Last Updated on 9th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 captivated me. 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.