The great abbey of Furness

Last updated on March 30th, 2024 at 12:20 pm

Furnbess Abbey, visit Cumbria

The first thing that struck me about Furness Abbey was how red it is. The second thing was the girl in the visitor centre and the third was drainage; but we’ll come onto all that later. For the moment, all you need to know is that the great red sandstone abbey of Furness was once the second richest Cistercian monastery in England after Fountains in Yorkshire, and that it’s located in Barrow in Furness.  Being in Barrow in Furness, a town famous for submarine-building and which once boasted the largest steelworks in the world, must be a mixed blessing for a medieval ruin, because, nestling at the end of Cumbria’s remote South Lakes peninsular (and for no other reason), it can’t get a lot of passing trade: on the other hand, logic suggests that, because the abbey’s visitors are more likely to have made a conscious decision to get there, the majority will be the classier kind of grockle.

That was obviously the case when I made my way to Furness Abbey one sunny October morning. Moreover, I was pretty much the only one there.

Furness Abbey

Now it’s time to introduce The Girl. Not in any erroneous, inappropriate, way (though it would make a good novel, if someone cares to write it, and I’m already seeing Tom Hanks in the movie), but merely to remark how helpful and bright she was. English Heritage – for ‘tis they who manage Furness Abbey – seem to have a knack for recruiting people who are courteous, intelligent and knowledgeable, rather than the pompous, cocky, personnel that sometimes sneak their way into National Trust employment. I generalise, of course; not something I normally do. Anyway, this young English Heritage lady knew her stuff and, without being patronising, pointed out various not-to-be-missed monastic highlights on a plan. She also mentioned that one really shouldn’t miss the fascinating displays in the visitor centre, which I was just about to walk past.  I hope she gets promoted.

Furness Abbey, cemetery
Infirmary, Furness Abbey, Cumbria

Having an entire medieval abbey almost to yourself is an experience everyone should have. There were no guides, just me and the ruins.  Don’t get me wrong, guides are usually lovely (“Hello, all you guides!”) – and where would heritage be without volunteers? (“Hello, wonderful volunteers!”) – but it is incredibly liberating to simply wander about at will, without feeling a beady eye watching your every move like a disapproving maiden aunt, or hearing a well-meaning twitter while you’re closing your eyes trying to picture what it must have been like, back in the day.  All of these abbey ruins – and I don’t know how many there are in Britain, but it’s quite a lot; all of these places were once living, working places – the powerhouses of their time. It’s hard to imagine sunlight streaming in through intricately-framed windows, highlighting the limewashed walls and brightly painted features; statues in now empty niches; the richness of the altars; the soft singing of the cowled monks… The cloister, now largely disappeared and open to the elements, was once closed in and used for study and contemplation.  Hints of Furness Abbey’s richness can still be seen, though – perhaps most noticeably in the sedilia, the intricately canopied seats used by the monks near the high altar. But also check out the fine vaulted ceiling in the chapel that once served the infirmary.

Sedilia, Furness Abbey
Night stairs, Furness Abbey
Vaulted ceiling, infirmary chapel, Furness Abbey
Cloister, Furness Abbey

It is easy to forget how sophisticated and organised our ancestors could be.  Just because they didn’t have someone like Jeremy Corbyn leading a serious political party, it doesn’t mean their society was backward in any way.  Which of course brings me onto drainage; civilised life needs good drains. Maybe I haven’t been paying proper attention at other ruined abbeys (probably), or maybe it’s because understanding jumbled masonry isn’t a strong point, but the drainage at Furness Abbey is clear to see and brings home the fact that there were clever, and experienced, minds behind the whole complex.  Maybe it just struck me because the water bubbling by the old stonework looked jolly attractive.  Anyway, there it is – a water course sensibly flushing out the reredorter (monks’ toilets) and then continuing on through the kitchen, with another drainage channel running by the infirmary and its adjoining reredorter.  It’s one thing to build a structure, but quite another to design it in such a way that it works – many modern architects struggle with this concept – but the people who designed and built Furness Abbey, and the other great monastic houses, knew exactly what they were doing.  Of course, they made alterations and additions over the centuries; the ruins at Furness Abbey date from the 12th to the 16th centuries.

Furness Abbey
Reredorter, toilet, Furness Abbey, drain
Drain, reredorter, Furness Abbey

Interestingly, but unfortunately from a photographic perspective, there was a massive Meccano-like structure propping up the business end of the abbey church.  This was part of very necessary conservation work to prevent the building falling; it appears that the clever medieval masons who did so well with the drains used large sections of oak in the foundations, rather than inventing reinforced concrete; still, I don’t think it’s done too badly given that it’s at least 500 years old, do you?

Furness Abbey, conservation work

So who built Furness Abbey and what happened to them?

In 1124, the Count of Boulogne and Mortain, Stephen, grandson of William the Conqueror and King of England from 1135 to 1154, invited twelve grey-robed Savigniac monks to set up base at Bulket (Tulketh), near Preston, in Lancashire. The Savigniac order was founded at Savigny on the border of Normandy and Maine in 1105, and Tulketh was the first of twelve houses they would establish in Britain, plus one on the Isle of Man and two in Ireland.  Three years and three days after settling in Tulketh, the monks moved to the Vale of Beckansgill, now the Vale of Nightshade, on the Furness peninsular. Bekan (or beckan) is an early name for deadly nightshade.  Nothwithstanding, the location was sheltered, with a good water supply and ready access to timber and stone – the red sandstone that is so eye-catching. The abbey’s quarries are still nearby.  There was also good access to the sea, and thence to the Isle of Man and Ireland.

Abbey church, Furness Abbey

The success of any monastery often led to the founding of ‘daughter’ houses.  The monks from Furness set up houses at Calder just up the coast in 1134 and, with the permission of King Olaf the Black, at Rushen on the Isle of Man.  Ragnvald Godredsson, (Rǫgnvaldr Guðrøðarson) King of the Isles (the Hebrides, the islands of the Firth of Clyde and the Isle of Man) from 1187-1226, is buried somewhere in the abbey church and the abbot of Furness gained the right to nominate the bishop of the Isle of Man – two of whom are also buried in the abbey church.  This is a fascinating time in our history, when cultural identities were not as we understand them now; certainly not in this part of Britain, which had strong Scandinavian connections and which probably included Norse and Gaelic speakers as well as Old English (Anglo-Saxon) and the newer Anglo-Norman elite.  I digress – sorry…  In 1135, a daughter house was established as far away as Swineshead in Lincolnshire.  Scottish raiders caused the monks to flee Calder in 1137, so they sought refuge back in Furness.  But the Abbot of Furness refused to allow his brothers to return and the poor wretches wandered the north of England for forty years before founding Byland Abbey, far away in Ryedale, North Yorkshire.  The abbey at Calder was later re-established and two further daughter houses were founded in Ireland, Inch and Abington. Furness later also came to have some influence over Baltinglass, Inislounaght and Fermoy abbeys in Ireland.

Furness Abbey, niche

In 1147, the Savigny order joined with, or was taken over by, the Cistercians. Like corporate mergers today, it was not universally popular and, in fact, the abbot of Furness at the time, Peter of York, opposed it. However, he eventually gave way, Furness got itself a new abbot and life went on under the new white-robed Cistercians.  The Cistercian order was renowned for its austerity. The monks would spend time in prayer and study, and much of the day was spent on routine worship.  The hard work was undertaken by lay brothers, or conversi.

Furness Abbey came to dominate the immediate Furness region, though in fact had extensive lands further away, which included estates in Borrowdale and Eskdale to the north, around Lancaster to the south and, to the east, in Ribblesdale on the slopes of Whernside and Ingleborough, where sheep, and possibly horses, were reared, and as far as Gargrave.  Its commercial interests extended beyond wool and agriculture to include iron mines, salt pans, peat workings, fisheries and oyster beds.  As time went by, it was decided that, instead of undertaking its own agricultural activities, the farms and lands would be leased; so the monks became landlords.  In so many ways, Furness Abbey seems to have exercised an unusual amount of authority in this remote border region of the kingdom, with the abbot having the powers of a feudal baron, presiding over his own courts, in nearby Dalton.  He even had his own castle, on Piel Island.  The Scots invaded in 1316, in the wake of their victory at Bannockburn in 1314.  They came again in 1322, but this time the abbot, John Cockerham, paid Robert the Bruce protection money to leave Furness alone, and entertained the Scottish king in the abbey.  Bruce went on to loot Lancaster, got as far as Preston and returned home via Carlisle with much booty.

Chapter house, Furness Abbey

The end came on 9 April 1537, when the last abbot, Roger Pele, the prior, twenty-eight monks and eight witnesses signed the deed in the chapter house that surrendered Furness Abbey to King Henry VIII.  Furness was the first of the great abbeys to be dissolved.  It is recorded that the lead was stripped from roofs even while the monks were still in residence. Monasteries never had a huge number of monks – Furness had about 30 at the time of the dissolution. The monks and about 140 abbey workers were paid off and dismissed, patients in the hospital were given money and sent on their way, novices were sent home. It is not known what happened to the local poor who had depended on the monks for food.

West tower, Furness Abbey
Furness Abbey

Unlike other post-Reformation ecclesiastical estates, there is no great stately home at Furness Abbey.  The roofless buildings decayed, the crumbling masonry eventually attracting the attentions of artists like Turner and poets like Wordsworth, who would ride down from school at Hawkshead to look at the ruins. In the 19th century, they drove a railway across the park, though it does not seem to intrude on the ruins today.  I found a book, A Literary Guide to the Lake District by Grevel Lindop, that quotes Wordsworth quoting part of an unknown poem by an unknown poet in his Guide to the Lakes, first published in 1810:

Tread softly, taste the consecrated brook
That in meanders creeps along the Vale
And in soft murmurs mourns the Abbey’s fate…
The walls that glowed with tapestry, breathing life,
Are bare, save where the circling ivy twines
Around yon arches, nodding with the blasts…

Which I thought was rather lovely.

Furness Abbey, effigy, knight
Effigies, Furness Abbey

We need to mention the displays in the visitor centre – you remember, the ones I almost walked past. These include some astonishing effigies removed from the church. Two of these, of knights dating from 1225 – 1250, are very rare types, with the faces completely covered by their helms; their swords, apparently, show Viking influence. They are thought to be benefactors of the abbey and members of the de Lancaster family. There’s an unknown lady, too.  Dating from the 14th century, she wears a veil and wimple, her head rests for eternity on a pillow, her feet on her dog. Incidentally, some say that effigies showing knights with crossed legs symbolises a crusader; it is more likely to be a fashion of the time, like torn jeans.  But who were these people? Seeing them in effigy makes them real, even if nameless; once alive, like us.

Effigy of a knight, Furness Abbey
Effigy of a lady, Furness Abbey

As you would expect, Furness Abbey has its share of ghosts associated with it, including the obligatory white lady, lovelorn girl, headless monk (a wraith recalling a Scottish raid) and various vaporous monks climbing invisible stairs, disappearing through walls – and so on. Not that the abbey didn’t have its share of characters. There was the allegedly wicked 36th Abbot, Alexander Banke, who expelled the villagers of Sellergarth just before Christmas in 1516 to create a park.  And there’s the story of Wimund, a charismatic giant of a monk from Furness who became Bishop of Man and the Isles in the 12th century, proclaimed himself Earl of Moray, and, with an armed band, set sail for Scotland where he terrorised the locals. King David of Scotland, who had taken the opportunity to look after parts of England during the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, attempted to appease Wimund by giving him the Furness Peninsula. But people had had enough of the braggart; he was seized in the guest hall at the abbey, blinded, castrated, and ended his days at Byland Abbey.

The Furness crozier, Furness Abbey
Furness Abbey, ring

You can come face to face with someone from the past in the visitor centre, where on display are the Furness Abbey crozier and a gemstone ring.  They were found with their owner in one of several graves uncovered during repairs in 2010.  The crozier, a staff carried by an abbot or bishop, was made of ash with a gilded copper alloy crook, into which a decorated gilded silver disc depicting St Michael and the dragon has been inserted. The crozier has been dated to between the 12th and 14th centuries. The ring – a large one, suggesting its wearer may have been a bit chubby – is gilded silver with a white crystal stone. The underside is pointed, so it would stick painfully into the finger – a constant reminder of piety. The skeleton was of a large, overweight, man in his 40s, arthritic and possibly suffering from Type 2 diabetes. No one knows who he was, though he was obviously someone quite important.  The crozier and the ring are quite beautiful; but what got me was a photo, reproduced here, showing one of the team looking down on him – the first human contact for hundreds of years. It is fascinating – and we can learn so much from burials – but it does pose the question: how long does a person have to be dead before it’s OK to dig them up and gaze at their most intimate and helpless remains?

Furness Abbey, skeleton

Furness Abbey is captivating. But what struck me about it, when researching for this article, is how much there is to the history of the place, and how little we seem to know about it. Most of the records have not survived.

A website that will tell you more is the Furness Abbey website compiled by a local historian, Alice Leach (1929-2014).  And English Heritage, of course.

46 thoughts on “The great abbey of Furness”

  1. Ann Robinson-Congoran

    I was born and grew up in Barrow-in-Furness. We used to play in the Abbey as kids. On Easter we’d roll eggs down the hill and in Winter we’d take our sledges and go zooming down that same hill. We never realized as kids that we were playing around on the graves of people who’d lived there many hundreds of years before we did.

    In 1968 we emigrated to the USA for my dad’s job and I still miss Barrow like crazy. I have family and friends who still live there.

    I love being able to show the history of where I come from to my grandchildren. I always told my sons that I had Viking blood in me and they’d just laugh. I did one of those Ancestry DNA tests several years ago and sure enough it showed I had Scandinavian ancestry. Mainly, I’m British but it was fun proving that I hadn’t lost my mind. I may live in the USA but I’m British thru and thru. Thank you for writing about the Abbey and it’s history.

    Ann Robinson-Congoran

    1. Ann, thank you so much for visiting A Bit About Britain and leaving a comment. I’m sorry I didn’t respond at the time. There’s quite a Norse and Danish influence in the UK, as you probably know. The place-names in North West England tell us a great deal about the various people that lived there too. Hope you get to revisit Barrow, and (of course!) this website. Best regards across the Pond.

  2. My son thought we ought to drive over and visit this one. It led to an interesting impromptu geography lesson- he was pretty sure there must be a bridge across the Atlantic SOMEWHERE 🙂
    Gorgeous shots, poetry, and virtual vacation for us on a gray day- thanks!

    1. Your son is right; there IS an Atlantic Bridge – it crosses over the Clachan Sound linking the island of Seil with the mainland near Oban, in Scotland 🙂 Possibly not exactly what he had in mind, but it’s a lovely bridge – I’ve been over it and will do a quick post about it for him. Really appreciate the comment!

  3. It amazes me that stone structures can burn almost completely down to the ground. Yeah, I realize that I am not quite right in the head. Sigh,

    By the way, I just emailed you a copy of the Little Lost Leon eBook. I hope you like it.

  4. Interesting, your take on English Heritage vs. National Trust. I’m sure Mr. C would be all in favor of visiting Furness Abbey, since his favorite, a close relative, is Fountains. Thanks Mike!

  5. I’m glad you visited the visitor centre! The preserved effigies, the crozier and the ring appear to be very important and interesting exhibits. I too, am full of curiosity when a grave is discovered and the remains are investigated but I feel a certain amount of guilt as well.
    Furness Abbey is on my list of places to visit when we return to the Lakes. Thank you very much for this extremely informative post, Mike.

  6. Another interesting one. The investigation as to the fella, his ring, his overweight, diabetic problems, I say that made it even more interesting. 😉
    Thank you again for all the extra you put into your posts.

  7. Many decades ago, I “accidentally” took a course called Intro to British History. By accidentally, I mean this course was offered at the civilized/civilised hour of 10:30am and not the barbaric one of 7:30am which is when some other history course was being offered. I needed 3 units of history, and there it was. GB to the rescue with enough history to satisfy that requirement and enough to require a tome that weighed in excess of two pounds. I once measured the width of the spine. 2.5 inches. The font was size 8–I exaggerate, but it seemed teensy, even with my keen 18-year-old eyes. As it happens that class turned out to be one of the best of my college career. The point of this rather rambling comment is that included in this course was (drum roll) Furness Abby. You’ve just inspired me to search for that textbook in my library (I kept it) and reread that section. I doubt it’s half as informative as your post. It certainly won’t have the human touch of the helpful guide or the poignant moment of that exhumation. I got an A, by the way, in spite of the size 8 font.

  8. Thank you for yet another living history of an unknown place! Your photographs are wonderful and enhance the story very well. Henry VIII sure was an ass. The abbey is beautiful, and I’m glad you took us voyeurs to see it.

  9. Hi Mike – an amazing post … you really did bring the place to life and most definitely made the most of the information and details you had to hand … yes, that bright young lady sounds a wonder. The information centre looks fascinating … and I love your quote … as too the information on the drainage system.

    What an extraordinary place … and lovely to have it to oneself. I have a couple of friends who are working and studying in the Barrow and Lancaster areas – so I’ll pass on your post to them … I’m sure they’ll go out to see the Abbey at some stage …

    Wonderful writing and creative thought bringing the area to life for us. Lovely statues too – and that crozier and ring … and yes as you say … should we look at peoples from history – but we’re an inquisitive lot and love our ability to find out more about our cultural heritage.

    So enjoyed this – cheers Hilary

  10. Kudos. You have such a marvelous way of bringing alive history. And now I’m wanting a vaprous monk to hang around my neighborhood. Make a great tale. Cheers, sir.

  11. Thank you for another informative tour. Having toured one of these in the Cotswolds and again recently in Scotland, I too have wondered about the people who once lived there especially the ones with such extensive graves and effigies who expected to be known through time and yet now are unknown to us.

  12. “Running through the kitchen,” eh? I hope the delicious cooking smells helped to neutralize the sewage aroma! I love walking through ruins, thinking of the history and peopling them in my mind. Though sparse, such interesting information about the skeleton and his possessions.

  13. You have excelled once again: entertaining and informative writing accompanied by superb photography. As someone else said above, Henry VIII has a lot to answer for. His destruction of the monasteries gave rise to the need for the ‘poor law’ which had devastating consequences, not least in Ireland.

    1. Thanks Frank! Of course, if we’re going to look at the possible bad consequences of Henry’s actions, we also need to consider any possible positive outcomes. What would Britain have been like if it hadn’t changed?

      1. Who knows? ‘What ifs’ are always interesting, but not much use! And, in fairness to Henry, most of the destruction happened under the watch of later princelings – Edward, Mary and, finally, Cromwell.

        1. I’m not aware of monasteries in Britain being suppressed under later regimes – though I think it was different in Ireland (you’d know more about that). I was just pointing out there were other long-term consequences of Henry’s actions.

  14. Another tour de force post, thank you. I sometimes wonder what will be the legacy of our current lives, more of our inhumanity to one another and recorded on archives of Facebook? Big Shudder.

  15. We visited Furness Abbey on our trip to England in May of 2015. While at Dalton Castle the nice ladies there told us not to miss it! We had no idea about its location being close by. It was lovely and sad at first sight. You were quite fortunate to have the place to yourself! Great photos and a great history lesson. I remember learning about the sad fact the Abbey is continuing to sink into the ground. Henry VIII certainly left the poor in dire straights. Thanks for the tour. ♥

  16. Jeremy Corbyn, serious political party, drainage – ha! How entertaining you are!
    Anyway, this is so interesting. It is very red, and very pretty, but very sad to be such a ruin and so empty.
    There is a Cistercian (Trappist) abbey an hour or so north of us where my brother has many times gone on retreat – a beautiful place – and I am acquainted with King Stephen from the Brother Cadfael stories. The part about wandering forty years till they found another spot to settle – incredible! (I mean I do believe it – it’s just amazing)

    The knights’ effigies are almost futuristic-looking with their clean lines, but the lady with crossed legs resting on a dog – seems strange.

  17. I have no doubt that King Henry could demolish abbeys and give the land to his friends, if he felt like it. But imagine when the abbot and his monks when Furness was dissolved and destroyed. The monks and workers were homeless and unemployed, the sick were summarily discharged from hospital and the charity to locals ended.

    What a nightmare Henry created, and for what?.

  18. Enjoyed this post very much! Another fascinating place to have on our ‘must see’ list. Many more, and we shall be forced to relocate across the pond.

  19. A fascinating place. You were indeed fortunate to have the place to yourself. I love that! I can spend house at these sites. I have been to Fountains Abbey but not Furness.

  20. Lovely post Mike and such interesting times back then. I agree about English Heritage people, they are well cool, not so much the NT but I guess they always have to suspect us of wanting to steal the silver whereas English Heritage’s silver is long gone!

    1. I don’t want to be too hard on the NT – where would we be without them? And some of their folk are wonderful. But some of their front of house staff need an injection of communication skills.

  21. What a beautiful building. The exhibition looks interesting too.

    I agree with you about English Heritage staff. I’d happily go to my local site just to chat to the manager.

  22. We’re always in awe over here that you’re able to save places like this so that you can go there and imagine what they must have been like. Fascinating story – though these always include the Henry VIII demo squad, though luckily not the funerary pieces.
    In Philadelphia there’s another Furness, Frank to be exact. He was an architect who loved building big edifices out of red brick. Here’s one:

    a library at the University of Pennsylvania.
    Don’t know if he had relatives from the Lake District or not.

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