Legend of Seleth
In connection with the abbey of Kirkstall is the legend of Seleth, which is as follows: —
It was early in the beginning of the eleventh century, in the reign of Henry I., when Philip swayed the sceptre of France, Edgar that of Scotland, and Paschal II. was Pope.
Far removed from the factions of ambition, and the dangers of war, Seleth, a poor shepherd, wandered from his native country of the South, not doubting but his steps were directed by a supernatural power. For, in the visions of his nightly slumbers, the holy Virgin appeared unto him saying, — ''Arise, Seleth ! and go into the Province of York, and seek diligently, in the Valley of Airdale, for a place called Kirkstall; for there shalt thou prepare a future habitation for Brethren serving my Son." And Seleth trembled in his sleep, and was fearfully troubled: but the vision continued, — "Fear not, Seleth! I am Mary, the Mother of Jesus of Nazareth, the Saviour of the world." Upon which he arose, and betook himself to travel, in search of Kirkstall, living upon charity, and the spontaneous productions of the earth: when, after having escaped great dangers and fatigues, he arrived at the entrance of a shady valley, which some herdsmen informed him was the place he was in search of. Here he fixed his solitary abode, paying his devotions to the Holy Jesus, and to the blessed Virgin.
Long was his humble cell revered by the neighbouring villagers, and visited by the curious, or the pious. In times of distress, the intercessions of Seleth were resorted to; and the Hermitage of Kirkstall was famed throughout the country.
The report of his piety and self-denial reaching the ears of some young devotees, Seleth was persuaded by them to accept the office of superior: and their united body was formed into a small community, building themselves cells beside the River Aire, and regulating themselves by the rules of the Brethren of Lerath, enjoying all things in common; and procuring a livelihood by the labour of their hands.
It appears that the monastery of Mount St. Mary's, Bernoldswick, founded by Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, according to a vow which he made during an illness, was suffering grievously at this time, partly from the ill-will of their neighbours, whose possessions this recently-established fraternity had displaced, and by reason of the depredations of the rebel armies of those northern counties who were at war with Stephen. The local situation of the monastery was, also, not altogether satisfactory. The soil's produce was scant, and what of it there was was liable to be washed or rotted away by the "great rains" there, so that it was with no uncalled-for amount of inward rejoicing, that Alexander the Abbot, whilst upon the business of his house, and passing through the rich and peaceful valley of Air, that he came across the humble settlement of Seleth.
The Abbot, learning the particulars of their origin and situation, and pleased with the beauty of the Vale, the river flowing through it, and the conveniency of the wood for building, deemed it a proper place for the seating of his Abbey. He therefore began gently to admonish the brethren of the insufficiency of their present state for the safety of their souls; urging the smallness of their number; that they, being all laymen, and without a priest, were like sheep without a shepherd; and advising them to adopt some more perfect form of religious government. Whereupon several of them agreed to become monks in his convent; and others, receiving a small sum of money for their habitations, departed.
The Abbot, in the meantime, repaired to Henry de Lacy, their Patron, and laid before him the present state of their house, their poverty and distress; he acquainted him with the desirable spot they had discovered at Kirkstall, and — in short, the thing was done.
- Robinson, C. Clough. (1862). The dialect of Leeds and its neighbourhood. London: J.R. Smith, pp. 348-350.