Finchale Priory (pronounced "finkle") dates back to 1196AD, when it was founded on the site of a hermitage dedicated to St John the Baptist. The stone chapel of the hermitage became invested as the priory church.
Finchale Priory was a Benedictine religious house, and a dependency of the priory of Durham. Bishop Hugh Pudsey endowed lands upon Finchale immediately upon its foundation, to enable the priory's eight monks and prior to support themselves.
Further endowments followed over the following decades, and by 1241AD the monks were wealthy enough to consider replacing the modest chapel with a grander church. Building work commenced in 1242AD, and the new church was complete by around 1264AD. In 1266AD, a chapel dedicated to St. Godric (founder of the hermitage) was added in the south transept of the church.
Further building work continued during the life of the priory, such as the narrowing of the nave and chancel in the 1360s and 1370s, up until the building of the hospitium and additions to the prior's lodgings in the mid 15th Century.
During the latter part of its life, Finchale was nominally home to eight monks. However, only four of these were permanent residents, while four were visiting monks. Finchale was, in effect, a rural retreat for the monks of Durham. Each group of four visitors was allowed four weeks at the priory, and was expected to abide by special rules:
Two were every day to be present at mattins, mass, vespers, and the other services in the choir, while the other two had liberty to ramble in the fields 'religiously and honestly,' provided that they were present at mass and vespers. All four visitors were to sleep in the dormitory with the four resident monks, but they were allowed a special chamber with a fire and other comforts, to which they might resort when they pleased, and the prior assigned a servant to wait on them. Each of the visitors was to celebrate high mass at least once a week, and on Sunday all were to be present in the chapter and at the Lady-mass.
There was in the priory a room known as the 'player chamber,' which is supposed to have been appropriated to dramatic representations, such as mysteries or miracle plays, and to such amusements as listening to the minstrels and gleemen who visited the house.
Never a wealthy house, Finchale Priory nevertheless survived comfortably as a virtual protectorate of Durham. It was one of the first wave of religious houses to fall victim to the dissolution, which forced its closure in 1535AD.
Today, Finchale Priory still benefits from a spectacularly picturesque rural location, nestled in a bend of the River Wear. The far banks of the Wear are densely wooded, lending the abbey a particularly scenic backdrop. Unfortunately, the priory lies within the grounds of a caravan park, and entrance to the site is via an automated barrier - for which tokens much be purchased at the site office. The feel is very commercial, and the priory is overrun with residents from the campsite - which doesn't allow much room for ambience or tranquillity. The ruins are extensive and the setting is perfect, but I would strongly recommend visiting this site out of season if you wish to enjoy any kind of atmosphere.