Craswall is one of three foundations established in England by the French Order of Grandmont in the first half of the 13th century; the others are in Yorkshire and Shropshire respectively. Grosmont, near Whitby in Yorkshire has disappeared almost without trace. It was the first house to be established and the last to be dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536. Alberbury in Shropshire was confiscated as an ‘alien’ priory by Henry VI in 1441 and gifted to All Souls College, Oxford whose property it remains and who lease it as a farm. Only the presbytery of the church together with the north chapel remains. Utilised centuries ago for living accommodation, these areas have been subjected to numerous alterations and their present day aspect is typical of a late Victorian farmhouse.
In common with Alberbury, Craswall was confiscated by the Crown in 1441 and gifted in turn to God’s House later united with Christ’s College, Cambridge. Although it is in an appalling state of ruin, the fact that it has been allowed to simply moulder has saved it from the alternative and worse fate suffered by Alberbury and it has retained its unique Grandmontine ground plan. In this respect it rivals in importance the numerous French sites of the order, which, like Alberbury, have been altered and mutilated for various purposes but principally to adapt them for use as farm buildings. Craswall is exceptional in that whilst it has suffered from centuries of weathering it has been spared the even more damaging onslaughts of man.
By comparison with the architecture of the better known monastic orders, that of the Grandmontines appears a very poor relation indeed. Its singular interest lies in its comparative changelessness. Other sites bear witness to modifications resulting from several centuries of change in monastic custom and culture but the Grandmontine houses have, for the most part, remained true to the original austere ideals inspired by the Rule especially with regard to their churches.
What may be seen at Craswall today is the result of the partial excavations which were carried out between 1904-06. Unfortunately, a considerable amount of masonry was exposed which has deteriorated considerably as the result of weather and encroaching vegetation. Much of the site, however, still lies buried and, to a certain extent protected, beneath the present ground level. The overall plan of the site even in its present lamentable state is remarkably clear and although it manifests some very puzzling features, it remains a perfect example of a Grandmontine ‘cell’ and as such is unique in England. In its basic form Grandmontine architecture is not dissimilar from that of the more familiar monastic orders, albeit on a much smaller scale; the cloister at Craswall measures only 20.4 x 19.5. The cells were never intended to house large numbers of religious. A typical Grandmontine cell, therefore, comprised church and conventual buildings grouped round a cloister in the usual fashion. The whole precinct containing monastery and outbuildings was surrounded by a wall and what appears to be a particular Grandmontine feature, a peripheral fosse or moat. Another omnipresent feature is the fishpond.