The photo above, which I took during a visit in 2010, shows the still-impressive ruin of the West Front of Byland Abbey, in Yorkshire. Prior to its destruction, the most impressive feature of this facade would have been a huge rose window, the lower outline of which is still visible here. Apparently, that was the inspiration for a similar rose window in York Minster, which remains intact (although it narrowly escaped destruction in the 1984 fire, and required substantial renovation, as described here).
For my Yorkshire Day post this year, I wanted to draw attention once again to the remarkable assemblage of monastic ruins that exist in that county. There are, of course, also many military ruins, such as Scarborough Castle, but the religious buildings are perhaps less well-known.
Just to avoid any confusion regarding my intentions, I should make it clear again that I have no interest at all in religion. My interest in these buildings is and always has been architectural and historical.
I’ve mentioned my early experiences with these ruins in previous posts, and I must admit that I tended to take them for granted when growing up. I just assumed that there must be huge ruined churches lying around everywhere, and it was only later that I realized that this was a rare environment.
Illustrating the degree of integration of these ruins into the landscape, the photo below shows the modern remains of Byland Abbey’s gatehouse, the surviving arch of which stands over a public road.
A Long-Forgotten Social Disaster
The process by which all these huge religious institutions came to be abandoned and ruined is fairly well known, as the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which took place between 1536-40. The event occurred because King Henry VIII picked a fight with the Pope, over his desire to divorce one of his wives. The key to success, as he saw it, was to crush the power of the Catholic church in England. All the monasteries owed allegiance to the established church, so it seemed to him that abolishing them would not only be a way to reduce the church’s power, but also to grab the land and valuables owned by those institutions, and the income streams created by them.
As the extent of the remaining ruins suggest, the monasteries in Yorkshire formed a major part of the local economy and social organization, so their abolition and deliberate destruction must have been catastrophic. Although the King was able to seize the land and the monasteries’ treasures, his hoped-for income streams never materialized, because he had destroyed the organizations that were generating them! Henry sold off most of the seized land to his favored nobles, and then squandered the proceeds on his wars.
Rievaulx Abbey, also in Yorkshire, built one of the world’s first blast furnaces for iron, and it has been suggested that, if it had not been for the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Industrial Revolution would have begun in Britain a century before it actually did.
In State Care
Following the Dissolution, the institutions’ land and buildings passed into private hands, and stayed that way for centuries.
Many abandoned religious buildings that were close to settlements gradually disappeared, as they were stripped for building stone. It was probably the relative isolation of the Yorkshire abbeys that permitted the survival of significant portions of the structures.
At the start of the Twentieth Century, the British Government began to take an interest in preserving what was left of the ruins, and eventually took most of them into state ownership, by purchasing them from the private owners.
Fountains Abbey: a Spectacular Setting
While the ruins of Byland and Rievaulx Abbeys are impressive, perhaps the Yorkshire ruin with the most ideal landscape setting is Fountains Abbey.
The photo below shows the ruin of the church at Fountains, in its breathtaking setting in Studley Royal Park. This was taken during a visit in 1977, and the individuals in the foreground are my mother and her friend.
In those days, the visitors’ car park was at the Studley Tea Rooms, which necessitated quite a long (but pleasant) walk alongside the River Skell to the actual ruins. The modern car park is closer to the ruin.
Fountains was somewhat unusual in that it was not purchased by the Ministry of Works at the same time as most of the other sites. It remained in private hands until 1966, when it was bought by the County Council. In 1982, the estate was transferred to the National Trust, and is now maintained by English Heritage.
If you’re visiting Yorkshire, and if the weather is reasonable, then all these ruins are well worth a visit!