Byland Abbey is a ruined Cistercian monastery located in the North York Moors National Park, North Yorkshire.
Along with Fountains Abbey and Rievaulx, it is was one of the greatest Cistercian monastaries in England, and they were referred to as the ‘Three Shining Lights of the North’
It is located off the A19 or A170 on Wass Bank Road.
The Abbey is ca. 20 miles north of York, and remains quite isolated – which is exactly how the 12th century Monks liked it!
Byland Abbey was originally founded by 12 Savigniac monks and their Abbot Gerard who
left Furness Abbey in 1134.
They built a Daughter site at Calder, and only spent four years there as they were forced to flee from a Scottish invasion.
When they were refused permission to return to Furness, they left to find a permanent site for an independent monastery.
It is said that they left with the clothes on their backs, a few books and some carts pulled by oxen.
In 1143, Roger de Mowbray gifted the monks some land near Rievaulx Abbey.
Roger de Mowbray was an English noble who fought on the side of King Stephen during the anarchy, and had been captured along with the King at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141.
His mother had sheltered the monks for some time, originally sending them to her uncle Robert at Hood, near Thirsk.
Unfortunately the location near Rievaulx caused the monk’s problems as they clashed
with the Rievaulx monk’s timetables and order of the day. It was said there was unhappiness around each monasteries bell’s confusing the other!
After being absorbed by the Cistercian order in 1147, it would be 30 years before the monk’s finally arrived at their permanent site in 1177.
Abbot Gerold had died in 1142, and it is Abbot Roger who built the beautiful Abbey whose remains are evocative today.
Abbot Roger was in charge of the Abbey for an amazing 54 years.
The Working Abbey
After the monk’s had drained the marshy ground of Byland, they began work on the Abbey Church.
This church was one of the largest in England, with a beautiful 13th century rose window.
It is thought that the rose window could have been an early example for which the glorious rose window at York Minster is based.
The length of the church was 100 meters, which is comparable to the length of Lichfield Cathedral today.
It was thought complete by the 1190’s, and the stone altar survived the Dissolution of the
Monasteries, now in Ambleforth Abbey.
The earliest part of the Abbey is the accommodation for the Lay Brothers, dating to about 1155, and the majority of the complex was completed by 1200.
The Abbey was a wealthy place, and a new lodging for the abbot was built in the 13th century, along with a 15th century kitchen and cloisters.
The cloisters were one of the largest in Europe and even boasted glazed windows.
The Abbey was well set up as a self contained monastery, with a dovecot, fish stock and a deer park.
The English Heritage website has a fabulous picture of what Byland Abbey may have looked at by the end of the 15th century.
Difficult Times in the 14th Century
The 14th Century was turbulent in England and this was no differed for Byland.
The monk’s found themselves caught up in the conflict between King Edward II and the Scottish in 1322.
Edward II had retreated from a failed invasion of Scotland, and the Scottish army followed him into England, defeating him at the Battle of Old Byland and then pillaging monastic houses including Rievaulx and Byland.
The Black Death of 1348-49 also heavily affected Byland, and by 1391, it was reduced to 11
monks and 3 lay brothers.
Because of the lack of lay brothers, the Abbey changed the way it made money and ended up renting out some of its land.
By 1538, Byland was managing to command an annual income of £240 (equivalent to ca. £73,000 in today’s money)
Dissolution of the Monasteries
Driven by the Pope’s refusal to grant him a divorce, and the founding of the Church of England, Henry VIII became the Supreme Head of the Church.
His minister Thomas Cromwell set about closing the monasteries between 1536 and 1541, absorbing their wealth into the Crown.
(If you are keen to read more about the Dissolution of the Monasteries, I found this article on historylearningsite.co.uk informative.)
Time ran out for Byland Abbey in 1538, when Abbot John Alanbridge surrendered the Abbey to the crown. The monks were pensioned off.
For the next 200 years, the Abbey was pulled apart, with its building material used at Myton Hall, and local cottages. Anything of value in plate or treasure was sent to London.
A lot of the Abbey’s ruins remain today, and it is quite evocative to walk around them and imagine the abbey in it’s hey day.
I visited in late Autumn, and was struck by the surrounding scenery in Autumn colours, and the evening sun reflected off the Abbey’s stone, blending it in to the landscape.
My partner and I were the only ones at the Abbey, and this added to its isolation and serenity.
I found the ruined Rose window really touching and maudlin, it must have been such a beautiful sight to behold and I can imagine the monk’s going about their daily life, pausing to admire it.
If you would like to see more of my photos from my visit to Byland Abbey, please visit my flickr