The Borders Abbeys I

One of the things that determined the itinerary of my most recent foray into the past was visiting the great Borders abbeys, or what is left of them. Some of these (Fountians, Rievaulx, Melrose) were Cistercian houses, Jedburgh was Augustinian, The Tironensian Order (Grey Friars) founded Kelso in 1128 (and soon discovered that they lived on the route of invasion between Scotland and England), and Dryburgh was Premonstratensian (White Canons). They all date to the 1100s-1200s, although all had earlier monasteries or churches either close by (Melrose) or probably under (Jedburgh) the new foundations.

Approaching Fountains from above the valley. The name comes from six springs in the valley.
Chapel of the Nine Altars, Fountains.
The Nave, Fountains. Did I mention this was a very large abbey?
Note visitor for scale . . . The bit of tower visible through the window arch is what we saw coming down the slope toward the valley.
Did I mention that Fountains was huge, and spawned a number of smaller houses? And that it was one of the major business hubs of Yorkshire?

Fountains came into being after a “riot” in the Benedictine Monastery of St. Mary’s in York in 1132. 13 monks got kicked out, in part for demanding more austerity (poverty, separation from the world) than the politically powerful Archbishop and Abbot of York wanted to revert to. The malcontents settled at Fountains under the aegis of a different bishop. After a very hard winter, they petitioned to be allowed into the Cistercian Order. This was granted. The abbey did well until the 1300s. The Scots attacked, sheep diseases (and cattle ailments) did in many of the flocks and herds, animals that were mortgaged to wool-dealers on the Continent. Then the Black Death cut the labor supply inside and outside of the abbey. The abbey had partially recovered before Henry VIII took over all the property as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Fountains to day is a busy, popular place to visit, with a country house not far away, and lots of things aimed at kids. The place was full of families when I visited. You can also see the grange. A grange is a farm associated with a monastery or convent that is not on the monastery grounds proper, and that was leased or rented out. Fountains also had lead and iron mines, glass-making facilities, slate quarries, tens of thousands of sheep, farms, grist and lumber mills, timber sales, and a few other sources of income. Collectively, the Cistercians became the single greatest wool exporter in the British Isles by 1300.

All those colors are from natural dyes that were available during the Middle Ages. Each one has a tag listing the plants and minerals used, plus the mordant. For example, weald and woad used together give different shades of green, depending on the proportions of plants used and what fixative follows. The Grange at Fountains.

Riveaulx is more what you’d think of the Cistercians as doing – way the heck in the middle of nowhere, hard to find, and not overrun with people. It was founded in 1132 and grew from fewer than 20 brothers to 640 plus lay brothers and novices by the 1160s. It to throve, then staggered in the 1300s before starting to recover. With the dissolution of the monasteries, the new owners stripped it of the lead, glass, wood, and pretty much anything that they could cart off. Because it was isolated, more of the walls remained standing at the time, although they were recycled in later years. The museum has one of the lead “boats” made from the roof material. This one somehow didn’t end up being turned in to anything else. It is easily four feet long and two feet thick, pure lead.

Part of the main church, and the monastery complex at Riveaulx.
Flowers through the refectory wall.

The abbeys in Scotland were a bit different, as we will see later . . .

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10 thoughts on “The Borders Abbeys I

  1. Beautiful stone work. Imagine the skill and patience it took to make such beauty.

  2. Funny how they went from a dozen monks to where they ended up, much less all the ‘businesses’ they got into. For monks who “wanted to get away”, they didn’t do that very well, did they?

    • Not really, although there were some places on the Continent that were always isolated and relatively poor. The problem was that the Cistercians had no difficulty with using technology and improving farming (draining land, irrigating land, building better fishponds, improved livestock breeds), Not only did they do well, but people who moved near a Cistercian house tended to pick up on those technologies and techniques and do well.

  3. Not quite what I expected when I clicked on the “Border Abbeys” link, but I think you did well ending up in Yorkshire. Next posting back to the borders for Melrose, Dryburgh, Kelso and Jedburgh? Pity you missed out on Whitby which is reputably the country’s favourite ruined abbey (though that amy just be the vampire link).

    I really liked your picture of flowers through the refractory wall, with the mixture of well kept grass and borders but the wild things allowed to flourish near the wall. I doubt if all that the grass is still looking so green.

    • Yes, the next post in the series will cover the Scottish abbeys. I wanted to get to Whitby, but the logistics just didn’t work.

  4. Has anyone ever suggested trying to restore part or all of the buildings, goven that the stonework at least looks sound?

    • I think so, but a lot of the stonework is missing, re-opening the quarries could cause problems for the buildings (at least at Fountains, the quarry is right beside where the tower stands, if I read things correctly), the cost would be enormous, and no one wants the liability. English Heritage probably can’t afford it, the Church of England certainly can’t afford it, and the risk of damaging the standing structure would be high. And that’s before you get into the argument over “to which period should it be restored?” since they were modified several times between their foundings and the Dissolution in the 1530s.

      • And then there’s the bureaucracy: they are all Grade 1 listed, so there are lots of organisations with the right and/or desire to get involved (mostly to say “no way”) and the chance of getting any kind of restoration agreed is effectively zero, even if some kind billionaire turned up offering to pay. There are, of course, plenty of Abbey’s that survived in one way or another – normally monkless – that people can visit if they wish, though I suspect that few other than Westminster could remotely compete with the experience of, say, a restored Fountains.

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