This adored son, though a good horseman, was thrown from his hunter and killed. The grief of his parents equalled that of the Lady of Egremont: they were rich in gold and land and had no heir. In his sorrow Sir Walter applied to the Rector of Garton, his uncle, for consolation, and the good priest advised him to make Christ his heir, by devoting his wealth to the foundation of churches and religious houses.
Sir Walter took his counsel to heart, and founded the Abbeys of Kirkham and Rievaulx, in Yorkshire, and Wardon, in Bedfordshire. It is said that the altar of Kirkham Priory (where masses would be said for his soul) was placed on the very spot where the heir of the L'Especs had met his early death.
The ruins of Kirkham can be seen from the York and Scarborough Railway, and can be visited either going to or returning from Castle Howard. The ruin, with its fine tall Gothic arch, has the Derwent in front, falling in a mimic cascade, and rich woodland scenery in the background. The principal portion of the ruin, as it now stands, is the gateway; judging from which the priory must have been a magnificent building. The gateway is said to date from the time of Edward I. It is very slightly pointed, an example of the transition from the Early English to the Decorated style of architecture. It is surmounted by a large pediment, crocketed and terminating in a finial. Above the archway are two windows with two lights each with trefoil heads. Above the windows, and over the spaces adjoining and between them, are four crocketed pediments. The whole is surmounted by a broken quatrefoil panelling. Between the windows are two niches with statues, much mutilated; there are other niches on the gateway, in which some statues still remain. Among them are St. Peter, David and Goliath, St. George and the dragon, etc. There are also heraldic shields bearing the arms of the priory, etc. Of the church the east-end of the chancel remains, and its mouldings and carvings are of great beauty: some portion of the cloisters are also still to be seen.
A very singular tradition belongs to Kirkham Priory.
Henry VIII., at the dissolution, bestowed the priory, then a nunnery, on one of his courtiers, a greedy and heartless man. He took immediate possession, insisting on the instant departure of the nuns, with great harshness and cruelty. They issued forth, sad and weeping at leaving their lovely home for the cruel and unknown world; the stately abbess leading them.
The chapel of the convent was at the time being rebuilt, and was, as yet, only half finished. The lay proprietor, who required a new wing for his house, availed himself of the circumstance, and removed a great part of the sacred edifice for the purpose of building the addition to his dwelling.
One day, while he was superintending the workmen, the abbess, attended by six of the most aged and venerable nuns, suddenly appeared before him, and, rude and fierce as the knight was, he received her with sullen courtesy, impressed by her dauntless and stately bearing.
"When," she said solemnly, "you drove me and mine from our holy shelter I breathed no word of anger or reproach against you, but taught my daughters to submit to persecution with a meek patience. But it was told me in my place of refuge that the spoliator of the church had laid profane hands on walls consecrated to divine worship, and behold I am here! I, a weak woman, stand boldly forth the champion of my Church, and in her name I curse the house that is established by sacrilege. Every third heir of every branch of thy family that shall possess the desecrated heritage of the Church shall perish untimely, beginning with thy son's son, who never shall enjoy the wealth thou hast perilled thy soul to gain." She turned and left him.
The curse has been strangely fulfilled. Till the middle of the present century every third heir of Kirkham has died - at least a very singular coincidence. The last died of consumption, and another family now possesses Kirkham.