Fountains Abbey

views updated May 29 2018


Former Cistercian abbey, near Ripon, Yorkshire, England. Although the south and midland regions of England had been "monasticized" by the benedictines in the 10th century, the north of England was largely neglected until after the Norman Conquest, the great pioneer abbey in the area being the Cistercian Abbey of rievaulx. The most distinguished of the earlier monastic foundations of the area was probably the house of Black Monks at St. Mary's, York. Prior Richard and some of the monks there soon felt the pull of the Cistercian way of life as they saw it exemplified at Rievaulx and began to agitate for reform. Archbishop thurstan of york heard of their plans and came to visit St. Mary's, but the abbot refused him admission. A scene of violence followed. Thurstan excommunicated the monks and withdrew, together with Prior Richard and the reform party of 12 monks. They spent Christmas Day with Thurstan, who on Dec. 26, 1132, led them to a site three miles from Ripon where the new community of Fountains Abbey was established. Richard was elected first abbot. The monks decided to follow the rule of the cistercians, and bernard of clairvaux sent them one of his monks, Geoffrey, to teach them the Cistercian way of life. But after two years of extreme poverty and privation the monks felt they could carry on no longer and petitioned Bernard to receive them into clairvaux (1134). Bernard reluctantly agreed, but then the dean of York, Hugh, who had been a friend to the new abbey from its foundation, decided to give up his rich benefices and enter Fountains as a simple monk. He gave the abbey his great fortune and his fine library: from this time onward Fountains prospered. A foundation charter was drawn up. The abbey reached its greatest influence under the third abbot, henry murdac. In 1143 the See of York fell vacant, and King Stephen proposed to fill it with a royal clerk, his nephew william fitzherbert. Murdac and the monks of Fountains led a successful resistance to this apparently scandalous appointment. Bernard and the Cistercian Pope eugene iii were solicited, and Stephen had to accept Murdac as archbishop in his nephew's place. Unfortunately Murdac proved to be ineffective as archbishop, and after his death William was restored.

By the time of Bernard's death (1153), Fountains was the mother of seven daughter foundations, but the abbey quickly passed from austerity to laxity by way of the successful pursuit of power. The abbey church was completed in splendid style by 1245. Extravagance and mismanagement reduced the monks to poverty in the next generation. The Scots Wars hindered their recovery; in 1319 Edward II exempted them from royal taxation. Their later history was one of litigation over property. When the abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539, it was worth about £1,000 per annum and housed an abbot, a prior, and 30 monks.

Bibliography: w. dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum (London 165573); best ed. by j. caley et al., 6 v. (181730) 5:286314. The Victoria History of the County of Yorkshire, ed. p.m. tillott (London 1961). f. l. cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London 1957) 516. d. knowles, The Monastic Order in England, 9431216 (2d ed. Cambridge, Eng. 1962). d. knowles, The Religious Order in England, 3 v. (Cambridge, Eng. 194860). d. knowles and r. n. hadcock, Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales (New York 1953) 108.

[e. john]

Fountains abbey

views updated May 17 2018

Fountains abbey (Yorks.) was founded in Skelldale in 1132 by a group of dissident reforming monks of Benedictine St Mary's, York, under the direction of Archbishop Thurstan. In 1133 they adopted the Cistercian rule. After initial difficulties and in spite of the sack of the abbey, whose abbot, Henry Murdac, had been appointed archbishop of York in 1146, by supporters of William fitzHerbert, a rival claimant, the community flourished, attracting benefactions and recruits from many of the magnates and lords of northern England. It established several daughter houses, as well as Lysa in Norway. The mismanagement of its largely pastoral economy at the end of the 13th cent. brought Fountains close to ruin. Political unrest and Scottish raids contributed to the crisis, and a falling population led to declining monastic numbers and a switch to a rentier economy. Nevertheless, the late Middle Ages saw substantial building works, partly consequent on a relaxation of monastic discipline, and at the dissolution Fountains was still the wealthiest Cistercian abbey in England. Though much of the abbey was used to build Fountains Hall, the surviving ruins and precincts (landscaped in the 18th cent.) are amongst the most impressive Cistercian remains in Europe.

Brian Golding