North Riding of Yorkshire

Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire

Cistercian Monks

The serene and peaceful Fountains Abbey was born of dissent and rioting in York. Thirteen monks for the Benedictine Abbey of St. Mary in York rose up against the authorities there in 1132 saying that the Brothers had strayed too far from the rule of St. Benedict. There was a riot at the Abbey and the 13 monks were exiled under the protection of the Archbishop of York.

He gave them land in the Skell River valley which was described as “more fit for wild beasts than men to inhabit” and they set up their first buildings there in the winter of that year. Against all the odds the breakaway group survived, and indeed thrived, and less than three years later were admitted to the Cistercian Order – an Order of Monks even more austere than strict Benedictines.

Because Cistercian life was plain and somewhat harsh, their Abbeys always had a sizeable proportion of lay-brothers. At Fountains Abbey they became the backbone of the Monastery, allowing the religious brothers to concentrate on Godly things whilst they dealt with the day-to-day business of food, cleaning and maintenance.

By the middle of the 13th Century Fountains was one of England’s richest monastic houses, and certainly the richest in Yorkshire. Not only was farming carried out here, but also lead mining, working iron, tanneries, shoemakers, quarrying and horse breeding. Alas, the Abbey over-reached itself and in the 14th Century a series of misfortunes laid it at the door of bankruptcy. First there was a series of bad harvests, then Scottish raids, and finally the Black Death arrived and left the Abbey a shadow of its former self.

The Abbey survived and by the mid-15th Century was thriving once more; during the Abbacy of Marmaduke Huby (1495-1526) a great tower was added to the Abbey Church which his the dominant feature to this day. Just as Fountains was becoming important once more the Dissolution arrived and brought everything to a very sudden stop.

After the Cistercians were pensioned off in 1539 the Abbey stood empty for a while as debate was entered whether to turn it into a Cathedral for the Dales. Eventually it was decided this would not happen and by 1540 the glass and lead was being removed to Ripon and York, which allowed the harsh Yorkshire winters to begin to eat away at the fabric of this magnificent structure.

The large estate was still kept intact and went through a series of owners, one of these was Stephen Proctor who built nearby Fountains Hall (partly re-using stones from the Abbey ruins). In 1767 the Estate came to the ownership of William Aislabie who landscaped the grounds and created the famous Studley Royal Water Gardens using the remaining ruins of the Abbey as a kind of elaborate garden feature.

All of this – the magnificent Abbey, Fountains Hall and the by-then derelict Water Gardens passed to the National Trust in 1983 and is one of the absolute jewels in their crown, particularly now the Water Gardens have been fully restored.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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