Furness Abbey was founded in 1123AD by Stephen, Count of Boulogne, as a religious house of the Order of Savigny. In 1147AD the Savigniac Order merged with the Cistercians, and Furness Abbey became a Cistercian house.
Early building work took place between 1127AD-1147AD. The site was raided by Scots in 1138AD and the monks driven away. They returned in 1141AD, and the first stone structures are believed to date from this period. Beginning in the the latter half of the 12th Century, the abbey was extensively rebuilt and extended.
During the 15th Century, attempts were made to incorporate a central tower in the church, but these plans were abandoned when the foundations were unable to hold the additional weight. A belfry tower was added around 1500AD at the west end of the nave. Physical limitations of the site led to this being incorporated into the existing church rather than standing as a separate building, as was more typical for the time. Since the church was bordered on one side by a valley wall, space was a constraining factor.
Another unusual feature forced upon the monks by the nature of the site was the orientation of the church. Rather than the traditional east to west alignment, Furness Abbey was built along a north-east to south-west alignment to allow it to make best use of the Mill Beck which the monastic buildings straddle. This was used to supply fresh water and also as a means of drainage for the abbey's waste.
Furness Abbey developed into a large landholder in what was at the time one of England's most remote and dangerous regions. At its height, it owned properties on the Isle of Man, along with daughter houses both there and in Cumbria and Ireland. It also built Piel Castle to help it control trade from the Furness Peninsula. Much of its wealth was based on farming, the wool trade, and exploitation of mineral resources.
Furness Abbey was dissolved on the 9th April 1537AD. At the time, it was the second richest Cistercian abbey in England, with only Fountains Abbey being wealthier. Along with the abbot, 28 monks remained in residence when the deed of surrender was signed.
Today, Furness Abbey survives as a very extensive and complete set of ruins. It's a unique site with many unusual features. These include the sedilia (intricately canopies seats near the high altar), the vaulted infirmary chapel, the striking arches of the east cloister flanking the chapter house, and the surviving stone channels of the Mill Beck. The ruins consist entirely of local sandstone, which provides a rich visual texture to the site. Despite its proximity to the town, the location is well preserved from modern intrusion, and surrounded on all sides by trees.