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A Bit of History

Wandering into the site of Fountains Abbey through a lesser-used entrance, one could be forgiven for thinking that Fountains Hall, the Jacobean manor house near that entrance, was one’s destination. It’s a grand place, used by storytellers as a setting, including for the final scenes to the film Omen III: The Final Conflict in 1980, as well as the film version of The Secret Garden. It also has some untold supernatural stories: years ago, when the best route into the hall was through a side entrance, visitors reported the sensation of an invisible figure running at them as they walked along the corridor, brushing past them as they went through to the main part of the house. In the Great Hall some have heard the sound of musicians rehearsing a piece of music, along with a woman's voice going through the same musical phrase several times. One of the bedrooms is haunted by a ‘shining golden lady’ in eighteenth century dress who would appear to children living there when they were sick in bed, sitting beside them and stroking their hair. Others have reported the ghost of a dog and another apparition of a dark figure carrying a lighted candle, while the main staircase at the back of the Hall is said to be haunted by children’s voices and the sound of them moving up and down the staircase, with the music of rainfall in the background even if the weather outside is sunny.

But one is still several hundred yards from Fountains Abbey itself. As one moves on through the trees outside the Hall, the panorama opens up and the visitor gradually takes in the grandeur of one of the largest and best preserved ruined Cistercian monasteries in England. Founded in 1132, the abbey operated for 407 years and became one of the wealthiest monasteries in England until its dissolution in 1539 by order of Henry VIII.

It wasn’t always so breathtaking. It began with thirteen monks, expelled after a riot in 1132 from the Benedictine house of St Mary's Abbey, in York, who were provided with land in the valley of the River Skell by Thurstan, Archbishop of York. The valley had shelter from the weather, and a supply of running water, but the harsh winter of 1133 prompted the monks to apply to join the Cistercian order, and, in 1135, Fountains became the second Cistercian house in northern England, after Rievaulx. With the guidance of Geoffrey of Ainai, a monk sent from Clairvaux, the group learned how to celebrate the seven Canonical Hours according to Cistercian usage and were shown how to construct wooden buildings. Within three years, an aisled nave had been added to a stone church.

Medieval monasteries were sustained by landed estates that were given to them as endowments and from which they derived an income from rents. With their beliefs in monastic purity, the Cistercian order rejected gifts of mills and rents, churches with tithes and feudal manors. In the early years the abbey struggled to maintain itself, but they were joined eventually by Hugh, a former dean of York Minster, a rich man who brought a considerable fortune as well as furniture and books to start the library.

These things mattered back then: in 1146 an angry mob, annoyed about the election of the archbishop of York, attacked the abbey and burnt down all but the church and some surrounding buildings. After an unstable period, then abbot Richard held the post until his death in 1170, restoring the abbey's stability and prosperity, supervising a huge building programme. The first half of the 13th century increased the abbey’s reputation and prosperity and another massive expansion of the abbey's buildings included enlarging the church and building an infirmary.

In the early 14th century northern England was invaded by the Scots and in 1348-49 the Black Death reduced manpower and income almost to the point of ruin. In the Papal Schism of 1378–1409 Fountains Abbey along with other English Cistercian houses was told to break off any contact with the mother house of Citeaux, which supported a rival pope. The abbots responded by forming their own chapter to rule the order in England, but politics continued to create instability. Eventually, in 1539 the abbot surrendered the abbey to King Henry VIII at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Not much of this turmoil of the centuries is apparent as one wanders around the site: the dominant mood is one of peace. The fact that roofs have collapsed and that once holy spaces are now open to the sky only adds to the tranquility of the place. One senses the hundreds of untold stories here, the lives through which one is walking; the sounds of the river and the song of birds whisper of the secrets that will forever remain unrevealed.


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