Fountains Abbey

North Yorkshire


' A place of horror and vast solitude....... '


Hidden away from the outside world, the beautiful remains of the Cistercian Abbey at Skelldale have been almost undisturbed for the past 500 years. The wooded valley of the River Skell shelters not only the extensive ruins of Fountains Abbey, but also contains John Aislabie's 18th century water garden, adorned with Classical temples, towers and statues. Nearby the visitor will also find the High Victorian Gothic Church of St Mary. Designed by William Burges, its typically elaborate decoration make it a striking contrast to simplicity of the ruined Cistercian Abbey in the nearby valley.

The North of England has had a long tradition of monasticism, especially in Yorkshire where abbeys were established as early as the 7th century. Despite the repeated invasions from Scandinavia and William the Conqueror's later destruction of the North, the legacy of these early religious houses soon enabled the continuation of new communities as populations returned to the areas. The quality of the first settlers at Fountains was of the highest order; four of them were to build reputations as men of letters and nine were to win promotion as abbots. However, the early days on the site were to prove difficult, mirroring many of the other similar new settlements who had been thrust out of their communities by the church reformers.

The great west door looking towards the great east window

This was the time of St Bernard of Clairvaux, who was at the height of his influence in the 1130's and 1140's. St Bernard set new examples and ideals throughout the whole Order and was not a force to be easily resisted. From Clairvaux, Cistercian colonisers were to travel westwards to Portugal, north into Scotland and Scandinavia and also well into most of mainland western Europe spreading the word with a newly found fervour. What was to give the Order's expansion its special quality was in part the personal drive of St Bernard himself, but it also certainly owed much to the merits of the message he so energetically preached. Both of these elements came together to bear fruit at Fountains Abbey, the greatest Cistercian community in England.

Fountains was first settled by a splinter group from the Benedictine abbey of St Mary's in York, itself one of the more important houses of the early northern reform and always well capable of attracting recruits. In March 1132, some of St Bernard's Cistercians passed through York on their way to form the new community at Rievaulx. The very example of their teachings was found to be irresistible to some of the Benedictine Order at St Mary's and within a year the more intellectual element of St Mary's had split from their community with the full support of Archbishop Thurstan. After failing to reform the existing community in York, Prior Richard and his companions sought refuge with Archbishop Thurstan. Soon after they founded the site of Fountains on an estate belonging to their patron in the wastelands of South-West Ripon.

View down the nave looking towards the great east window

It seems that all the essential materials were there for the building of the Abbey. There was shelter from the harsh northerly weather, stone was readily available from local outcrops, along with a plentiful supply of timber. Water was also in abundant supply from the River Skell and also possibly from the springs on the steep banks of the valley.

After Archbishop Thurstan confirmed Prior Richard as the first Abbot, work immediately began on building. It is difficult for the visitor today to imagine that the area around the abbey has looked any different from its present beauty. However, the site at Fountains when the first settlers arrived was described as;

' A place of horror and vast solitude, uninhabited for all the centuries back, thick set with thorns and fit rather to be the lair of wild beasts than the home of human beings '

While the monks cleared the ground and prepared it for cultivation and building, they found their first shelter under a rocky overhang and beneath the branches of a great elm tree in what must have been great discomfort. Despite their spiritual zeal and what must have been immense physical work, the community was not viable and it soon became impossible for it to continue. In their despair in 1133, the monks turned to St Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercian order for help. St Bernard of Clairvaux wrote to Henry I in support of the Cistercian Monks who brought Fountains into the Order, 'Which I am resolved to seize by sending our force of Knights' . It is clear here that Bernard is adapting his language to a more military feudal tone Henry would have been familiar with. His force of knights would have been monks from the order.

The north aisle of the church looking east

To the monks in the Skell Valley, their new membership of this now highly organised and dominant French Order, directly under Papal control, seemed at first a betrayal of their ideals, yet this loss of independence was necessary if the community was to survive. In the Autumn of 1135 the abbey was considered sufficiently secure and stable by the Cistercian Order to be admitted, and this was confirmed by King Stephen shortly after.

This transformation to the new order would have involved new rituals and laws and would have been slightly different to what the monks had been used to. The normal rigour of a monks life would have continued as before, but they were forbidden to wear underwear and were given the regulation habit of coarse undyed sheep's wool, which had earned the Cistercian Order their nickname, 'The White Monks'. Another change made was for them to familiarise themselves with the Cistercian language of gesture. This was important as it was the only way communication could be maintained in an order which committed themselves to long periods of silence. Some of these severe regulations would later be dropped, but the Cistercian order were always associated with the qualities of austerity and simplicity.

This simplicity was also carried across into the architecture of their buildings, and Fountains was to be no exception. The architecture was severe, with unadorned styles, relying for impact and effect on large mass and proportion. There would also have been a total absence of ornament and decoration, which was due to St Bernard who insisted it distracted the Monks from their devotions. On the altar there would be a cross made of painted wood and only candlesticks made of iron would have been permitted. Every Cistercian building was built around the same architectural principles, so whenever a Monk travelled to an alien monastery of the order, they would feel more at home due to the familiar surroundings.

The presbytery

In the first programme of building works at Fountains, two characteristics especially stand out. One is the strong Burgundian influence, which was imported directly from the Cistercian homeland, the other being the sheer scale of the design. The Cistercians were not great architectural innovators and almost everything they did has precedents outside of the order. However, many of these early ideas were to come from St Bernard himself.

The early church at Fountains repeats the plain cross but it was later obscured in the next century by new buildings. This cross design was also used in the first church at Rievaulx, and was repeated contemporaneously at Tintern and Waverly in their original building. Another Burgundian characteristic, which is also shared with Rievaulx, was the porch sheltering the main door at the west end and further similarities are the pointed barrel vaults of the aisles.

Both at Fountains and at Rievaulx the communities grew very fast, and while work was in progress in the mid-twelfth century, the pace of recruits showed no sign of slowing. Ailred of Rievaulx died in 1167, but as long as he lived it is reported that there came to his abbey

' from foreign nations and distant lands a stream of monks who needed brotherly mercy and true compassion'

An open door policy on this scale was not unusual among the Cistercian communities, yet there was one thing about the order which gave it a distinction. Two-thirds or more of the community were recruited from amongst uneducated men whose contribution to the order was their labour skills. The Cistercians were not the first to use lay brethren in this way, but Ailred of Rievaulx and his contemporaries were among the earliest to emphasise the spirtual advantage of hard manual work, giving both dignity and holy profit to labour.

The magnificent west range at Fountains

Many of the lay brethren spent much of their lives on the abbey granges and would return regularly to their home monastery, while others were found permanent employment at or in the immediate vicinity of the monastic establishment. They embraced their work and considered themselves as having the same commitment as the monks themselves, with the monastery also being for them the only home they knew. They relieved the monks from the routine jobs of the abbey and worked it's estates so that the monks might devote all of their time to prayer and meditation. They shared the same church, but were cut off from the monks by screens that enclosed the west end of the nave, where they had their own altar. They attended fewer services, were given more food and slept for longer hours, they were the backbone, heartbeat and labour force of the abbey.

Without the lay brothers, Fountains could never have attained its great wealth or economic importance. Many served the Abbey in a wide range of capacities such as tanners, shoemakers, smiths, brewers and bakers, but their primary role was to tend the abbey's flocks of sheep. These animals were kept on the huge estates the abbey had obtained and covered vast areas of the Lake District and Teeside. By the mid 13th century, Fountains had become one of the richest and largest of the religious houses in England.

The first plans of the traditional Benedictine Abbey were to have a relatively modest west claustral range and for a refectory parallel to the cloister on the south. Within just a few decades, the west range, which had been given over to these lay brethren of the community, had proved too small and was soon extended to the magnificent great length we see today. The brothers had their refectory at the ground floor level at the southern end and their dormitory across the top. This also meant that a new refectory had to be built for the monks, so further building had to be undertaken.

The Church was also further extended, in the Nave and also the Chapel of the Nine altars was added with its magnificent east window. Similar building work at Rievaulx also took place around this time, although on not such a grand a scale. In effect, the pressure of numbers and recruitment of lay brethren had forced upon Fountains what was already becoming the standard Cistercian plan after its more modest Benedictine start, things were looking positively bright for the community.

The west range

Most of the abbey's trading was with the wool centres of Europe, Flanders and Italy, but their other businesses also involved cattle rearing, horse breeding, quarrying stone, mining lead and working iron, with many other more minor industrial and agricultural concerns supplementing their incomes.

Economic collapse was inevitable and came in the later half of the 14th century when bad harvests, raids by Scots and the Black Death assisted the effects of previous financial mismanagement. The very presence of the lay brothers had encouraged the monks to extend their estates way beyond what was necessary for their own self-sufficiency and far beyond what they were effectively able to control . The visionary ideals of the first few generations were lost and the new found spiritual life, which had seen them through the early years, was slowly eroded.

Something had to be done and Papal permission was granted for many of the former monastic granges to be rented out to tenant farmers. This soon helped the financial problems and another major change to take place in the 15th century was the move to dairy farming in place of sheep. Although their numbers had suffered considerably through the ravages of the Black Death and crop failures, they now found new prosperity through these ventures. For the rest of the abbey's life, the monks were able to live on the rents and the mixed economy maintained on the granges they had kept in their possession.

Even after these series of setbacks, Fountains always remained one of the more important houses of the Cistercian Order and many of the abbey's abbots sat in Parliament. One of the greatest of these was Abbott Marmaduke Huby (1495-1526) who oversaw a new period of revival. Huby represented the Cistercian Order in England and was responsible for a flood of new recruits into the Cistercian houses. During his abbacy, the usual number of 30 monks at Fountains rose to 52 and he was also responsible for new buildings which included the great Perpendicular tower, which symbolised his great hopes for the abbey's future.

The chapter house arcade.

However, this new prosperity wasn't to last for long and life at the abbey was brought to an abrupt end by Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. King Henry's disagreements with the Pope over the annulment of his marriage was the start of the end for the religious houses and settlements in England. This, coupled with his need for money, led him to evict the foreign power of the church from England as he saw it as a threat to his government and authority.

Dissolution came for Fountains in 1539, when the deed of surrender was signed in the chapter house. The Abbott, Marmaduke Bradley, who was a friend of Henry's and had served him as a commissioner, was rewarded with the standard pension of £100 a year. His Prior received £8 a year and the 30 or so monks who were present at the end received £6 each, the regulated customary amount for a country Priest.

In 1540, the abbey and over 500 acres of it's land were sold by the crown to Sir Richard Gresham. It was then resold by a descendant, William Gresham of Itwood to Stephen Proctor who was responsible for building Fountains Hall nearby with some of the stone from the abbey. The abbey passed through several hands until 1768 when it was purchased by William Aislabie who set about preserving what had remained, it is due to him we are able to see the beautiful ruins and the magnificent gardens today.

The great east window in the chapel of the nine altars

© MWC 2000

Fountains Abbey additional information

Fountains Abbey is managed by The National Trust.

Opening Hours - October - March 10am - 5pm, closes at dusk if earlier. April - September 10am - 7pm.

Entry - Adults £4-30, Child £2-10, family £10-50. National Trust and English Heritage members - Free.

Telephone - 01765-608888.

OS Map - No 99.

Travel - 4 miles west of Ripon off the B6265. Harrogate 12 miles. Leeds 27 miles.

Train - Nearest Station - Harrogate. Bus connections from Harrogate and Ripon - Tel 01423-566061.

Fountains Abbey

The abbey at Fountains is one of the most remarkable ruins in Europe and a visit to the north of England wouldn't be complete without a trip to view these magnificent remains. Access to Fountains is easy, with good directions displayed all around the area, you are eventually guided into the large Car Park and Visitor Centre. This lies about half a mile's walk along a well covered, but steep path to the Abbey ruins in the valley below, care is required for those with walking difficulties or with wheelchairs, but access is by no means impossible.

A World Heritage Site, Fountains lived up to all my expectations and is a truly remarkable place, it's so large. The nave and the great windows all reach their original heights and inside the west range is just breathtaking. The remains themselves are perfectly situated with the nearby River Skell only enhancing its position, I did enjoy my visit to this very special place.

As you leave the visitor's centre, there are two paths which can be taken down to the ruins, one follows a nature trail and the other is a more direct route. Whichever one is chosen, the first glimpse one gets of the Abbey is the perpendicular tower built by Abbott Marmaduke Huby (1495-1526) soaring up to it's original height from the valley below. The further down the side of the valley one goes, more and more is revealed to the lucky visitor, until you are eventually rewarded with the west door entrance and the magnificent west range stopping any further progress.

Take your time here, allow at least a full afternoon to visit as there is such a great deal to see. You will soon find yourself staring in complete awe at your surrounds and time will disappear before you know it. If you intend on walking the whole of the gardens as well as visiting the Abbey, then a whole day should be put aside, as this is not a site where it is possible to skip around in a couple of hours, and neither should you want to. The splendid Fountains Hall is a short walk from the Abbey and the visitor is able to go into the first floor level through the main entrance as part of your admission fee. Some of the building has been divided up into flats, which are possible to rent I believe, but check with the National Trust for further information on this.

In summing up my visit to Fountains Abbey, I had a wonderful afternoon here, the city of Ripon with it's Cathedral is close by and should also be seen if time permits. I would thoroughly recommend a visit to Fountains as it's one of the most magnificent medieval ruins I have ever visited, a diversion on your tour to the north of England will be greatly rewarded by a few hours spent wandering around and relaxing at this lovely peaceful place.

© MWC2000

Information on Fountains Abbbey was obtained from

Fountains Abbey - Mary Mauchline.

Fountains Abbey - R. Gilyard-Beer.

The Foundation of Fountains Abbey - LGD Baker.

Rievaulx Abbey - Charles Peers

The Abbeys and Priories of Medieval England - Colin Platt.

The Monastic Grange in Medieval England - Colin Platt.

The Cistercian View - Christopher Holdsworth.

The Medieval Papacy - Geoffrey Barraclough.

Oxford History of Medieval England - Nigel Saul.

England and it's Rulers - MT Clanchy.

The Making of the Middle Ages - RW Southern.

The Middle Ages Concise Encyclopedia - L.R. Loyn.

The National Trust Handbook 2000.

The Readers Digest Touring guide to Britain.


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