Churches, abbeys and chapels,  History

Fountains Abbey: from simplicity to splendour

West side

As you gaze up at the spectacular remains of Fountains Abbey, in its heyday one of the richest monasteries in medieval Britain, it strikes you as somewhat ironic that its founders had abandoned a comfortable lifestyle in favour of simplicity, servitude… and a considerable degree of suffering.

In December 1132, the atmosphere in the nearby Benedictine Abbey of St Mary’s in York was somewhat less than peaceful.  Far from following the discipline prescribed by St Benedict in the sixth century, the monks at St Mary’s were indulging themselves a little too freely for the liking of some of their brethren.

According to reputable sources, a riot broke out and the rebels – 13 monks who craved a more spartan existence – fled to the Archbishop of York for protection.  The Archbishop was not too badly off himself, owning extensive lands around Ripon, and he granted them permission to establish a new monastery in the valley of the River Skell.

Snowdrop carpetView from west, showing dormitory and cellariumGreat news for the monks… they could build a new life for themselves!   The bad news was that it was winter, and they had nowhere to stay.  The valley, far from being the rural idyll that it appears today, was considered at that time to be “more fit for wild beasts than men to inhabit.”  It did, however, offer a degree of shelter as well as a plentiful source of building materials and a good supply of drinking water.  The National Trust guidebook says that the monks lived under an elm tree and covered themselves with straw;  if this was indeed the case, they were hardy and committed individuals.

Although the Archbishop of York sent regular supplies of bread, the monks needed support of a different kind.  They wrote to Bernard, the Abbot of Clairvaux Abbey in France, who despatched a monk to instruct them in the observance of Canonical Hours;  he would also teach them how to build an abbey in accordance with Cistercian principles.

Grave in Abbey church
Grave in the Abbey church
In the nave, looking towards the Chapel of Nine Altars
In the nave, looking towards the Chapel of Nine Altars

DoorwayThe first church was made of wood, but soon afterwards a much more impressive edifice was rising from the valley floor:  the present Abbey church, with its magnificent west front, was finished around 1160.  Stonemasons used locally-hewn sandstone, and massive oak beams supported the roof.  Inside, the white-painted walls reflected the sunlight that streamed in through the many windows, and the effect must have been both stunning and uplifting.  What must it have been like to hear a choir singing in there?

The Cistercian order, which the monks had adopted, called for a life of self-imposed hardship;  they wore coarse wool habits and followed a strict routine of prayer and meditation, which involved long night vigils as well as daytime worship.  They must have been freezing for most of the time… although there is a crumb of comfort in the survival of a ‘warming room’, where huge log fires allowed them a precious few minutes of warmth before embarking on their next duty.   In the south end of the transept there is still a doorway, through which the monks would have emerged at two o’clock in the morning as they made their way from their dormitory and down some stairs towards the church, their steps lit only by candlelight.

Archways and shadows

photo by Verity Sansom


In 1170, around 60 monks were living at Fountains Abbey, along with 200 lay brothers.  The lay brothers were essential to the survival of the Abbey, because they were skilled craftsmen such as stonemasons, shoemakers, smiths and tanners.  Many more were farm labourers and shepherds, managing the monastery’s ever-expanding estates.  Some of them slept in the large dormitory at Fountains Abbey, while others lived on neighbouring farms.  The system worked so efficiently that, by the mid-1400s, the monastery was one of the richest in England, and fleeces from the sheep were being sold as far afield as Italy.  Hardly the spartan establishment to which its founders had aspired.

Guest houses
Guest houses

With guest houses, abbots’ quarters, dormitories, a refectory, kitchens, a cellarium for food storage, an infirmary, and a muniment room for the safe keeping of important books and papers, this large complex required precise and careful management.  The monks were pretty much self-sufficient:  there was a mill just across the river, grinding wheat, rye, barley and oats for bread;  in the wool house, fleeces from the Abbey’s sheep were made into clothes and blankets;  a tannery ensured an ongoing supply of leather and skins, and fishponds offered a healthy source of food.  Hillside springs provided fresh water, while the toilets or ‘reredorter’ were contained in a two-storey extension over the River Skell.  Not a bad idea!   Although chilly, I should imagine.

Part of cellarium
Part of the west wing: cellarium and dormitories
Roof of cellarium
Cellarium roof

Passing travellers were always welcome, and beggars were given food left over from the monks’ table.  While ordinary visitors were shown into modest accommodation, the more prestigious guests were entertained in style;   there are records of minstrels, travelling players and a ‘strange fabulist’ in the Abbey’s expense sheets.  The elderly and the sick were cared for in the infirmary, which was a sizeable building in itself.  But no women were admitted within the sacred walls:  they had to remain in the Outer Court.

Blood-letting was one of the monks’ less attractive pastimes, as if they didn’t already subject themselves to enough rigours.  The practice, which was carried out three or four times a year, was intended to purify the body.  (If I was ever in any doubt of my absolute unsuitability for a cloistered life, this seals the matter).  The extracted blood was later buried in reverence.

It sounds as if they all did pretty well – blood-letting notwithstanding – but that’s not to say that the Abbey and its inhabitants never suffered hard times.  There were years of poor harvests and famine, and these in turn led to skirmishes by desperate raiders from Scotland.  In the mid-1300s the Black Death reared its ugly face, carrying away at least a third of the Abbey’s inhabitants and leaving a shortage of labourers to till the fields.

East frontThe Abbey’s most noticeable feature, the 167-foot tower known as Huby’s Tower, was a comparatively late addition;   prior to this, there would have been a smaller ‘lantern tower’ placed centrally over the church.  Built in 1500, Huby’s Tower was the inspiration of Abbot Marmaduke Huby, and it bears a Latin inscription on each face, as well as carvings and statues.  Today its broken crenellations are home to a flock of jackdaws;  when they all take flight, they look like bees around an enormous beehive.

Foundations of buildings; does anyone know what these parallel lines are?
Foundations of buildings; does anyone know what these parallel lines are?

Old bridgeThings went very badly pear-shaped in 1539, as they did for monasteries up and down the kingdom.  Henry VIII, furious with the Pope for denying him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, hit on an ingenious but ruthless solution.  He turned his back on the Roman Catholic Church and declared himself head of the new Church of England.  No more Pope-worship for him – he preferred the seductive delights of Anne Boleyn.

England’s abbeys and nunneries, which had been rising to a state of comfortable wealth over the centuries, were now in the firing line.  To Henry, they represented an establishment that he hated with a vengeance – but their assets would come in very handy.  He lost no time in destroying the buildings, evicting their occupants and seizing their estates.

A deed of surrender was signed at Fountains Abbey in 1539.   In keeping with Henry’s orders, the place had to be made unfit for worship.  The roof was pulled off, the lead and glass were stripped from the windows and any remaining religious relics were removed.   Stone was plundered for new buildings elsewhere, and nature began to reclaim the broken bones of former glory.

View from the east

Aisle in Abbey church
Aisle in Abbey church
Stonework detail
Stonework detail

The story of Fountains Abbey didn’t end at that point, though it was over 200 years before it entered a surprising new chapter.   In 1767 the estate was acquired by William Aislabie, who soon set to work designing an elegant pleasure park.   He planted trees, dug lakes and created paths that led past Gothic-style temples and summerhouses to a point on the opposite side of the valley, where guests could enjoy a ‘surprise view’ of the Abbey in its picturesque state of decay.  Poets and artists came to explore and be inspired:  J M W Turner painted the Abbey on several occasions.

View from Anne Boleyn's Seat
View from Anne Boleyn’s Seat

Today, the ruins of Fountains Abbey are carefully tended, so they don’t have quite the same romantic abandon which they must have presented in Turner’s time.  On the other hand, they are in much less danger of imminent collapse!   As you walk down the nave towards the Chapel of Nine Altars the great east window gapes in front of you, bereft of its beautiful tracery and glasswork, but breathtaking all the same.   Anyone who entered the church in its heyday would have been almost struck dumb with awe.

Huby's TowerBlind doorways in Huby's TowerColumns and arches soar to dizzying heights, and as your gaze follows them upwards, your attention is drawn to isolated wooden doors, once clasped by cold, pious hands, now leading into nothing but thin air.  Deep shadows lurk in the aisles and transept, intriguing but not unkindly.   Sacrilegious though it might appear, I searched for ‘Fountains Abbey hauntings’ and found that the voices of a ghostly choir sometimes echo through the Chapel of Nine Altars.  That’s something I’d quite like to hear.

With a sudden flapping of wings, a pigeon launches itself from a window ledge.  The songs of blackbirds and thrushes float across from the woodland.  Otherwise, silence reigns – and it’s a peaceful silence.

View down the nave to the east windowThe Fountains Abbey estate, including Studley Royal Park, is owned by the National Trust.  English Heritage maintains the Abbey ruins and St Mary’s Church.

You can find a plan of the Abbey at Sacred Destinations.


Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf and Verity Sansom

View from south

SansomPhotography Re-Edit-1

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  • Pit

    Thanks for sharing that wealth of information and the beautiful pictures. I’ve just put Fountains Abbey on our list of sights to see for our trip to England and Scotland in May/June this year.
    Best regards from southern Texas,

    • Jo Woolf

      I know – such a wonderful place in so many ways. I’ve never seen anywhere quite like it. There are a few more monasteries in Yorkshire and the Borders, though not on quite the same scale – I’m keen to see these now!

  • tearoomdelights

    It does look as if it would have been an utterly awe-inspiring place prior to Henry VIII’s intervention. In fact, I can see that despite his destructive habits it’s still awe-inspiring. Your photos are wonderful and the history is fascinating.

    It must have been a tremendous wrench for those monks to draw themselves away from the warming room after a few minutes, but I suppose they felt pious for doing so. I wonder what the average age of a monk was at death, did their strict lifestyle lead to more years or fewer? Reclusive religious orders are most intriguing, you do wonder what it must feel like to be part of one. Excellent job by William Aislabie too, the landscaping looks beautiful.

    • Jo Woolf

      Those are very interesting questions, Lorna, and I’d love to know the answers too. I’m inclined to think the monks might have lived longer than average, because they had a regular supply of good food and they had an infirmary, presumably with experienced and knowledgeable ‘staff’ to attend them if they were ill. I would so love to have seen Fountains Abbey intact. Of all the places I’ve seen, I think it would be the most awe-inspiring.
      Thank you very much for your lovely comments – as ever, much appreciated!

  • Ysbryd

    While I hold no religious tenants myself, I find myself drawn to the ruins of abbeys and other places of worship. In 2008, I was in England and had occasion to visit Furness Abbey which is said to have been the second richest abbey in England, after this one. It was simply amazing to be in the presence of such astounding architectural magnificence. Thank you for sharing your amazing photographs and the history of this great abbey. Those “tracks” in the one photo seem very curious. I feel compelled to investigate. Will share what I find, if anything.

    • Jo Woolf

      You’re right, they are truly amazing places, and I would love to visit Furness Abbey at some stage. Thank you very much for your comment – glad you enjoyed it!

      • Ysbryd

        Okay I have found a little something which may shed light on those mysterious lines in your photograph. There are two possibilities:

        1. “Ripon & District Light Railway draws its name and inspiration from a 1904 proposal to build a 2’6″ gauge line linking Fountains Abbey and Ripon town with the North Eastern Railway’s main-line station at Ripon. The project was welcomed by the City Council – until they realised how much disruption would be caused by laying track through medieval streets. The North Eastern Railway played on these fears – and won approval for their novel ‘motor bus’ service as an alternative.” From Ripon & District Light Railway (

        2. This information is taken from the National Trust website about the Ripon and Fountains Abbey walk:

        “Towards the end of Borrage Lane, take the footpath bearing left, crossing the River Skell by the footbridge. Turn right and follow the footpath at the side of the river, passing the junction with the River Laver, to climb concrete steps. The concrete steps are a surviving relic of a First World War army camp which extended up the River Skell to the Deer Park boundary. Most of the remains of the camp are hidden under open parkland/playing fields – though outlines of buildings, roads and an internal light railway may be seen.”

        • Jo Woolf

          That’s very interesting, and thank you very much for that information! I thought at the time that it looked exactly like the remains of a light railway, but I ruled it out as being too unlikely! But if there was a First World War Camp there, then that does explain it. So thank you very much for sharing the links.

    • Neill Clayton

      Ysbryd –
      Photo, Fountains Abbey, rails in floor of ruined building. Gauge appears to be about 18″. WW1 military camp construction railway was 2′ gauge. Temporary branch line to military camp was standard gauge. 1902 tourist railway scheme to Fountains Abbey was never built (known as Ripon and District Light Railways). I suspect the photo shows a short piece used by restoration masons, possibly in the nineteenth century.
      Neill Clayton. (Ripon and District Light Railway – a preservation project devoted to small industrial railways)

  • Dan Brookes

    Can you comment on the lintel above the fireplace in the warming room. It is now supported by giant beams. It has curious stonework — all the stones in the lintel are polyhedrons and fit like a puzzle, including a keystone. The resulting “arch” is flat and horizontal. This is such a departure from the Norman or Gothic arch one might expect. Where did this innovation come from?

  • carol fox-elliott

    Such a beautiful array of photos! Abbeys were a fascinating aspect of medieval life and architecture. Thank you.
    Carol Fox-Elliott

  • Renee Williams

    I was privileged to visit England, Scotland and Wales twenty years ago and have been searching for the name of an abandoned Abbey located close to a magnificent estate in the countryside of England. There were sheep grazing on the grounds of the home. I have pictures but forgot where the Abbey was located. I realize that this is a broad description and could be describing many places, but I long to find out the name of this beautiful place. I left a little bit of my heart in the English countryside…

    • Jo Woolf

      That sounds truly idyllic! I am intrigued now. Most of my abbey visits are in Scotland, but I’d love to try and help identify it. If you’d like to drop me an email sometime with a photo, I’ll take a look. 🙂 My email: jo(at)

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