Sawley Abbey, Yorkshire, West Riding

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Feature Sets (5)


Sawley Abbey is on the Ribble four miles NE of Clitheroe and about 13 miles WSW Skipton. Pendle Hill lowers to the S; the Forest of Bowland rises to the N. The site is low, with the dale nipped by the hills; the climate is mild but wet, more suited to beef and dairy than a monastic diet of cereals and vegetables. It was a small Cistercian abbey of the standard layout, and is now in the care of English Heritage (Coppack, Hayfield and Williams 2002). The precinct can still be traced on the ground, and encompasses the small village of Sawley as well as the ruins. The ruins of the principal buildings of the abbey are enclosed by a high stone wall but are kept open daily. Plan in Coppack, Hayfield and Williams 2002, fig. 4, p. 30 and Fergusson 1984, fig. 23.

The ruins have had almost all useful or carved stone removed. There are three mentions of sculptured stone derived from the abbey and at other sites. Firstly, Morris (1911, 442) says that ‘in the lane outside the grounds are two arches, apparently re-erected; in the masonry round about them are built many carved stones, e.g. A Virgin and Child, the Percy locket and crescent…’; two arches with reset pieces are seen arching over a road in photos in the Bingley Collection in Leeds University History department; a similar arch, with reset carvings on both faces, is now set as a gateway to a field on the E side of the village street just north of the abbey enclosure: there are no Romanesque pieces in this arch (Leach and Pevsner 2009, 684). Secondly, pieces of carved stone are said to be reset in houses in the village, but none were spotted; lastly, some ‘architectural pieces’ are reported in the wall of a barn at Middop Hall, 2½ miles S of Gisburn (Pevsner 1967, 367, with reference to Ministry of Housing and Local Government as source); no enquiries were made for these pieces.

Since coursed stonework has mostly been robbed, Romanesque sculptural remains in situ are chiefly at the bases of archways; there are two loose capitals of the period.


The abbey was founded in January 1147 or 48 by William de Percy. The site was found to be barren, poverty-stricken and ‘mountainous’; the community had a difficult time. Faltering, the abbey was saved in 1189 by the donation from his daughter Matilda, countess of Warwick, of the church of St Mary at Tadcaster (Coppack, Hayfield and Williams 2002, 24; VCH Yorkshire iii, 156-8).

The medieval name was Salley or Sallay, being replaced by Sawley in the 16thc.

The early fabric (c. 1150-60, Coppack, Hayfield and Williams 2002, 45-48) is of local shale with sandstone facings; much the same fabric continued in the second phase of building (1170s and 80s, Coppack, Hayfield and Williams 2002, 48-54).

Before the Dissolution the aisleless nave of the late-12thc church had been shortened to 39ft. 


Exterior Features


Entrance to chapter house

The chapterhouse was a simple double square in plan, apparently without a vestibule. Sensibly, its doorway was furnished with a rebate for a wooden door (Coppack, Hayfield and Williams 2002, 50). The remains of one course above the standard chamfered plinth have bases which allow for twin shafts in the first order, flanked by two further orders inside and out having similar, single, bases. The bases have a neat double torus.

Height above soil level 0.425 m
Max. width of stone 0.95 m

Entrance to refectory

This survives to four courses high on the W side (Coppack, Hayfield and Williams 2002, 61). Bases with a relatively wide lower torus have coursed shafts.

Overall height of standing remains 0.955 m

Interior Features



Transept arcades

Both the N and the S transepts have three square-ended chapels, and in most cases the entrances to these have the lowest courses of masonry surviving. For the layout in the N transept, see Coppack, Hayfield and Williams fig. 15. The walls stand on a chamfered plinth, then rise straight; the angles are chamfered and the chamfers are provided with a variety of modest ornamental stops.

2. N transept, wall between N and central chapels
Height of course with stops 0.26 m
3. S transept, wall between presbytery and N chapel
Height of course with stops 0.29 m
1. N transept, N chapel

The N chamfer-stop only appears to have a double spiral. A better lit view is in Fergusson 1984, pl. 32. A chamfer stop like this was seen at Sherburn-in-Elmet, West Riding.

2. N transept, wall between N and central chapels

The chamfer-stops here have a narrow horizontal roll. The same type of stop is used on an alcove in the cloister in the W wall of the S transept.

3. S transept, wall between presbytery and N chapel

This wall is thick, showing the presbytery was intended to have a stone vault. These stops, and those in what remains of the chapels of the S transept, are all convex.

Vaulting/Roof Supports


Arcade in Monks' latrine block

A line of stonework running E/W survives in the grass in the area of the monks’ latrine. On this foundation are two bases; a four bay arcade is shown on the plans (Coppack et al., 2002, figs 4, 8). The only legible base has two tori.  

Distance apart of bases 1.26 m
Width of bases 0.42 and 0.34 m



Graveslab in chapter house

In the floor of the chapter house at the E end is the remains of a plain slab, presumably that of an early abbot of the house. (Coppack, Hayfield and Williams 2002, 50).

Piscinae/Pillar Piscinae

Piscina in presbytery

Capital of piscina alcove serving main altar in presbytery. The alcove in the S wall of the presbytery was blocked by 14thc stonework, but one capital can be seen from the back, from the S side of the wall. It has nodding crockets (‘stiff leaf’); perhaps the moulded slab above is also part of this feature, an impost. See Coppack, Hayfield and Williams 2002, 46, with dimensions of alcove.

Height of capital and integral necking 0.21 m
Max. width of stone 0.95 m

Loose Sculpture

Loose sculpture

A number of loose pieces are arranged along the north wall of the enclosure. Two, perhaps four, of these seem Romanesque.

Adjacent to these two pieces are two others which might be of our period but so worn that they are not individually recorded.


Capital 1
Depth (front to back) 0.4 m
Height of block 0.32 m
Width 0.655 m
Capital 2
Depth 0.52 m
Height 0.20 m
Width 0.48 m

1. Loose Stone

A large capital for a half-round column, having waterleaf forms of a loose, developed kind. The tips of the leaves on the two pairs of side leaves fold back flat against the ribs, the central leaf seems to end in an upright tip.

2. Loose Stone

A block containing a pair of simple waterleaf capitals, with a lesser capital to the side: the block is not symmetrical as this secondary capital has not its pair in the same stone. The waterleaves are plain and squat, with a forked split between the leaves in one instance. 


Morris 1923,  438, says of the remains that ‘as a picturesque ruin their value is slight, but their ground plan presents several points of interest.’

Fergusson 1984, 144, describes the remains as looking particularly unattractive due the black argillaceous shale used in most of the walls, the facings having in gone for the most part. He finds the plan of considerable interest.

Stonework associated with the main drain includes several plain pointed arches.


  • G. Coppack, C. Hayfield and R. Williams, “Sawley Abbey: the Architecture and Archaeology of a smaller Cistercian Abbey”, JBAA 155 (2002), 22-114.

  • P. Fergusson, Architecture of Solitude: Cistercian Abbeys in Twelfth-Century England, Princeton 1984, 143-4.

  • P. Leach and N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Yorkshire West Riding: Leeds, Bradford and the North. New Haven and London 2009, 683-5.

  • J. E. Morris, Yorkshire: The West Riding, London 1923, 438.

  • N. Pevsner and E. Radclife, The Buildings of England: Yorkshire: West Riding, 2nd ed., Harmondsworth 1967, pages 430-31.

Looking E from the nave.
Entrance to presbytery/chancel with bases of pulpitum and side altars.
SW corner of ‘early choir’ with walling of 1150-60 on L.
S transept from centre of church, with night stair and view of Pendle Hill.
The main drain from the E.
Fabric of local shale.
The river Ribble at the N edge of the precinct looking NE.


Site Location
Sawley Abbey
National Grid Reference
SD 776 464 
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales): Yorkshire, West Riding
now: Lancashire
medieval: York
medieval: St Mary
Type of building/monument
Cistercian abbey  
Report authors
Rita Wood 
Visit Date
19 and 20 July 2010