If you stand in the ruined Chapel of Nine Altars at Fountains Abbey and gaze upwards, the soaring Gothic arches will take your breath away.   

England is rich in medieval monasteries, but this one, nestling in the rolling valleys of Yorkshire, is on a spectacular scale that leaves most visitors in awe.

Originally, Fountains Abbey was never intended to achieve such grandeur.  It was founded in the 12th century, by a small band of monks who felt that their lifestyle in a nearby Benedictine abbey had become too comfortable.  They craved simplicity, solitude, and servitude – in fact, they staged a bit of a rebellion against their cosy lifestyle!  After begging the Archbishop of York for permission, they built a new monastery and a new life for themselves in the valley of the River Skell.

The first church was made of wood, but in 1160 this was replaced by the present Abbey church.  It was built of local sandstone, and massive oak beams supported the roof.  Inside, the white-painted walls reflected the sunlight that streamed in through the many windows;  the effect must have been stunning and uplifting.  What must it have been like to hear a choir singing in there?


The monks chose to adopt the Cistercian order, which called for a life of self-imposed hardship.  They wore coarse wool habits and followed a strict routine of prayer and meditation, which involved night vigils as well as daytime worship.  They must have been freezing for most of the time… although there was a ‘warming room’ where huge log fires were kept blazing.    

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 down from their dormitory towards the church, their steps lit only by candlelight.

The monks were very self-sufficient.  A mill just across the river would grind wheat, rye, barley and oats for bread;  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.   Fountains Abbey was flourishing:  in fact, it was one of the wealthiest in England.

It was all going so well… that is, until the reign of Henry VIII, who famously fell for the charm of Anne Boleyn.  Henry turned his back on the Roman Catholic Church when the Pope refused to grant him a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.   Never at a loss, Henry abandoned the Church of Rome and formed a new Church of England, placing himself at its head.  He then married Anne, regardless.

But Henry didn’t stop there:  England’s abbeys and nunneries, which were all led by Rome, were now in the firing line.  Henry 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, lead and glass were stripped from the windows, and religious relics were removed.   Stone was plundered for new buildings elsewhere, and nature began to reclaim the broken bones of former glory. 

Today, the ruins of Fountains Abbey are cared for by English Heritage, while the grounds are maintained by the National Trust.  The Abbey stands in a beautiful Georgian landscaped park known as Studley Royal;  in February, the banks of the river are white with snowdrops, and in summer the woodlands are alive with birdsong.   

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Fountains Abbey is a World Heritage site.  To find out more, visit www.fountainsabbey.org.uk

Jo Woolf is a freelance writer and editor with a keen interest in the natural world.   She is based in Scotland, and is happiest when she’s wandering around the ruins of an ancient castle or pottering along a pebbly shore.   Jo writes an online magazine called The Hazel Tree, which focuses on history, wildlife, photography and lots more besides:  www.the-hazel-tree.com

Images copyright © Colin and Jo Woolf

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Written by Abigail Young

I've had a passion for everything British my entire life, despite being raised as a small-town girl in the American Midwest, After years of dreaming, I got the chance to live and work in England for an entire year. Now I write about my favorite country, and hopefully inspire my fellow Britophiles to get over there and experience it for themselves.

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