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Kirkstall Abbey: 01. Church and general material, Yorkshire, West Riding

(53°49′17″N, 1°36′23″W)
Kirkstall Abbey: 01. Church and general material
SE 260 362
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, West Riding
now West Yorkshire
medieval York
Not confirmed St Mary the Virgin
  • Rita Wood
01, 09 and 23 April 2010, 11 May 2010, 24 June 2012, 17 Feb 2017, 07 and 11 Mar 2017

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As well as describing the abbey church, this report contains general material, history and the full bibliography.

Further reports cover:

02 Cloister

03 Sacristy

04 Chapter house

05 Monks’ parlour

06 Monks’ dormitory and dayroom

07 Warming room

08 Refectory

09 Kitchen

10 W range and Lay brothers’ passage

11 Gatehouse

12 Loose sculpture

The ruins of the Cistercian abbey are within a public park, all owned and cared for by Leeds City Council. The park is large, yet smaller than the monastic precinct (see Hope and Bilson 1907, fig. 2). In the last few years the ruins have been enclosed by secure railings, and visitors now have access only during opening hours. The entrance is through the former lay brothers’ rere-dorter. Finds from recent excavations are sometimes on display.

The abbey was built in stone under the first abbot, Alexander, and his work survives as one of the best preserved 12thc monastic sites in England. Further buildings were added later, especially to the S and E, as well as guesthouses and other buildings in the outer court to the W. The first work remained largely unaltered except for the E window of the church, which may have collapsed, and was replaced in the 15thc by a tracery window. The roofs changed, and the tower was raised (Carter 2012). The E end of the chapter house was rebuilt in the 13thc (report 03), and the spaces on the S side of the cloister were re-arranged several times (reports 07-09).

The abbey remained in its initial ‘wilderness’ for centuries even after the Dissolution. The NW corner of the tower collapsed in 1779, but had been drawn by Moses Griffiths two years earlier; Turner sketched the block containing the monks’ dormitory and dayroom before its remaining vault collapsed. In the 18thc a thoroughfare passed through which meant that the nave and the wall below the E window of the presbytery had to be demolished (Sitch 2000); today the A65 passes through the park. Girtin and many other Romantic artists could still depict the abbey in a rural landscape, but c.1920 John Nash recorded the brick tide of Leeds advancing on smoke-blackened ruins in his ‘Millworkers’ Landscape’. The abbey was given to Leeds City Council in 1889 by Col. J. T. North; John Bilson’s 1890 Report on the Preservation of the Ruins of Kirkstall Abbey is published in Hope and Bilson (1907, 64-72). Major conservation works under J. T. Micklethwaite followed in 1892-96, after which the park beside the River Aire was opened to the public. The essential record of the abbey buildings is still Hope and Bilson (1907).

The stone used was Bramley Fall sandstone, which outcrops conveniently about a mile upstream from the abbey on the other bank of the River Aire. It is a hard stone which has proved structurally sound but it is very variable in grain-size and can be coarse, so not always suitable for sculpture. The size of isolated grains in walling or the bases of the nave arcades can be 10-20mm (Hope and Bilson 1907, 116; VCH Yorkshire II). Some capitals of the W doorway of the church and elsewhere must have used specially selected pieces to achieve the tiered ranks of fine upright leaves. In the Romanesque period, only the cloister arcades were in limestone.

The later medieval additions and extensions to the abbey’s buildings, less coherent than the works of the12thc, have been reduced to stumps or less. Original vaulting survives in the presbytery of the church, the nave aisles and the transept chapels, also in the chapter house. Many other ceilings were wooden; the transepts apparently had flat roofs, and the nave had a barrel vault. The walls are largely complete to full height, so there was even some idea in the late 19thc to re-roof the entire church and return it to use. The nave aisles have recently been roofed and restored to protect the vault; this additional work can be seen in views of the W facade, and of the S wall above the cloister. The small turrets on the corners of the major gables are not original and possibly 15thc (Hope 1907).

Photographic coverage is extensive in the article by Hope and Bilson (1907). The photographs, by Godfrey Bingley and others, were taken before the restoration. The Godfrey Bingley collection of photos (Leeds University Library, Special Collections) include many of Kirkstall Abbey. The amount of rebuilding on the W side of the crossing is apparent in Hope and Bilson (1907, fig. 13), a view E down the nave, and the works involved, for example, blocking or unblocking and rebuilding, some doorways. A century ago, great care was taken on the photography, and equally important for the results, the sculpture was then less weathered. The illustrations of the capitals to the transept chapels, for example, show that detail has been lost (Hope and Bilson 1907, figs 83, 85). Similar deterioration has occurred in the capitals of the W doorway (Hope and Bilson 1907, fig. 91). The many profiles of mouldings illustrated in their paper are a valuable resource.


According to the medieval chronicle of the foundation, a colony of monks was sent out by Fountains Abbey about 1147; they settled for a short time at Barnoldswick but did not find the site favourable. In 1152 they moved to Kirkstall, said to be inhabited only by hermits. Generously funded by Hugh de Lacy, and undisturbed, they settled and built in stone remarkably quickly (Burton 1986; Burton 1999). The buildings around the cloister, the church, the chapter house and the rest of the E range, the refectory and its associated spaces on the S, and the lay brothers’ quarters to the W, are all attributed in the medieval narrative to the first abbot, Alexander (1152-1182), which claims that they were finished before his death.


Exterior Features



Exterior Decoration

String courses
Corbel tables, corbels

Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches



Wall passages/Gallery arcades

Vaulting/Roof Supports


Interior Decoration

String courses


Piscinae/Pillar Piscinae



The architectural features of the abbey have been fully discussed in Hope and Bilson 1907; they saw everything prior to the restoration when, although in ruins, the stonework was not so weathered. Hope (1907, 1-64) describes the function and evolution of the structures, and Bilson (1907, 73-138) discusses the stylistic changes towards the Gothic. These authors are still basic guides for the present day, as in the Pevsner revision with a text by Stuart Wrathmell (2005). For architectural profiles and plans of details of the church, the reader is referred to the 1907 material. Stuart Harrison has called Cistercian work the ‘Architecture of Austerity’ but there is more variation in sculpture here than at Fountains. Fergusson comments on the relative elaboration at Kirkstall, and the sculpture at Kirkstall is more interesting than might be expected of a Cistercian house (Wood 2015).

The dating of the building campaigns has been confirmed by observation of the remains (Hope and Bilson 1907, 84; Halsey 1986). According to Hope and Bilson’s phased plan, the presbytery was the first part of the original work and the remainder of the church the second part; the change observed between the two parts marked a pause in one continuous campaign. The cloister arcades, on the other hand, were built as a separate later campaign.

St John Hope describes the four-centred relieving arch over the twin W windows of the church asserting that the two large windows would have had a much loftier gable above, doubtless pierced by a large circular window (Hope and Bilson 1907, 17). He also suggests a reconstruction of the E windows (Hope and Bilson 1907, 25).

Windows of the transept chapels were enlarged later, but traces were recognised in the N transept central chapel, which indicate that there was a pair of windows in the E wall of each chapel (Hope and Bilson 1907, 13). Hope drew attention to the heavy battlement or crenellation pattern on the N doorway to the N nave aisle, and how it develops from the rounded moulding that is at the top of the building’s plinth (1907, 22). He notes how it enclosed the whole doorway in 'a remarkable return of the uppermost member of the base-mould' and continued around 'embattled-wise' to form a frame. He suggests that the elaboration of this doorway could be explained by a broad porch or galilee extending northwards for 50 feet; Hope compares that feature, of which nothing can be seen, with porches on the W facades at Fountains, Byland and Rievaulx.

The gallery in the S transept is illustrated from within the narrow passage in Hope and Bilson (1907, fig. 67, 112). It would be reached by a vice beneath the night stair; Hope says the S transept gallery gave access to a chamber over the transept chapels, and that the same structure seems to have been planned for the N transept (1907, 12, 14). Regarding vaulting at the crossing, Hope notes that in each corner just above the springing of the arches [of the crossing] there is a short shaft, which looks like a vaulting corbel, but was never used for a vault (Hope and Bilson 1907, 15). In the nave, a corbel in the angle of the W and N walls suggests a wooden barrel vault once existed (Hope and Bilson 1907, 117-123).

John Bilson includes comments on features of sculptural note, in particular the elaboration of the capitals of the piers and the archivolts of the N and W doorways and how the treatment becomes less simple towards the W and later parts of the church (1907, 106-107). He says that vaulting shafts on corbels, not on shafts from the floor, are a Burgundian motif, frequently imported by Cistercians to free up floor space, as seen within the presbytery and at the W crossing arch. He discusses vaulting corbels (1907, 125-6), capitals with interlace and foliage (1907, 127-8), and scallop capitals (1907, 128-131), noting the great variety and inventiveness in their ornamental detail. The forms of arches (1907, 133), doorways (1907, 133-37), and stringcourses (1907, 137) are discussed, with architectural drawings. In the last parts built, the upper W front and clerestory on the N side of the nave, a few capitals have waterleaf forms. The plain hollow bell favoured by the Cistercians at Roche seems not to be used, and Bilson does not indicate one. The exterior capitals of the central jamb shafts of the W windows show waterleaves with flat volutes, above a row of closely-set upright leaves. The cloister arcade (1907, 132 and fig. 92), with waterleaf, square abaci and round arches, was the latest work to complete the monastery. Begun several years after Fountains, Kirkstall was finished long before those monastic buildings.

Fergusson (1984) notes that, although the early work is related to English architecture, by 1160 the influences were French or, more precisely, from Clairvaux, for example in the W bays of the nave. He says that the architectural detailing is fundamentally distinct from that at Fountains and that the interlace designs, the corbel table of the chapels and the use of chevron ornament are unique to Kirkstall; he identifies a decorative exuberance and an association with non-monastic architecture not found at other abbeys. This also points to a connection with English sources confirmed by other features like the soffit rolls.

Stuart Harrison has followed up Hope’s reconstructions of the W and E elevations, and has looked at the transept gables. For a major window of a Cistercian church, four pierced oculi suggest a circular central window, a common rose design. Some of the Romanesque tracery of the central opening has survived; its design was without parallel (Hope and Bilson 1907, 26; fig. 18; Harrison (1995) see also Site report 12, Loose Sculpture). The unique tracery design Harrison has partially recovered from the fragments of the E window dispenses with the arch and supporting column spoke, so prominent a feature of the other known [rose] windows; it substitutes instead 'the continuous linear pattern of an endless run of interlace mouldings’. The N transept gable window is thought to have been a square with foiled sides. Four or five instances of interlacing patterns were described first by Irvine (1892, with his line drawings of each.

Fieldworker’s comments: any run of repeated forms, for example in the capitals of the transept and nave arcades or the vault corbels in the W range, shows a Romanesque diversity, a random rather than regular variation, and never uniformity.

Panel of arcading on W doorway: no other arcading, blank or otherwise, is found at the abbey as a pure pattern. It must be concluded that this panel has a symbolic significance, alluding perhaps to the Trinity (three united arches) or to heaven (arches supporting the firmament indicating the closeness of heaven above). The alcove above the panel is presumably a later alteration, for an image of the Virgin, perhaps, to whom Cistercian abbeys were always dedicated. An image would be less resonant for contemplation than the pattern. Although the chapter-house facade can be described as an arcade, it is a structural one; it may be combined with the symbolic significance of the panel to suggest that heaven is close, perhaps in this case that God is overhearing what is said in chapter?

Roof-line corbels and corbel-table: the corbels are varied, for example, over the monks’ doorway, but all variations seem to be abstract in form, none representational. Layers of rectangles, ‘barrels’ held in a ‘strap’, cylinders in a cavetto – these forms are also seen in parish churches, for example at Birkin and Bramham, where they occur among human heads and masks. The corbel table on the E wall of the N transept chapels is unusual since it is cut into arches; for this perhaps compare the similar corbel table at Adel.

Chevron moulding: the use of chevron on the arch from N aisle to N transept is surprising as otherwise the moulding is only used on the W doorway. It seems that nowhere could the eye rest or wander without a little shock of unexpected detail. What special ceremonial might have taken place here, a processional entrance perhaps?

Foliage: leaf as ornament is to be expected at Cistercian houses generally; foliage patterns of extreme simplicity and sophistication are used throughout the nave aisle responds at Fountains. The purpose of deciduous foliage was, presumably, to remind the monks of the new life they now led, and to speak to them of the life to come in Paradise. At Kirkstall, ornament is varied, and it is spasmodic in occurrence. Apart from this site, examples of upright leaves being added to the cones of scallop capitals are not known to the fieldworker.

Interlace: in addition to foliage capitals with interlacing stems at the entry to some but not all of the transept chapels, the interlace elsewhere in the church is made in at least two different abstract styles, flat or rounded, and a third if the massive tracery of the E window is included. The lacing strand sometimes seems alive, particularly when it leaps off a profile and twists into a regular and meaningful pattern on the base of pier N3: the design includes three loops interlacing with a large circle, while the two knots at the sides form smaller circular patches. This pier is in the area of the western screen of the nave (Hope and Bilson 1907, 19), so perhaps by a nave altar. Elsewhere the convex or quirked moulding runs from an impost to wrap round and ‘fasten down’ the end of a plain label roll. This happens on the monks’ doorway from the cloister, and in the presbytery on the sedilia alcove. The return of the exterior plinth moulding on the monks’ and lay brothers’ doorways is novel, but these are minor examples compared to the formation of the crenellation pattern from the same plinth moulding on the N doorway into the N aisle. In a further subtle use of lively, flexible, straps, they form muzzles for the animal masks. This motif is found in the S transept, on the chapter-house facade and the W facade of the church; its invention must have been due to someone high in the monastic hierarchy, if not Abbot Alexander. In describing the labels of the external arches of the twin windows on the W front, Hope (1907, 22) says the windows are ‘surmounted by labels ornamented by bosses and ending in heads of muzzled bears.’ Of the same parts, Bilson (1907, 137-8) says ‘the chamfer is ornamented with a series of convex rosettes: the terminations of these hoods are carved with the heads of bears or bulls.’ Richard Halsey suggests that the speed of working (the church perhaps done in as little as 15 years) may have led to ‘a curious hood-stop (like a muzzled pig)… used on the west side of the south transept and also externally on the west window’ (Halsey, 1986). Contemporaries would have known the motif of a muzzled bestial mask from parish churches: it seems to have represented evil under control post-Resurrection. The ‘muzzled pig’, for example, was positioned where it would have been seen by monks coming down the night stairs from the dormitory, and perhaps it cautioned them to control such things as drowsiness and muttering. The example of the muzzled boar between the W windows is probably a reference to a passage in Psalm 80, where the wild boar destroys Israel, the Lord’s vineyard: it warned of temptations in the outer court of the abbey. The motif, combining strap, swollen head above and plain snout below is present in several cases where any eyes have been eroded, or may never have been carved. Elsewhere, as on the alcove of the sedilia and on the S doorways, labels in the form of roll moulding end in simple plain cylinders which are ‘secured’ by continuations of a moulding from the impost. The stops on the interior label of the W doorway give the impression of muzzled animal heads, but they are possibly copies; the stops and the whole label are differently discoloured from surrounding stonework, and the muzzles, especially the one on the N side, are not quite ‘right’, however the shaping of the downward-facing mouth suggests the original form was a bestial mask.

Sandstone, being current-bedded, can weather to resemble cable mouldings, but none of these effects are genuine.

Piscina in the presbytery: the knobby ends of the carvings on the imposts on the presbytery piscina suggest animal heads, although these were apparently not muzzled. It is thought they were snakes – an eye may survive on the under-surface of the L knob. The snake’s head is carved as if seen from above, so that the second eye would have been at the top surface of the knob. Irvine (1892) describes the worn knob ending the pattern on the W as a ‘serpent’s head’ but his drawing is not very good and it is not easy to tell what detail gave him that impression. The designs on the piscina combine foliage, three-fold plait or interlace and, maybe, snakes. These forms – foliage and pattern, snakes and muzzled masks – are widespread in Romanesque sculpture outside the cloister. They are not primarily decorative in purpose but didactic, and it is really not a betrayal of Cistercian ideals to find them here, discreetly and sparingly placed (Wood 2015).


J. Burton, The Monastic Order in Yorkshire 1069-1215, Cambridge, 1999, 117-120.

J. Burton, 'The foundation of the British Cistercian houses', in C. Norton and D. Park, eds., Cistercian Art and Architecture in the British Isles, Cambridge, 1986, 32-33.

M. Carter, 'Abbot William Marshall (1509-1528) and the architectural development of Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire, in the Late Middle Ages', Journal of Medieval Monastic Studies, 1 (2012), 115-142.

P. Fergusson, Architecture of Solitude: Cistercian Abbeys in Twelfth-Century England, Princeton 1984, 48-51, 53, 130.

R. Halsey, 'The earliest architecture of the Cistercians in England', in C. Norton and D. Park, eds., Cistercian Art and Architecture in the British Isles, Cambridge, 1986, 83-84.

S. Harrison, 'Kirkstall Abbey: the 12th-century Tracery and Rose Window', in L. R. Hoey, ed., Yorkshire Monasticism: Archaeology, Art and Architecture, BAA Conf. Trans. XVI (1995), 73-78.

W. H. St. John Hope and J. Bilson, Architectural description of Kirkstall Abbey, Thoresby Society, 16, (1907).

J. T. Irvine, 'Notes on specimens of interlacing ornament which occur at Kirkstall Abbey', Journal of the British Archaeological Association 48 (1892), 26-30.

P. Leach and N. Pevsner, Yorkshire West Riding: Leeds, Bradford and the North, New Haven and London, 2009, 503-511.

C. Norton and D. Park, eds., Cistercian Art and Architecture in the British Isles, Cambridge, 1986.

N. Pevsner and E. Radcliffe, Yorkshire: The West Riding, Harmondsworth, 1959 (1967), 340-47.

D. Robinson and S. Harrison, 'Cistercian cloisters in England and Wales', in M. Henig and J. McNeill, ed., The Medieval Cloister in England and Wales, Journal of the British Archaeological Association (2006), 131-207.

B. Sitch, Kirkstall Abbey: a guide to Leeds’ Cistercian Monastery, Leeds, 2000, 26, 28.

M. Thurlby, 'Some Design Aspects of Kirkstall Abbey', in L. R. Hoey, ed., Yorkshire Monasticism: Archaeology, Art and Architecture, BAA Conference Transactions 16 (1995), 73-78.

Victoria County History of Yorkshire, vol. II, reprinted 1974, 378-79.

R. Wood, ‘Cistercian sculpture: Kirkstall Abbey and Elland Church in the twelfth century’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 87 (2015), 65-100.

S. Wrathmell ed., Leeds, New Haven and London, 2005, 271-81.