the cellarium, fountains abbey

It was bitterly cold today.  According to the BBC it was supposed to sleet and snow and all sorts of things but it didn’t.   Although it doesn’t seem like I’ve been here long, in actuality my time here is coming to a close sooner than I’d like, so we decided to not waste a day, risk the weather, and take in some ruins and drink some beer.    So fairly early in the day (for us) we set off for Fountains Abbey.

Fountains Abbey was founded in 1132 and was a Cistercian abbey.  Today it is part of Studley Royal Estate, a park that includes the 12th century abbey, the abbey’s mill (still working),  an Elizabeth manor hall (Fountains Hall), a Victorian church (St. Mary’s) and a Georgian water garden.  There is also a deer park and a working sheep farm.

The Cistercians were a strictly devout order; they secluded themselves away from the external world, observed vows of silence, wore simple woolen clothes, worked all day long, and prayed when they weren’t working.  From their devotion they built this amazing place.  For four hundred years the Abbey stood in this valley and the monks and lay brothers raised sheep, mined lead, quarried stone, worked iron, ran a mill, and tilled the fields.  And in the middle of it all was the Abbey.

When you step through the door into the nave and see the rows of columns marching to the high altar below what must have been an enormous window, the first thing you think is how beautiful it must once have been.  Fountains Abbey is the largest abbey ruins in England and it is completely impressive.   It was built using the red and orange tinged local stone and hugs the banks of the River Skell, occasionally crossing over it.  Although fairly simple once, several additions under the direction of various abotts made it quite large and elaborate.  The windows soar above your head, in some of them the delicate tracery is still evident.  The arches of the cellarium, still entirely intact, march away in the dark.  The tower, added to the Abbey late in its existence, climbs to the sky, and although you can no longer climb up it, on every floor you can still see the doors the monks would have used to access the upper levels.   Everywhere you look there are the remnants of stone buildings, some with the columns that once supported their roofs still intact.  The massive fireplace in the kitchen still stands.  In most buildings steps climb away from the ground and end in open sky, the upper floors they once led to long gone.  The altar of course is gone but the mosaic tiled platform on which it stood remains, with an elongated choir on each side and an added transept behind it.   A bishop is buried near where the north/south transept separates the nave from the choir; the brass inserts on his stone are gone but you can still see their outlines.

The second thing you think as you contemplate the open sky above the nave is how could anyone destroy a place like this?  In 1534 an act of Parliament made Henry VIII the supreme head of the Church of England.  By 1539 the dissolution of the monasteries was well underway, and Henry was busy closing monasteries, abbeys, nunneries, etc., appropriating their income, selling off their assets, sending their residents away, and destroying their buildings.   In 1539 Fountains Abbey was surrendered to the King’s commissioners, who in short order made an inventory of everything of value and then sold the property and buildings.  The buildings were spared from devastation for a short while in hopes that the church would serve as the seat of a new bishopric, but when this didn’t happen, the Crown ordered the new owner to destroy the buildings to prevent the monks from returning.   Even for an abbey as magnificent as Fountains Abbey, all it took was removal of the lead from the roof and the glass from the windows of the church.  Some of the other buildings were wrecked when their supporting columns were pulled down.  The Abbey was spared more extensive destruction because its new owner thought he might build a house from the ruins.

Basically this astonishing building was destroyed by politics and greed.  So I’ve come to the conclusion that Henry the VIII was an ass.


~ by gun street girl on December 30, 2009.

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