Kirkstall Abbey is set in an urban area about 3.5 miles west of Leeds on the A65. It is not on the normal tourist route so a lot of people miss it.
One of Britain’s best preserved abbeys, Kirkstall Abbey was founded in 1152 by a party of Cistercian monks from Fountains Abbey. In 1534 it was closed down in the ‘Dissolution of Religious Houses’ ordered by Henry VIII. The monks were pensioned-off, the roofs stripped of lead and some buildings converted for agricultural use.
Many famous artists such as JMW Turner, Thomas Girtin and Moses Griffith came to paint Kirkstall Abbey’s picturesque ruins. Today large parts of the Abbey can still be seen and explored free of charge.
Completed between 1152 and 1182, Kirkstall Abbey still stands substantially to its full height, its massive structure presenting a unique example of early Cistercian architecture. Although its community was disbanded in 1539, it has continued to attract the attention of increasing numbers of visitors, for no other building so completely illustrates this early period of English monastic life.
Stephen Harding, an Englishman, became abbot here in 1109. Within the next decade he drew up the ‘Charter of Charity’, the constitution which bound together the Cistercian order under the government of a general chapter, or assembly of abbots. In addition, a series of ‘customs’ were established which ensured that all Cistercian monasteries followed the same interpretation of St. Benedict’s rule as practised at Citeaux. By 1120 some twelve Cistercian monasteries had been founded, but by 1152 their number had increased to three hundred and thirty. In Yorkshire the major expansion took place in the 1130s and 1140s, the community which was to found Kirkstall Abbey leaving Fountain Abbey near Ripon in 1147.
Under the leadership of Abbot Alexander, the monks first tried to settle on the lands of Henry de Lacy, Baron of Pontefract, at Barnoldswick, a Pennine village near Skipton. Here both the climate and the local inhabitants proved so inhospitable that a new site had to be found. While passing through Airedale, Alexander came upon a pleasant stretch of country well stocked with timber, stone and water, and inhabited by a group of hermits. As this land was in the ownership of William of Poitou, a vassal of Henry de Lacy, the Abbot Alexander was able to use Henry’s influence to gain possession of the site.
On May 19th, 1152 the monks transferred from Barnoldswick to Kirkstall, there to build their monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary. At first all the buildings were of wood, but within a few years these were being replaced by massive masonry structures in the local Bramley Fall gritstone. So quickly did the work progress, that the Church, the Cloister and its surrounding buildings were all completed in the lifetime of Abbot Alexander, who died in 1182.
Taken with a Lumix DMC FZ38
Enhanced with Photomatix.