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13 November 2014

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You are in: North Yorkshire > History > Local history > Fountains Abbey History

Fountains Abbey

Fountains Abbey History

The Fountains Estate is almost 850 hectares and comprises a unique water garden, elegant temples and statues, which take full advantage of the natural landscape. National Trust volunteer guide John Carter explains the history behind the landmark.

Founded in 1132 by 13 Benedictine Monks, Fountains Abbey near Ripon, became one of the largest, richest and the most influential Cistercian abbeys in Britain. 

Archbishop Thurston of York gave the monks the land. Old chronicles describe it as an, “..inhospitable valley thickset with thorns lying between the slopes of mountains among rocks jutting out both sides of the River Skell. Fit rather to the lair of wild beasts than the home of human beings”.

Life was hard and the monks almost gave up, but they persevered. The monks began to receive gifts of money and endowments of land from wealthy families in exchange for prayers to save their souls.

Fountains Abbey

Fountains Abbey

The monks were assisted by lay brothers, mostly illiterate, they carried out the routine tasks of the Abbey; they served as masons, tanners, shoemakers, smiths and bakers. Sheep farming was the greatest source of income with many of the lay brothers working on the farms and granges. Lead mining, quarrying of stone and horse breeding were also very important.

A decline in Fountains’ income began in the 14th century when bad harvests, sheep disease, the invasion of the North of England by Scottish armies and the Black Death caused severe problems. Many of the Lay brothers fled, leaving the abbey with little support. Dairy farming gradually took the place of sheep farming and there was a dramatic increase in prayers and masses said for the souls of the wealthy.

The power, influence and riches of the abbey grew over the next 100 years, but by the 1530s Henry VIII had become angered by the influence of the churches, their wealth and independence from the Crown. By an Act of Parliament, known as the “Dissolution of the Monasteries”, Henry VIII closed all monasteries and nunneries in 1539.

For almost the next 200 years, little happened on the Abbey site. It was not until the mid-18th Century that the Aislabie family of Ripon bought the Abbey buildings for £4000.  John Aislabie, MP for Ripon and Chancellor of the Exchequer, invested large sums of Government money in the “South Sea Bubble”. Government money and much of his own was lost.

Stag in the Deer Park at Studley Royal.

Stag in the Deer Park at Studley Royal.

After a short spell in the Tower of London, John Aislabie was sent back to Ripon in disgrace. He devoted his next few years to design and development of the Studley Royal gardens. He set off on the Grand Tour of Europe, visiting the gardens of Versailles and Chatsworth, which influenced the design and layout of the water gardens and buildings which you see today. His son, William, carried on the work.

After a succession of wealthy landowners the whole estate, including the deer park, was under the control of local councils between 1966 and 1983, when the National Trust took over the site. The estate became a World Heritage site in 1986.

Today, the site is a place of tranquility and repose, as well as a haven for wildlife.  Almost 350,000 visitors enjoy the peace, solitude and beauty of the Fountains Estate every year.

John Carter

last updated: 05/03/2009 at 11:09
created: 12/11/2008

You are in: North Yorkshire > History > Local history > Fountains Abbey History

A Monks Life

The life of a 12th century monk wasn't the easiest. The monks undertook vows of poverty, simplicity, obedience, chastity and silence. These vows were strictly observed and, being a closed Order, all contact with women was forbidden. Their diet was severe, consisting mainly of bread, vegetables and beer; just two meals each day in summer, only one in winter. The monks dedicated their lives to prayer and meditation with church services eight times a day, every day, starting at 2am.

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