The history of Fountains Abbey
The dramatic abbey ruins at Fountains are the largest monastic ruins in the country. Step back into a rich and dramatic past and imagine what life would have been like for the monks who first came here all those years ago.
Whether you’re here to soak up the history and atmosphere, or to explore every corner with the family, the abbey ruins will have a special place in your memory.
The abbey’s beginnings
The abbey was founded in 1132 by 13 Benedictine monks from St Mary’s in York. They'd grown fed up of the extravagant and rowdy way that the monks lived in York and so they escaped seeking to live a devout and simple lifestyle elsewhere. This was how they came to Fountains.
By the time three years had passed the monks had become settled into their new way of life and had been admitted to the austere Cistercian Order and with that came an important development – the introduction of the Cistercian system of lay brothers.
Introduction of the lay brothers
The lay brothers (what we would now call labourer) relieved the monks from routine jobs, giving them more time to dedicate to God rather than farming the land to get by. It was because of the help of the lay brothers that Fountains became so wealthy through wool production, lead mining, cattle rearing, horse breeding and stone quarrying.
" Idleness is the enemy of the soul. For this reason the brethren should be occupied at certain times in manual labour and at other times in sacred reading."
It wasn’t all plain sailing
Bad harvests hit the monks hard and they also had to deal with raids from the Scots throughout the 14th-century, which led to economic collapse. This was only made worse by the Black Death which struck the country in 1348.
Despite its financial problems, the Abbey remained important. The abbacy of Marmaduke Huby (1495 - 1526) marked a period of revival and the great tower built by Huby symbolises his hope for the Abbey’s future.
The Abbey was abruptly closed down in 1539 in the Dissolution of the Monasteries ordered by Henry VIII, and the abbot, prior and monks were sent away with pensions.
Fountains Abbey today
The estate was sold by the Crown to a merchant, Sir Richard Gresham. It remained in private hands until the 1960s, including William and John Aislabie who designed Studley Royal water garden of which the abbey became an integral part of. The National Trust bought the estate from the West Riding County Council in 1983.