On Sunday, 25th October, we set off from Newark and up the A1 on our way up to Yorkshire. Along with us was the younger of our two daughters, Louise (afairymind on WordPress). The three of us had decided to have a day out at Fountains Abbey to celebrate our wedding anniversary and Lou’s birthday the previous day.
Fountains Abbey is one of the best preserved Cistercian abbeys in England and is located 3 miles south-west of Ripon, near to the village of Aldfield in North Yorkshire.
It stands in the valley of the River Skell, which flows eastwards from the boggy, Dales moorland until it enters the grounds of Studley Royal Park, past Fountains Hall and the ruins of Fountains Abbey:
The first monks came to this valley on December 27th 1132. The thirteen devout monks had become dissatisfied with the extravagant lifestyle of the monks at the Benedictine Abbey in York and wanted to return to the simpler teachings of St. Benedict. This led to a riot, and under the protection of Thurstan, the Archbishop of York, they fled the abbey to stay at his palace in Ripon. The archbishop’s lands included those alongside the River Skell, which he granted to these monks in order to build their new abbey.
The monks survived the winter by sleeping beneath an elm tree, with only straw for covering themselves. Their only food was the bread sent to them by Archbishop Thurstan. Desperate for help they wrote to Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux in France, who willingly offered to help.
The first wooden church was quickly contructed, to be replaced some years later by a small one of stone. In 1160, masons completed the great Abbey Church – the ruins of which we see today – using sandstone cut from the cliff on the valley side:
Building work continued until all the structures necessary to the running of a monastery had been completed. These would include: a Guest House, an Infirmary for sick and elderly monks, the Abbot’s House and a Chapter House. Several rooms, some set around the open Cloister, such as the Refrectory (dining room) Warming house and Library, served for everyday needs.
The abbey prospered and the area around it would once have been very busy. Lay brothers worked the land to provide grain and vegetables, and tended sheep for meat and fleeces. High quality fleeces were sold as far away as Flanders and Italy. The Water Mill on the Skell would have been in full swing, grinding wheat into flour, and a tannery and brewery thrived. Fountains grew to become one of the wealthiest abbeys in Europe, at its height throughout the 1200s. This model, now in the old Porter’s Lodge, shows what the abbey wooold have looked like in its heyday:
Here are a few pictures of the exterior of the abbey:
Trouble struck in the 1290s when the abbey’s own financial mismanagement led to debts. Sheep disease, and failed harvests due to the changing climate, made the situation very serious. On top of all this were the raids by the Scots (famine in Scotland was severe) followed by the Black Death of 1349-50.
The Black Death killed a third of the population of the country, including monks. There were now too few lay brothers o work the land, so it was rented out to provide income. In the late 1400s, powerful abbots began a revival, which included the building of Huby’s Tower, still seen today. More and more monks were attracted to Fountains and, once again, it became the richest abbey in England … but not for long.
Henry VIII’s disagreements with the pope over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, together with his need for more funds, led to the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
At Fountains Abbey, the deeds of surrender were signed in the Chapter House in 1539 – ending over 400 years of worship at the abbey. The lands were sold to raise money for Henry. Its new owner was Richard Gresham, who bought the estate for a hefty £11,000.
The one condition of sale was that Gresham should render the Abbey Church and Chapter House unfit for religious use. The roofs were pulled down using horse and rope, and the lead from them and glass from the windows were sold by to offset the hefty purchase price he’d paid. With no monastic community to support them, the tannery, brewery, and other workshops just fell into disrepair. The abbey stone became a source of ready-cut building stone for anyone who wanted to buy it.
Gresham and his family rarely visited but 60 years later a local man, Stephen Proctor bought the Fountains Abbey Estate and surrounding land. It was he who had Fountains Hall constructed – which he was living in by 1604.
But it was not until much later that the owner of the neighbouring Studley Park, William Aislabie, was able to purchase the Abbey Estate in 1767, so combining the two. I won’t go into detail about this, except to say that the lake and water gardens that we walked around, with their follies and statues, were all part of the work done by the Aislabie family. It was they who also had all the rubbish cleared out of the Abbey Church. The deer park and St. Mary’s church are also part of Studely Park. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see any deer rutting, although it’s the right time of year. A couple of stags had a little confrontation, but one of then soon backed off, so that was that.
The building next to the lake which is now the Studley Tea Rooms dates back to 1860 and was probably built for the estate stewards of the first Marquess of Ripon.
Finally, here are some photos of the ruins of Fountains Abbey as they are today:
Above a window on the outer wall of the very back of the abbey from the main entrance is a small sculpture of the Green Man – a well known figure in the old pagan beliefs. The reason why he adorns a Christian abbey, as well as many other churches and such like around the country is deserving of a short post in itself. For now, here he is:
For a visit to Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Park (the whole area is designated a World Heritage Site) you need a whole day. The Park alone has much to see, and a visit to the Mill takes a while – which we didn’t do this time. There’s a restaurant at the Visitor Cente at the main entrance, and a couple of tea rooms around the site. Then, of course, there’s Fountains Abbey itself… Well worth taking time over. And if you’re members of either The National Trust or English Heritage, entrance is free.
If you’d like to see some additional, super photos from around the site, take a look at Louise’s post at thestorytellersabode.