mills, lead mines and other enterprises, which in turn brought in extra income from tithes, rents, and the sale of produce. With some of the proceeds, the canons paid groups of travelling masons to extend their living quarters and to construct a great church, as impressive and beautiful as any being built in England at that time. The Priory’s walls still bear masons’ marks, these being the so-called ‘sign manual’ (or in modern language, the ‘signature’ or ‘logo’), of each particular craftsman.
Over the centuries the Priory grew and prospered, despite occasional setbacks caused by raiding Scots, severe winters, agricultural disasters and the Black Death from to 1348 to 1350.