Fountains Abbey is a glorious 12th century Cistercian monastery located 4 miles from the cathedral city of Ripon in North Yorkshire.
Whilst disestablished during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1549, much still remains and it is one of the grandest abbey’s in the country.
The first monk’s of Fountains Abbey were originally Benedictine monks from St. Mary’s Abbey in York.
In 1132, there was dissent at St. Mary’s due to a group of monks feeling they were not following the strict rules of the Benedictine monastic life closely enough.
This lead to a riot when the Archbishop of York, Thurstan arrived and the dissenting monks were expelled.
The monks, granted land by Archbishop Thurstan, applied to join the Cistercian order which originated in Clairvaux Abbey in France, and in 1135, Fountain’s Abbey became the second Cistercian monastery in England.
It was a hard life in the first few years.
Establishing the Abbey
The monks unanimously elected their former Prior at St. Mary’s Richard, to be the first Prior at Fountains, and the first winter was a cold one.
Life in the early days of Fountains was harsh. The monks endured bitter weather, and famine.
It is thought that a large elm tree sheltered the founding community, and the monks were reliant on its leaves for sustenance.
The monks started with wooden buildings, including a well crafted wooden church in 1135.
In 1136, the church was completed in stone and by the 1140’s, other stone buildings were underway.
Unfortunately in 1146, the abbey was attacked by a mob due to the Abbot Henry Murdac’s opposition to the appointment of William Fitzherbert to the archbishopric of York.
Fitzherbert was the nephew to King Stephen and some saw his appointment as a result of simony – the selling of a role in the church.
The abbey buildings were damaged beyond repair and had to be rebuilt.
A new church was begun on the site of the old one, and it would be a glorious building, to rival any church in England.
The Abbey Church
Construction on the abbey church began in 1135, being with the west end. The nave is still spectacular with it’s marching romanesque arches.
By the 13th century the abbey had prospered and the infirmary was built and the church enlarged.
The east end was replaced and a chapel added, called the Chapel of the Nine Altars.
The church was competed by 1245 by the Abbot John de Cantia, he was responsible for the Chapel of the Nine Altars, and he also completed the cloisters, infirmary and the guest houses.
The east end of the abbey church reminds this blogger of the east end of Durham Cathedral, and is a painful reminder of what has been lost.
Enough of the church remains for you to be able to picture it clearly during the height of the abbey’s life.
If the tower looks slightly out of place to you, its because it is a much later addition, built during the time Marmaduke Huby was Abbot (1494-1526)
It went against the Cistercian principles of austerity and simplicity.
Hardship and Prosperity
The second half of the 13th century brought more challenges to Fountains abbey, with a high turnover of abbots and when it was visited by Archbishop John le Romeyn in 1294
He wasn’t happy with the upkeep and condition of the abbey.
Large demands for taxes were called for in the 14th century as a result of the Scots invading, and the Black Death in 1348 – 1349 affected the abbey terribly, resulting in a decline in productive workers and income.
The plague had a dreadful impact on the people of North Yorkshire and many of the poor flocked to Fountains for help and care. The infirmary was not large enough to care for everyone, so they had to put up temporary tents.
By the late 15th century, the Abbey had recovered and much of the fabric of the abbey was repaired.
Abbot Marmaduke Bradley surrender the Abbey on the 26th of November, 1539 and the community of 30 were given pensions.
At the time of the dissolution, the abbey was had an annual revenue of approximately £1239, the equivalent of approximately £530,000 in today’s money.
After the abbey was closed in 1549, the abbey buildings and land were sold to Sir Richard Gresham, a gentleman known in court circles and who was close to Cardinal Wolsey, having paid for his funeral in 1530.
By 1597 it was in the possession of Sir Stephen Proctor who uses stone from the complex
to build Fountains Hall, which is part of the Studley Royal Park that Fountains Abbey is also a part of.
After being the hands of the Messenger family in the 17th and 18th century, the Abbey was combined with the wider Studley Royal Estate by William Aislaby.
I can’t recommend visiting Fountains Abbey enough!
As it is so complete, it gives you a tantalising glimpse of a busy monestary in medieval England.
The church is haunting in how intact it remains, with its glorious Norman arches still commanding, even if they are now open to the elements.
The cellarium remains a fine example of vaulted architecture, and if you pause in the quiet, you can imagine the person behind you is a monk.
The monks never really left Fountains, they remain buried in its grounds and the walls still speak of their time there.
This post is dedicated to our friend John Loram. He was a kind and clever man who recommended Fountains Abbey to my partner and I when we visited him at his home near Leeds in 2016. May he be at peace.
Dr. John Loram 1938 – 2017