Fountains Abbey

Fountains Abbey is one of the largest and best preserved ruined Cistercian Monasteries in England. It happens to be located about three miles from North Yorkshire. It was founded in 1132, the abbey operated for over 400 years, until Henry VIII ordered the closure of the monasteries. The abbey is a Grade I listed building owned by the National Trust. With all many interesting things to see in a beautiful natural setting, Fountains Abbey can make for a very pleasant few hours wandering.

            One of the most important developments at Fountains Abbey was the introduction of the Cistercian system of lay brothers. They were usually illiterate and relieved the monks from routine jobs. Many served as masons, tanners, shoemakers, and smiths, but their chief role was to look after the abbey’s vast flocks of sleep, which lived on the huge estate stretching west and north from the Fountains.

            The work and encouragement of the lay brothers led to the great wealth and economic importance of the Fountains Abbey. In an ironic development that would make the founding monks roll over in their grave, by the middle of the 13th century the abbey was one of England’s richest religious houses. The lay brothers encouraged the monks to extend their estate beyond what was necessary for monastics self-sufficiency, and the working iron, quarrying stones and breeding horses.

            Despite the 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 was once again flourished, but its life was brought to an abrupt end in 1539 by Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.

            For a few months after the Dissolution, the abbey building stood empty in the hope of being the site for the cathedral for a new Dales bishop. This was not supposed to happen because by the 1540s, glass and lead from the dismantling of the Foundations had found their way to Ripon and York.  

            Fountains Abbey and over 500 acres of land were sold by Henry VIII to Sir Richard Gresham, a merchant. The property was passed down through several generations of Sir Richard’s family, finally being sold to Stephen Proctor who built fountains hall, and Elizabethan mansion built party with stone and from the abbey ruins, between 1598 and 1604.

Citation: Coppack, G. (2009). Fountains Abbey. Stroud: Amberley.

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