• Luke Morton Sharpe

Fountains Abbey: the centuries after dissolution

‘The guide goes through the somewhat theatrical trick of making his party stand in line within the door of the arbour, when suddenly throwing it open, Fountains Abbey in the centre of a scene of exquisite beauty - forming a pictured framed by the doorway - is seen for the first time’

Black’s Guide to Harrogate and Vicinity 1871



Half a millennium has passed since the wealthiest English Cistercian Abbey was surrendered by its scheming, ambitious last Abbot, Marmaduke Bradley. In 1539, Fountains was on the shortlist to become a new cathedral with a diocese extending across Richmondshire and Lancashire. It was the only Cistercian house considered for such elevation, an indication of its status at that time. The plan was quite advanced with a list detailing the cathedral’s administrative staff already prepared (including salaries) but Chester Abbey took the bishopric instead.


Having lost its lifeline in 1540 the church suffered the usual spoliation losing its roof and its valuable contents under new owner Richard Gresham. However, he did little else with the complex. Shoehorned into its precipitous valley, adaptation of the Abbey’s existing buildings into a grand house was not really feasible, particularly as the most likely candidate for conversion (the Abbot’s House) ‘was doomed to the sullen shade of the wooded steep’.


View looking north west by Daniel King c.1670. Engraved for Dugdale’s ‘Monasticon Anglicanum’. Aside from the fairly accurate representation of Abbot Huby’s tower, King’s view is a bit jumbled. It does show tracery in the west window on the left and the south east window on the right. There is also tracery in the lower nave windows and the clerestory though the latter seems unlikely as these are narrow twelfth century lights. The ruined buildings in the foreground are difficult to interpret.


Gresham’s son (founder of the Royal Exchange) sold the estate to passionate protestant Sir Stephen Proctor in 1596. A local magistrate who vigorously pursued Jesuit priests, Proctor’s reforming zeal upset the staid, conservative local gentry and populace. Not unlike four hundred years earlier the district had a new, dynamic religious force. Proctor chose a more radical approach to the estate than the Greshams. During his brief tenure the Abbot’s House was flattened and its material recycled to build Fountains Hall on the sunnier north side of the valley. Some other buildings probably hosted industrial activities such as metalworking (Proctor’s father was an ironmaster). The preservation of the warming house chimney may indicate its re-use as a furnace flue. In addition, deposits of raw materials such as coal were found in its vicinity. Gang warfare seems rife in late sixteenth century North Yorkshire. Proctor and his peers used bribery and violence to get their way protected by private bands of armed men. The law caught up with him in 1610 when he was impeached and imprisoned. He died ten years later without a will.


View looking north east by Samuel Buck 1722. A more recognisable visualisation of the abbey it was reproduced from sketches made on Buck’s tour of Yorkshire in 1719-20. As per King’s drawing, the major windows still retain their tracery. Curiously, the west range, one of the most substantial surviving buildings, is shown as a single wall. The six arches on the south side of the nave are intriguing and might be a representation of the north cloister arcade demolished by the Aislabies.


Following Proctor’s manic interlude, the district returned to torpor. By the mid-seventeenth century the estate was acquired by the Catholic Messenger family. On the plus side they did nothing with the ruins hence there was no major spoliation. On the minus side, they did nothing with the ruins hence they became more perilous and overgrown. The abbey was kept locked up, but the Messengers allowed access to high ranking tourists, scholars and artists. The neighbouring estate at Studley Royal was inherited by John Aislabie in 1695. Disgraced for his central role in the ‘South Sea Bubble’ he retreated to his domain and focused on creating an extraordinary water garden. It consisted of classical temples, follies and statues arranged around small lakes carefully positioned to provide delightful vistas. Down the Skell valley was the looming mass of the Abbey which Aislabie coveted. The Messengers initially refused sale and he had to be content with borrowing it as a view, the climax of a garden tour. It was Aislabie’s son William who finally acquired Fountains in 1768. Now it could be properly incorporated into his scheme.


At that time, Gothic architecture was thought to be Anglo-Saxon in origin, hence seemingly linked to English liberty and constitutional government, important tenets in the Age of Enlightenment. So, an element of Gothic in a landscaped garden would pay homage to this principle however questionable the historical associations. In many such gardens the landowner had to build something Gothic (e.g. The Temple of Liberty at Stowe, Bucks.). At Studley Aislabie had breath-taking ready-built examples. Looking east, the long straight approach to the garden is aligned to Ripon Minster. Looking west from the garden is the dramatic ruin of Fountains. To William Aislabie, the Abbey ruins were his plaything, picking and choosing architectural elements to make them conform to his vision. Hence, there was no place for remaining window tracery, cloister walls or even part of choir arcade, all deemed superfluous to his new garden ornament. The pristine lawns and classical statuary of Studley Royal now infiltrated the Abbey precinct. However, despite his vandalism the remaining structure was consolidated, much needed after the benign neglect of the Messenger years.


The Abbey from Studley Royal by Balthazar Nebot 1768. The ‘Surprise view’ deliberately created to provide a breath-taking vista of the east end of the church. Ironically the Abbey’s grandeur is partly due to some distinctly 'uncistercianlike' features. The Chapel of the Nine Altars and Huby’s tower frame the view from the adjacent Studley Royal Garden. The chapel and the tower would have been anathema to the asceticism of early Cistercians but without them would the abbey have been worthy of incorporation into the garden?


Aislabie’s alterations received opprobrium from both eighteenth century romantics and nineteenth century archaeologists. Following a visit in 1772, style guru William Gilpin champion of that ethereal quality the ‘picturesque’ wrote that the ‘bold roughness’ and ‘freedom’ of the ruin had been lost. It was ‘absurd’ to give ‘finished splendour’ to a ruin with ‘trim parterres’. The final indignity was the addition of a ‘mutilated heathen statue’ on a platform formed from debris of the high altar’s reredos. In 1848, local antiquarian Richard Walbran began the first serious excavations of the site. He cut through the Aislabie’s levelled layers of debris (sometimes eight feet above the original level) which had left ‘many objects of interest…mouldering uselessly in the earth’. In the nave the effect of this accumulation was to ‘degrade’ the pillars of the arcade ‘into a truncated, clumsy and baseless mass’. Whereas Gilpin criticised the loss of the romantic, Walbran regretted the impact on the scientific analysis of the site. His attitude was a reflection of how Gothic was being transformed from amusing adornment to house style of the Victorians as its revival took hold. He wanted to reveal the beauty of the Abbey’s architecture, understand its layout, interpret the age and function of its buildings and link them to the written records that he had studied. Walbran’s excavations spanned five years and earned him a fellowship of the Society of Antiquarians.


View looking west from the Choir by Thomas Hearne (1782) showing some of William Aislabie’s changes after incorporating the Abbey into his garden scheme. The Choir Arcade and the West Window tracery have been removed. The ground has been levelled and covered with grass. The new floor level is well above the medieval as the bases of the nave pillars and the blind arcading on the right are buried. In the foreground is the site of the high altar, location of the viewing platform and the ‘heathen statue’ noted by Gilpin.


Fountains flourished for four hundred and seven years from foundation to dissolution. Curiously, four hundred and seven years after its closure a scheme was hatched to restore the abbey to its original use. In 1946, a prominent group of catholics led by the Duke of Norfolk reached a deal with the owner to purchase the site and donate it the Benedictines. They planned to rebuild parts of the abbey (in particular the church) using Fountains Hall as their main accommodation. Local architects were engaged and meetings held with the Ministry of Works who would have to sanction the plan. However, it engendered bitter opposition both from those who feared the loss of England's premier romantic ruin and from protestants. A petition was organised by the Protestant Alliance stating that the ruins 'should remain as a monument to the system from which England was delivered'. The petition garnered ten thousand signatures. It seemed that the government would oppose the scheme anyway but before any official decision was made the Duke of Norfolk's syndicate abandoned the plan. They believed there were higher priorities for building materials and labour at a time of national reconstruction.


In Aislabie’s day visitors entered the site down a long avenue south west from Ripon. The tour culminated in an exploration of the Abbey as an adjunct to the garden. There was little interest in its history, its former purpose or inhabitants. Its raison d’etre was purely aesthetic, its architecture suitably manipulated to this end leading to the catastrophic loss of then surviving details. Today the emphasis has changed with entry through the Abbey and Aislabie’s garden at the rear. This combination of a rare English Water Garden and the UK’s largest medieval remains has led to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – ‘a masterpiece of human creative genius’ and ‘an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble’. Annually three hundred and fifty thousand people now visit the former ‘lair of wild beasts.’


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