Hello everyone and happy Monday! Today I will be discussing another beautiful historic building located in Yorkshire’s green and pleasant lands; Fountains Abbey. If you haven’t been here, you need to get here when COVID-19 calms down because it is simply one of the most beautiful places in North Yorkshire. Read below for the history of one of the greatest abbey’s ever built!
Fountains Abbey was founded in 1132 by 13 Benedictine monks from St Mary’s in York. Why the monks left St Mary’s is under dispute with some claiming that the monks were expelled and others stating that the monks grew tired of the rowdy and rambunctious lifestyle at St Mary’s and so left of their own volition to find calm and solitude. Either way, they were provided land by the Archbishop of York near the River Skell and set about building their new monastery. In 1133 the monks chose to join the Cistercian order and in 1135 Fountains Abbey became the second Cistercian abbey in the north of England.
In 1143, the small stone church which existed at Fountains and the timber buildings which surrounded it were replaced and improved with an aisled nave added to the church. In 1146 however, an angry mob attacked Fountains abbey, irritated with Henry Murdac – the abbot of Fountains – for his opposition against the recently elected archbishop of York. As a result of this attack, the buildings surrounding the abbey were destroyed and the church was damaged. Repairs were undertaken swiftly following this destruction and soon after the abbey was once again in a strong position, founding four daughter houses. In 1147 Henry Murdac resigned as abbot when he was elected as the new archbishop of York and the abbey passed into the care of abbot Thorald. Thorald however was forced to resign after a mere two years in the position and was succeeded by the abbot Richard (III) who became one of the most successful abbots in the abbey’s history. In his 20-year reign as abbot of Fountains, he supervised necessary repairs and committed to a huge building programme which would put Fountains on the map as one of the most stunning monasteries in England. He also built accommodation for the growing number of recruits and restored stability and security to the area. After the death of Richard, the abbots who succeeded him all contributed to the building and improvement of the abbey.
Thus, the first half of the 13th century passed in a blaze of glory and prosperity for the monks at Fountains Abbey as the monastery began to gain increased revenue through trading in wool, lead mining, cattle rearing, horse breeding and stone quarrying – all done by the lay brothers of course, the monks were too busy with God. The abbey also began to gain a reputation as a place of peace, serenity and most importantly as a place for the poor and needy, with the abbot Haget ordering construction of shelters near the abbey and food rations for the poor.
However sadly, the good times weren’t without difficulty and the latter half of the 13th and early 14th century saw the abbey hit strained circumstances. Raids from Scotland coupled with bad harvests and increased taxation led to the economic collapse of the abbey, compounded by the Black Death in 1348 which reduced manpower, further decimating income. Further complications for the abbey arose during the Papal Schism of 1378-1409 where Fountains Abbey, along with other Cistercian houses were told to break with the mother house of Citeaux which supported a rival pope. This resulted in the abbots forming their own rule over English monasteries and as a result, religion became increasingly involved with politics – always a tricky mixture! The 1400’s thus saw a tumultuous time for the abbey where monks were embroiled in arguments over who should run the abbey. Eventually peace was resorted however and the abbey slowly gained stability once again.
But as we have come to know, nothing stays stable for long in history, especially English history. Fountains Abbey soon became prey to the machinations of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII in the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the reigning abbot at the time, Marmaduke Bradley, was forced to surrender the abbey in 1539. Following its surrender to the crown, the surrounding lands were sold to Sir Richard Gresham in 1540 who sold a vast amount of the stone, timber and lead found on the site, taking apart the monastery to do this. In 1597 the site of Fountains was acquired by Sir Stephen Proctor who further tore apart the abbey to build Fountains Hall. Between the years 1627 and 1767 the estate was owned by the Messenger family who eventually sold it to William Aislaby who combined Fountains Abbey with the Studley Royal Estate.
The abbey is now owned by the National Trust and sits as a stunning, dominating monument to long lost monastic splendour.