Last Photographed: Sunday 3rd July 2005
Fountains Abbey (named after the springs that arise from the surrounding land) was originally founded in 1132 by a breakaway group of Benedictine monks from St Mary's Abbey. These monks had been influenced by Cistercian thinking and sought reform of their own institution, desiring a life of greater austerity and less concern with the comforts of the material world. This brought them into conflict with Geoffrey, the abbot of St Mary's. Eventually, Archbishop Thurstan of York was called upon to resolve the dispute, but his visit culminated in a heated encounter ending in a scuffle between the abbot's monks and the reformist faction - the latter being forced to flee under the protection of the archbishop.
Thurstan was sympathetic to the cause of the rebel monks and provided them with a grant of land in the valley of the river Skell. At the time, the site was described as "a place of horror and vast solitude, uninhabited for all the centuries back, thick set with thorns and fit rather to be the lair of wild beasts than the home of human beings". The small group of monks struggled with the task of founding a viable community, having little more than the clothes on their backs and the food supplied to them by Thurstan. In 1133, they turned to Bernard of Clarirvaux seeking support from and affiliation with the Cistercian order. The monks hoped to receive a new grant of land in a better location.
Abbot Richard travelled to Burgundy to pursue this goal. He found Bernard sympathetic to the aims and ideals of the Fountains community, and Arrangements were made for the monks to relocate to Europe. However, this was to prove unnecessary. Upon his return, Richard discovered that the community of monks had reversed their ill fortune. Their number had been bolstered by Hugh, retired dean of York Minster - a wealthy man who provided much-needed financial support as well as a personal collection of books that was to become the foundation of the Fountains library.
This proved to be the turning point for the monks and the apparent success of their community soon attracted further wealthy benefactors and supporters. In 1135, Fountains was deemed viable enough to be admitted to the Cistercian order, thus securing its future. In 1136, construction of the first stone church at the site began.
In 1143, Henry Murdac became abbot at Fountains. He was a strong and driven character with a clear vision. He immediately undertook major building work - much needed, since the abbey had now outgrown its humble church and wooden buildings - and Within three years the church had been expanded with an aisled nave and a large stone cloister constructed according to the traditional Cistercian plan.
In 1146, Fountains found itself caught up in a dispute over the archbishopric of York. This culminated in the opposing faction attacking the abbey and setting fire to the church. Rebuilding did not commence until around 1160 when work began on a much grander scale. The next couple of decades saw the completion of an imposing new church, as well as an enlarged chapter house, an enlarged cloister, a refectory, a dormitory and two fine guest houses.
In 1204, Abbot John of York continued the expansion of the church, beginning the work of extending it Eastwards. This work was continued by Abbott John of Kent. By 1245, the Eastern aisle with its nine altars was finished, as well as the infirmary, the cloister and the two abbey guest-houses. The church was adorned with marble pillars and tiled pavements laid down. With the exception of the tower, the church was largely complete.
By now, Fountains was one of Britain's largest and wealthiest abbeys. This was a high point for the community, but trouble was just around the corner. Scottish raids, the Black Death and royal taxation all took their toll on the abbey's finances. However, the worst damage was caused by advance wool sales - a practice whereby the monks promised their entire output of wool to foreign merchants in return for large cash advances. By 1274, failed quotas had left the monks so badly in debt that they were taken into royal receivership. They recovered from this low, but by 1291 they had repeated there errors and were again taken into the hands of the crown.
Fountains continued to bounce back from these financial setbacks, but the early part of the 14th Century saw them further troubled by incursions from the Scots. In 1318, following the Scottish victory at Bannockburn a few years earlier, the abbey itself was occupied by invading troops. The following year its estates were pillaged, leading the king to exempt them from taxation in 1319.
The ravages of the Black Death, war and poor harvests had greatly reduced the number of lay brothers residing at Fountains - and it was the lay brothers who provided the manual labour that generated much of the abbey's wealth.
By 1344, many of the abbey's granges and estates had fallen into neglect and the monks were forced to move away from their dependence on lay brothers and lease out these properties to tenant farmers. This, combined with a move towards dairy farming, contributed towards a recovery of the abbey's finances.
Fountains slowly emerged through the turmoil of the following decades - including the papal split and a disputed election of its own abbot - into a period of relative calm in the mid-15th Century. Although not without its troubles, this period saw Fountains once again establish itself as a stable and prosperous community, securing its position as a financial, political and religious power.
By the time John Darton took the abbot's seat in 1478, Fountains was flourishing - but the church was now badly in need of repair. The new abbot oversaw work to secure the material of the building, as well as the addition of supporting buttresses, stained glass, and the Eastern "window of nine lights".
The final great revival of Fountains took place under Abbot Marmaduke Huby, who held the office from 1498-1526. He was responsible for a great influx into the Cistercian houses. Fountains saw an increase from 30 to 52 monks, as well as the addition of the great tower that still rises above the ruins today.
However, fate was set to intervene, and Henry VIII's split with Rome resulted in the dissolution of Fountains Abbey in 1539, under its last abbot - Marmaduke Bradley.
Sold off in 1540, the abbey buildings were quickly plundered for their stone, which was then used to construct the nearby Fountains Hall. It wasn't until 1768 that the abbey passed into the hands of someone with an interest in its preservation.
The 19th Century saw the abbey flourish as a tourist attraction, with many people making the trip out to the Skell Valley to view the romantic Gothic ruin. Eventually, the site was sold to the County Council in 1966. In 1983, they passed the estate into the hands of the National Trust.
Today, Fountains Abbey is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the best preserved monastic ruin in Britain. The layout of the estate is so complete that little imagination is required in order to visualise a flourishing religious community. Most of the original buildings still stand in various states of disrepair and the great church tower still reaches close to its original height. The cloister is still enclosed on all sides, the lay brothers' cellarium survives complete with vaulted ceiling, the 12th Century watermill remains standing and un-ruined, the West front provides a close impression of its original appearance, the 12th Century guest-houses offer the only example of their kind in the country and the original abbey bridge still spans the river. The huge size, sprawling complexity and extensive surviving buildings contribute to Fountains' reputation as the most splendid and evocative ruin in the land. The location is also stunning, sitting at the bottom of a beautiful wooded valley with the ruins perched on the edge of the river Skell as it meanders by. Many hours could easily be spent just wandering around the surrounding woodland or sitting back and appreciating the views. This is a site that requires many hours if you really want to do it justice.
Fountains does, however, have its problems: people. This is a Major Tourist Attraction. Visit any day in the Summer and you're doomed to share this place with hundreds of other visitors. And many of the tourists are here with kids and a picnic. Or kids and a football. Or both. When visited in July, the lawn outside the West front were reminiscent of a crowded beach. Another minor grip is that Fountains is a little too 'maintained' for my simple tastes. The site feels just a little too well managed, and the big modern floodlights that sit all around it don't exactly help conjure an air of mediaeval mystery.
On balance though, this site is still an astonishing place and well worth a visit. I imagine it's probably better to come during the 'out of season' months though when the place is a little less hectic - but if you need to visit in the Summer, the ruins are large enough that you can still wander around without too much disturbance.
Fountains is undeniably evocative. The abbey's ruins are majestic and imposing, and coupled with their beautiful setting, they present an unparalleled combination of mediaeval splendour and romantic beauty that can't fail to impress.