The monks elected Prior Richard abbot, but by 1133 they were forced to look for outside help in order to survive. They turned, naturally enough, to the source of their inspiration, the Cistercian Order, and specifically, to Bernard of Clairvaux. in 1135, the abbey was admitted to the Order, and eventually gained the patronage of wealthy nobles in the area. It grew from an impoverished community, to one of the wealthiest houses in England.
The introduction of the Cistercian conversi , or lay brothers, enabled the monastery to develop its herds of sheep and holdings beyond what the monks could manage. The lay brothers were people from lower classes who wished to participate in monastic life, but who were illiterate, and so could not participate in the Cistercian liturgy. They separated from the monks in the choir by a screen, and had separate quarters in the monastery.
The lay brothers were also able to manage fields and herds at a great distance from the abbey, which the monks themselves were unable to work because of the prohibition against traveling further from the monastery than one could return in a day in the Rule of Benedict. The lay brothers developed the holdings of Fountains to the point where buyers for the wool they produced came from Flanders and as far away as Italy. The Abbey also mined lead and quarried stone, raised horses and cattle, and worked in iron.
I should preface any remarks about this place by letting you know I've been to the Parthenon, the Colisseum, Selinunte and others. I've never seen a ruin that affected me as much as this place.
In two of the guide books I studied before I finalized my itinerary they waxed lyrical about it. I still wasn't over enthusiastic and ended up putting it in the "if-I-get-time-I-may-force-myself-to-go-there" category. The time came, though I had bypassed Harrogate on the off chance I might get to see Fountains. One of the best decisions I've ever made travelling.
It's a bit tricky understanding why you're going past an entry gate when you can see the abbey off to your right but the signs indicated to go on up the hill, which I did and came upon a cafe, gift shop and entry gate; plus a large carpark. This was obviously a popular spot.
We actually had time to eat first before we went down, again flaunting our National Trust pass and thinking with glee how much value we had gotten out of it thus far.
The glimpses of what lay ahead were only mildly tantalizing until we rounded the last corner and there it was. Unforgettable. It's overpowering based on its size alone and its setting makes it even more so. I vividly recall shaking my head in awe.
For much of the following text, I am indebted to Dr. Barbara Vess, who has written some most knowledgable notes on this very subject.
Foundation of Fountains Abbey
After spending Christmas at his quarters in Ripon, on December 27th they left and relocated on a plot of land given to them by the Archbishop three miles away on the River Skell.
Cistercians made very creative use of water power from the rivers on which they settled, and became the leaders of a wave of technological development in the Central Middle Ages.
In the beginning, life was almost unbearably hard for the monks. The place archbishop Thurston had given them was "more fit for wild beasts than men to inhabit, " and the monks endured great hardships and near starvation. (continued)
Don't even think of going to Fountains without also viewing Studley Royal Water Gardens. You may as well since it's included in the entry fee anyway.
The Studley Royal Estate passed into the care of the National Trust in 1983. The land around Studley Royal was inherited by John Aislabie from his elder brother in 1699. Following his disgrace as Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time of the infamous South Sea Bubble and his release from imprisonment in the Tower, he set about creating a landscape with water gardens and classical temples.
His son, William, bought the remains of the adjoining Fountains Abbey in 1768, and it is thanks to his and successive owners efforts that so much of it remains today. T describe the walk along the Skell from the abbey to the deer park as delightful seems inadequate, the trees and statues providing variety and interest everywhere in the ever-changing landscape. Partridges roam and cry around your feet as the water is transformed from the domestic uses of the abbey in former days to the half-moon pools and the bridge over the cascade.
If you get lucky on a calm day you may even manage (if you have a telephoto lens) to get a reflective picture of one of the white swans, something I may have done if I hadn't run out of film!
The history of Fountains did not end with the Dissolution. In 1540, the abbey and much of its property was sold to Sir Richard Gresham, and later resold to Stephen Proctor, who built Fountains Hall partly out of stone from the Abbey's ruins. In 1768 Fountains Hall, along with the ruins of the Abbey, were sold to William Aislabie. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were characterized by, among other things, the belief in natural law and, consequently, a romanticized view of nature. Often, these beliefs transformed the countryside, from a wild, irratic place into a vision of orderliness. Wealthy nobles sought to create this idealistic vision of nature as regular and orderly by incorporating Greco-Roman antiquities into beautiful landscapes. The haunting, majestic ruins of Fountains Abbey became one of the elements in the landscaping of Fountains Hall. Their role as decor for the new Fountains Hall and grounds, however, does not diminish the importance and legacy of the life once lived here. The extravagantly beautiful grounds present today still recall a more simple vision of nature and the once vital life exemplified here. Through the ruins of Fountains, set in an idyllic setting nestled among the forest and River Skell, the monks who once lived, worked, and prayed here still speak to us today through the majestic, soaring nave and vast expanse of its ruins. The presence of these Cistercian monks reworked the English economy, and inspired in the medieval period a renewed love of God through their life of work, study, and prayer. For those who have visited Fountains and have walked through its ruins, the presence of these monks is still alive today, and still serves as a testament to the balanced life of Ora et Labora .
The fourteenth century was an era of tremendous chaos. Harvests were affected by the drop in overall temperature, as well as an abundance of rain, which led to flooding in parts of northern Europe. The population was also twice as large as it had been in the previous century, leading to an outbreak of famine. When the Black Death arrived in England during the fourteenth century, it quickly overcame an already weakened population, and by the end of the century, approximately 30 percent of Europe's population had succumbed to the plague. The fourteenth century also saw conflict between the Scots and the English monarchy, as well as between the English and the French in the Hundred Years' War, and raids on the frontiers which left the countryside devastated. You may further explore fourteenth century England through the The Georgetown Labyrinth . The chaos in society as a whole inevitably affected the monastic life at Fountains. Eventually the monastery began to lease out its granges, and to move away from the system of lay brothers. A revival occurred when Marmaduke Huby became abbot in 1495, and instigated a series of reforms. Abbot Huby, as did other abbots of his period, sat in Parliament. There were 52 monks at Fountains during his tenure as abbot. The Great Perpendicular Tower at the Abbey is a testament to his achievements, and to the last great age of Cistercian monasticism in England. Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries brought an end to monastic life at Fountains in 1539.
Like so many places in England, Fountains Abbey represents an amazing amount of history having been in active use from the 12th through the 16th centuries. Taking the free guided tour is highly recommended as it will bring the ruins to life and help you to imagine what this place was really like in its heyday.
We were lucky to have a beautiful summer-like day when we visited.
See the Fountains Abbey web site for additional information.