Today, Fountains Abbey (just outside of Ripon in North Yorkshire, UK) stands as one of England’s best preserved monasteries. It was founded in 1132 by Benedictine Monks following a dispute with St. Mary’s Abbey in York. Fortunately for the original monks, the Archbishop of York provided them with land near Ripon to establish their own monastery.
This young monastery applied to join the Cistercian order and where given guidance from their mother church in France during their first rough years. The Cistercian order wants to replicate monastic life of the 6th century, particularly emphasizing manual labor in the fields. Based on the information at the Abbey, there were two types of monks; choir who spent their days in prayer, and the lay brothers (who were generally illiterate) who worked the fields. Both groups observed a vow of silence.
While the monastery grew successful in it’s early years (founding daughter monasteries), the monks were still not without conflict. The original church and wooden buildings were burnt in 1146 by a mob unhappy with the abbot for opposing the election of the new Archbishop of York. As devastating as that may seem, the Abbey quickly began the process of rebuilding on a much grander scale:
Fountains Abbey prospered until the mid 14th century, when it was ‘plagued’ (pun will reveal itself) from several areas: attacking Scottish armies, ‘selling futures’ of their wool stock, and the Black Death (get it?).
By the mid 15th century the Abbey had recovered with a greater emphasis placed on dairy production than wool, and an increase of masses said for the wealthy; and it enjoyed another 100 years of prosperity.
However, the 1530s saw the start of Henry VIII’s conflict with the Catholic Church over his desire for a divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon. From the Pope’s perspective, he excommunicated Henry. From Henry’s perspective, he made himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Not surprisingly Henry VIII resented the Catholic Church’s continued influence in England and in 1539 ordered the dissolution of all the monasteries and nunneries in England. This act not only strengthen Henry’s religious control of England but was a financial benefit to his wars with France.
Fountains Abbey’s roof (which was made of lead) was taken off and melted into cannon balls. The estate sold. The grain mill associated at the Abbey stayed operational, but the rest of the lands lay idle. Starting in the late 18th century the new owner, William Aislaby, started building the Studley Royal deer park on the grounds of Fountains Abbey. By the the Victorian Era (with the expansion of the railway), the Fountains Abbey ruins began to be visited more frequently by families on holiday visiting the gardens of Studley Royal.
Today Fountains Abbey is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site and will host a triathlon on September 21, 2013.