There was trouble at St Mary’s Abbey in York. Some of the monks felt that monastic practices had strayed too far from the original values set out by the blessed St Benedict. In 1132, influenced by a band of Cistercians passing through the city, thirteen of St Mary’s monks rebelled. However, Archbishop Thurston sympathised with them and granted them land in Skelldale to found a new abbey, based on more fundamentalist principles. The land provided them with the basics – water, stone, timber, a little natural shelter – and was suitably remote; but it was also 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.” Life wasn’t going to be easy, but this was the beginning of a famous religious house that would last 400 years, until a king brought it down. Because of the springs of water thereabouts, it came to be known as Fountains Abbey.
All of the great medieval monasteries were dissolved by Henry VIII between 1536 and 1541. Ironically, the remains of Fountains Abbey are the largest monastic ruins in the United Kingdom, and part of a World Heritage Site. Conversely, what remains of St Mary’s, once the richest abbey in the north of England and home to Fountains’ founding fathers, can be more modestly contained in the gardens of the Yorkshire Museum, and only enthusiasts or locals know it ever existed.
Three years after they established their house by the River Skell, the Fountains monks were accepted into the Cistercian order. This was a relatively new monastic rule that originated from the village of Citeaux, in Burgundy. It preached a return to the strict observance of the 6th century Rule of St Benedict, with great emphasis on manual labour, self-sufficiency and solitude. The monks were allowed no personal property, ate little and wore habits made from coarse undyed wool without underwear. The colour of the robe gave them the name “white monks” and they used sign language to communicate during long periods of silence. Ultimately, there were 86 Cistercian houses in Britain; Fountains was the 4th to be established.
At first, the buildings at Fountains were timber-framed. But, gradually, more permanent buildings took shape – the abbey church, cloisters, dormitories, refectory, stores, guest lodgings, abbot’s house, hospital – even a prison. The great tower, which is 168 feet high, was one of the last structures to be built, by Abbot Marmaduke Huby in the early 16th century.
Medieval Cistercian monasteries – and Fountains was no exception – tended to be economic power-houses that became incredibly wealthy. They were also communities where every conceivable trade was carried out – tanning, baking, metal-working (at nearby Riveaulx Abbey there was even a blast furnace), mining, animal husbandry and, most of all, wool production. Fountains’ wealth was largely based on wool, which it exported all over Europe. In addition to the monks, which at Fountains numbered anything between 30 and 50, there were at least twice as many, usually illiterate, lay brothers. The lay brothers did most of the physical work, had fewer and less onerous religious obligations, and were unpaid. This left the monks free to concentrate on their devotions – and directing activity. It was a highly successful business model, though temporarily derailed when the Black Death of 1349 killed a large percentage of the workforce. After that, the monks rented their extensive lands to tenant farmers and got rich on the rents. By 1535, Fountains was the most affluent Cistercian monastery in England. The abbot’s house, apparently, was the height of 15th century luxury.
One outcome of the English Reformation under Henry VIII was the dissolution of monasteries. The Reformation, from Henry’s point of view, was more political than doctrinal; and the dissolution (or destruction) of the monasteries produced a short-term economic windfall for the Crown. Fountains Abbey was dissolved in 1539 and, ultimately, the estate was sold off. The last Abbot, Marmaduke Bradley, is alleged to have done a deal with the King’s men and then retired with a pension. Most clerics, in fact, were treated well and pensioned off – provided they accepted the King’s authority. Bradley’s predecessor, Abbot Thirsk, on the other hand was accused of mismanagement, theft, sacrilege – and then hanged at Tyburn for treason. There is no doubt that some churchmen (and women) were corrupt, and had strayed far from their original purpose; but by no means all. And there were unfortunate social consequences arising from the dissolution – places like Fountains cared for the poor, provided hospitals, a degree of education and quite a lot of employment; nothing replaced them. So you can see that the UK government has been grappling with the fallout from Henry’s policies for almost 500 years.
What strikes me most about Fountains Abbey is the sheer size of the place – and I don’t just mean the massive ruins. The car park is enormous and the somewhat ugly visitor centre brings home what big business the heritage industry is in the UK now. I guess that’s very appropriate here, given that monasteries were big business in their day. It’s also good to have somewhere reasonable for a comfort break and a cuppa – and this particular attraction is large enough to soak up more than 330,000 visitors each year.
For me the highlights of Fountains Abbey start with the astonishing east window in the Chapel of the Nine Altars and the nearby columns, which just seem to soar upwards with so much grace. Then there’s the length of the nave of the abbey church – some 385 feet, I believe: it simply dwarfs everything and anyone within it. And the feature many people pick out – the cellarium, where fleeces were stored – 19 pillars supporting an astoundingly beautiful vaulted ceiling about 300 feet in length. Remember we’re looking at medieval architecture here. It’s a privilege just to wander through the place, soaking up the atmosphere, listening for the monks discussing business in the chapter house, the slap-slap of sandal-bound feet in the cloisters, the scrape of bowls in the refectory and (so it is said) a heavenly choir chanting in the Chapel of the Nine Altars. When the wind is right. Don’t use that imagination of yours in the reredorter, which is a polite term for the latrines.
The ruins of Fountains Abbey are now part of Studley Royal Park, an 800 acre estate that includes an outstanding Georgian water garden at the other end of the valley and a medieval deer park (though the deer are quite modern, really). The entire park is a designated World Heritage Site.
Go to A Bit About Britain’s directory for more information about Fountain’s Abbey and to find other sites.