For Palm Sunday, I’m posting a photo of a wall of windows from Fountains Abbey. These windows are located on the bottom level of the abbey’s tower, which was built not long before the abbey was surrendered to the Crown. As I explained last Sunday, after the surrender, the lead and glass were removed from all of the abbey’s windows, allowing in the elements and causing the abbey to quickly fall into ruin.
The Crown sold Fountains Abbey to a merchant from London. Eventually, it was purchased by Sir Stephen Proctor, who used stone from the abbey to build a home for his family. It took from 1598 until 1611 to build that house, which he named Fountains Hall.
What was left of the abbey became the estate’s “folly” — essentially a giant lawn ornament. Such features were common in formal English gardens.
Since 1983, Fountains Abbey has been owned by the National Trust. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986.
Here is a photo of the narthex of Fountains Abbey, which I am posting for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. A narthex is the entrance to a church. Nowadays, we usually call it a foyer.
You get an idea of the size of the church at Fountains Abbey from this photo. It wasn’t until I visited this abbey that I began to understand why so many of England’s abbeys lie in ruins. Which is ironic, considering that Fountains Abbey is one of the best-preserved abbeys in all of England.
It’s because once you take away the roof, the building doesn’t stand a chance against the unpredictable English weather.
Why is there no roof? That’s easy. When the deed of surrender was signed at Fountains Abbey in 1539, the abbey had to be made unfit for worship. The roof was torn off, and the windows were stripped of their lead and glass. Some of the stone was carted off to be used for building projects elsewhere; the rest was worn down by the elements. During the Dissolution, many of the abbeys were also burned to ensure that the monks would leave.
The Dissolution came about because of Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church. More than 900 religious houses — home to some 12,000 people — were destroyed between 1536 and 1541. Initially, the proceeds from the monasteries was intended to provide an income for the Crown, but eventually many of them were sold off to fund Henry’s wars.
Without the lay brothers who built the abbey and did all the daily chores necessary to keep body and soul together, Fountains Abbey would never have become as wealthy as it did. At the time of Dissolution, the abbey’s land holdings had increased to 500 acres, making it one of the richest religious houses in England.
Which also made Fountains Abbey awfully attractive to Henry VIII, who used the proceeds from dismantling England’s abbeys to fund his military campaigns. (More on that next week.)
For today, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, I’m posting a photo of the nave of Fountains Abbey. Imagine, if you will, that the roof is still in place and the monks are singing and chanting as they process down this nave towards the Great East Window.
For the Third Sunday of Lent, I’m posting a photo of the cellarium at Fountains Abbey. Cellarium is a fancy monasterial word for “storeroom,” and this one was located beneath the dormitory where the lay brothers slept. It was used mainly to store food.
Fountains Abbey had two orders of monks: choir brothers and lay brothers. The choir brothers did all the praying and singing, while the lay brothers did all the manual labour required to run the abbey, including stonework and metalwork, tanning hides and making shoes, brewing and baking, and herding sheep.
Fountains Abbey was founded by 13 rebel Benedictine monks from St. Mary’s Abbey in York. They were sent packing because they wanted to live by a stricter rule than the Rule of St. Benedict that the monks in York followed.
The rebel monks were given 70 acres of land in a valley near Ripon in North Yorkshire. They decided to establish a Cistercian order, which is a French monastic order. Cistercian monks supported themselves by farming. The land near Ripon had everything the rebel monks needed: a valley setting to shelter them from the North Yorkshire weather, stone and timber for building, and plenty of water. The name of the abbey, St. Mary of Fountains, is thought to have originated from some nearby springs.
Not long after founding their abbey, the monks built a church out of stone. The Great East Window above the Chapel of Nine Altars behind the High Altar is featured in this photo, which I am posting for the Second Sunday of Lent.
For this year’s Lenten series, I’m going to follow up on last year’s series of photos of Mission Abbey with photos of another abbey. This time, though, we are once again back on the other side of the pond.
This year’s abbey is Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire, England. It was founded in 1132 and operated as a religious house until 1539 when it was surrendered to the Crown during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII.
For the First Sunday of Lent, here is the view of Fountains Abbey when walking towards it from the west. All that is visible of the abbey is the church tower, which is reflected in the River Skell.
Not that I need a reason to travel, but I often select my travel destinations based on the books I’ve read. A setting comes alive in a way that it never can, quite, in a book. You don’t completely understand Sinclair Ross’s short story “The Painted Door” until you’ve witnessed a prairie blizzard. And I didn’t realize how much small-town Ontario influenced Robertson Davies’ fiction until I saw small-town Ontario for myself, many years after being introduced to his work.
And so it was when I saw the moors near Haworth.
Haworth in West Yorkshire is where the Brontë sisters grew up. And the moors in Yorkshire just might be the bleakest landscape in all of England. They are certainly not what you picture when you hear the words “English countryside.”
And that is why I had a new appreciation for the Brontë novels after walking the moors by Haworth. I realized that the despair Jane felt when she walked away from Thornfield Hall was mirrored by the landscape she found herself wandering through, and I understood Heathcliff’s angst and turmoil after feeling the wind blow across the moors. (Wuthering, incidentally, is a Yorkshire word for “stormy weather.”)
Of all the Brontë novels, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is my favourite, and today is the 200th anniversary of her birth. Which is the reason for this post.
Happy birthday, Charlotte Brontë!
And thank you.