Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions December 4th: Fountains Abbey


A truly stunning abbey with the most spectacular surviving undercroft that I’ve ever seen. Fountains Abbey was founded in 1132. It’s a Cistercian Abbey. Its foundation was rooted in the dissatisfaction of a group of monks from the Benedictine Abbey of St Mary’s in York. A small group of monks led by Prior Robert were unhappy with the comfortable existence in the abbey. They wanted to return to a more stringent observance of their monastic vows.

They were supported by Abbot Thurstan of York. He described the monks at St Mary’s as “the whole chapter house rang with such noise that it seemed more like a group of drunken revellers than humble monks”. When Prior Robert’s group had to flee the abbey, Thurstan looked after them in his palace and then gifted them land in the valley of the River Skell so they could found their own monastery. To begin with they barely survived, building a simple chapel and living off what they could grow in a small garden and the bread that Thurstan sent them. After they only just made it through the first winter they realised they’d need more support. They applied to Bernard of Clairvaux to join the Cistercians. Bernard welcomed them and sent Geoffroi d’Ainai to teach them the Cistercian ways. They were accepted officially into the Cistercian Order in 1135. They almost didn’t survive the first years, with poverty and a bad harvest almost forcing a move to France, but in time Fountains became one of the richest abbeys in Europe with a significant number of daughter houses.

Fountains survived until 1539 when it was another casualty of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The abbey was closed, the abbot and monks pensioned off and the estate was sold to merchant Sir Richard Gresham.



Site visit 2012

The photos are all mine

5 thoughts on “Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions December 4th: Fountains Abbey

    1. Taking photos around the people can be difficult. I was lucky that the weather wasn’t great so there weren’t too many people. Getting a decent photo of the undercroft was the hardest, I had to dodge a few people with tripods and professional cameras.


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