Fountains Abbey III

David Davies

Weymouth, Canada

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(fountainsabbey.org.uk) The dramatic Abbey ruins at Fountains, near Ripon, North Yorkshire, England are the largest monastic ruins in the country.

Set in the naturally beautiful Skell valley, flanked by two vast expanses of lawned grass with awe inspiring cliff faces to either side and the river Skell running through the valley and under The Abbey – which in itself is a masterpiece of twelfth century building ingenuity – this truly is a beautiful place to visit.

Soak up the spiritual atmosphere, lose yourself in the passages, staircases and towers or marvel at this unique relic of ancient architectural craftsmanship.

The Cellarium

Amazingly the cellarium roof has remained intact and the lay brothers ate, slept and socialised here, beneath the incredible vaulted ceiling which escaped Henry VIII’s brutal sixteenth century dissolution of the abbeys.

Today the inhabitants are protected species of bat who live in the ceiling nooks and only come out after dusk. It is estimated there are over eight species of bats living in the cellarium.

The Cloisters

Once used for meditation and exercise by the monks the cloisters formed the centre of the abbey and many rooms lead off from this area, including the warming room where you can still see the huge fireplace where a fire was always kept roaring.

Above the warming room up the external staircase to the left, is the muniments room where the monks kept all their important documents, it made sense to keep them above the warming room so the documents stayed dry in all seasons. The floor tiles in this room have just been refurbished and the room has recently been opened to visitors.

History – The early years

A dispute and riot at St Mary’s Abbey in York led to the founding of Fountains Abbey in 1132. After pleading unsuccessfully to return to the early 6th century Rule of St Benedict, 13 monks were exiled and taken into the protection of Thurstan, Archbishop of York.

He provided them with a site in the valley of the little River Skell in which they could found a new, more devout monastery. Although described as a place “more fit for wild beasts than men to inhabit” it had all the essential materials for the creation of a monastery: shelter from the weather, stone and timber for building, and plenty of water.

Within three years, the little settlement at Fountains had been admitted to the austere Cistercian Order (founded in France in 1098). Under its rules they lived a rigorous daily life, committed to long periods of silence, a diet barely above subsistence level, and wore the regulation habit of coarse undyed sheep’s wool (underwear was forbidden), which earned them the name “White Monks.”

One of the Abbey’s most important developments was the introduction of the Cistercian system of lay brothers. They were usually illiterate and relieved the monks from routine jobs, giving them more opportunity to dedicate their time to God.

Many served as masons, tanners, shoemakers and smiths, but their chief role was to look after the Abbey’s vast flocks of sheep, which lived on the huge estate stretching westwards from Fountains to the Lake District and northwards to Teesside.

Without the lay brothers, Fountains could never have attained its great wealth or economic importance.

1200 – 1539

By the middle of the 13th century it was one of England’s richest religious houses and, as well as farming, was mining lead, working iron, quarrying stones and horse breeding. But the seeds of failure lay in the very success of the system. The lay brothers encouraged the monks to extend their estates beyond what was necessary for monastic self-sufficiency.

In the 14th century economic collapse followed bad harvests and Scots raids, and the Black Death exacerbated the effects of financial mismanagement. The community of lay brothers reduced in size, many of the monastic granges were leased out to tenant farmers, and in the late 15th century dairy farming replaced sheep farming.

Despite its financial problems, Fountains Abbey remained of considerable importance in the Cistercian Order. The abbots sat in Parliament and the abbacy of Marmaduke Huby (1495-1526) marked a period of revival.

Fountains once again flourished, but its life was brought to an abrupt end in 1539 by Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. The abbot (Marmaduke Bradley) received a pension of £100 pa, his prior received £8, and 30 monks each received £6.

For a few months after the Dissolution, the Abbey buildings stood empty in the hope of being the site for the cathedral for a new Dales bishopric.

This was not to be, and by 1540 glass and lead from the dismantling of Fountains had found their way to Ripon and York.
The buildings and parts of the estate were sold to Sir Richard Gresham, whose family subsequently sold them on to Stephen Proctor, the builder of Fountains Hall.

Then the abbey passed through several hands until it came into the possession of the Messenger family. In 1767 it was sold for £18,000 to William Aislabie, who landscaped the abbey ruins as a picturesque folly to be viewed from the Water Garden.

Olympus OM-2, 50mm 1.8

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