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St Mary of Fountains, Fountains Abbey: 01. Church and general material

(54°6′35″N, 1°34′56″W)
Fountains Abbey: 01. Church and general material
SE 274 683
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Yorkshire, West Riding
now North Yorkshire
  • Peter Hayes
  • Rita Wood
17 Jul, 14 Aug, 1 Nov 2001; 14, 19 July, 1 Sep 2002; 28 Sep 2003; 01 Nov 2014, 04 May 2015, 25 May 2015

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Fountains Abbey is about 3 miles SW of Ripon. The site is owned by the National Trust and maintained by English Heritage. The abbey and the contiguous water-gardens of Studley Royal are in the bottom of the deep valley of the river Skell; the main entrance is on a plateau, from which can be seen only the upper part of Abbot Huby's late medieval tower on the N transept. The site originally would have conformed to Cistercian foundation narratives, a place of rocks and trees, hidden from the world.

The abbey ruins are largely of the Romanesque period, although the tower, the eastern end of the church (the transept with the Chapel of the Nine Altars) and the monks’ infirmary complex to the E of the site are later. The mill also has structural parts of early date. There are plans of the abbey buildings in the 1970 (now out-of-print) DoE guide, Gilyard-Beer, 1970, and Coppack 1993. Aerial view in Coppack 1993, colour plate 1.

The present report describes the church, also three fragments of loose architectural sculpture in the 'porter's lodge' display and one capital in the mill, and gives information regarding material stored off-site. On our visit in 1999, stonework was displayed in the building near the Mill which is now (2015) a tea-room, and those pieces are no longer on display.

The parts of the church which are relevant to the twelfth-century corpus are the transepts, nave and galilee. For the use of the various parts, see Kinder 2002, 131-373. The church owes elements of its design to Rievaulx, and to Sawley. The aisles were vaulted, and the nave had a wooden roof. Despite breaks in building, and the conventional partitioning, the architecture of the nave is unified and impressive. It is thought it took about 20 years to complete, from the time of Abbot Richard (1150-70) to that of Abbot Robert of Pipewell in the 1170s (Coppack 1993, 36-43; Gilyard-Beer 1970, 29-30), or as Glyn Coppack also puts it, between the death of Bernard of Clairvaux in 1153 and his canonisation in 1174.

Robin Hood's Well is a water basin on the S path to the Studley Royal water-gardens. It had been dated by Gilyard-Beer to 1220-50, but many passers-by might suppose it to belong to the water-gardens phase and not be a medieval item at all. The spirals resemble those of the doorway in bay 11 of the S aisle of the church, and its label has a profile common round the cloister, hence, presumably, the twelfth-century date.


The twelfth-century monastery

Founded by monks from St Mary’s Abbey, York who preferred a reformed life, around December 1132. The earliest stone building (found by excavation) has been dated to 1136 (Gilyard-Beer and Coppack 1986). The majority of what is seen today around the church and cloister probably dates from the mid- to late 1150s (Coppack 2004). Other twelfth-century buildings remain more or less in plan (though the mill has remained functional); there is probably no identifiable sculpture in those areas apart from chamfers.

The first monastic buildings to be in stone (including a new stone church) were built under abbot Henry Murdac (1144-47) these were less extensive than later in the twelfth century (Coppack 1993, 30; fig. 14; Gilyard-Beer and Coppack 1986, 179). The buildings of abbot Murdac were largely replaced, partly because of a fire in 1146 and partly because of the abbey's success in attracting recruits.

A cloister arcade was built by abbot Robert of Pipewell (died 1180), it is thought this was the last of his works, or perhaps by one of his successors. Nothing remains in situ, but a reconstruction has been made: it is a Gothic design (Coppack 1993; Harrison and Robinson 2007). Coppack writes 'By 1180, after less than half a century, the buildings of Fountains Abbey had achieved a greater scale than any other house of the order in England, including the great neighbouring abbey of Rievaulx' (Coppack 1993, 55).

The development of the abbey church as seen today

The oldest part is the S transept (Coppack 1993, 38-9). This part of the present church was built in the abbacy of Richard III (1150-70), a Yorkshireman who had been precentor at Clairvaux and abbot of Vauclair.

The nave was continued westwards in the late 1150s, but completed in the 1170s under Abbot Robert of Pipewell. During the interval, cloister ranges were rebuilt. For some time there was a gap between the W and E ends of the nave (Coppack 2013, fig. 2.7). The W front is estimated to be c. 1160 (Coppack 1993, 40, 43). Despite the break, the style is uniform.

The crossing tower (Coppack 1993, 40, 47) was a lantern tower to light the choir area; 'it was heavily influenced by the crossing towers of Byland abbey and Ripon minster, both of which were built early in Robert [of Pipewell]'s abbacy' that is, in the 1170s.


Exterior Features




Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches
Nave arches



Vaulting/Roof Supports


Interior Decoration

String courses

Loose Sculpture


There is a variety of decoration used here throughout the various phases of the building in the 12th century, and, other than scallop capitals, it is almost entirely based on foliage patterns and leaf forms. These were current elsewhere, but here they are very sophisticated and subtle. Waterleaf forms were popularised by the Cistercians, but the idea of foliage itself was not new. Carving is typically shallow and formalised, abstracted, but with a strong line: the sculptors of even the simplest details were highly-skilled craftsmen. In surroundings of whitewashed simplicity it would have been just as captivating for the eye as the extravagant decorations that Cistercians did not want, but these may have stimulated a calmer awareness.

Corbels to vaulting in the aisles: Scallop capitals with darts between the cones. The Romanesque reuses classical forms, but are we to believe that 'darts' still brought to mind arrowheads, or might we hazard a guess that darts were thought of as leaves in our period? When scallops are not used on these corbels, they fill the space with leaf patterns instead; why not have leaves between the cones of scallops?

Doorway in bay 11 of S aisle. Compare the label of this doorway to that of the doorway to the lay brothers' dormitory in bay 9, where the spirals are less accomplished. See also Description and Site Images for Robin Hood's Well.

The arch of the doorway at the E end of the passage through the monks' day room is also segmental, and there are others.

Galilee arcade The form of the capital is unusually flared, reminiscent of Moissac, and not [I think] a particularly English form, though the capitals should be compared to some from the cloister arcade at Byland (Robinson and Harrison 2007, 171, fig. 23). As usual for Romanesque work, this series of capitals was varied, the reconstruction includes upright leaf and scallop capitals and would date from the mid- to late-1160s (Robinson and Harrison 2007, 183-4).

Lay Brothers' cloister. A similar arcade to that of the galilee but with single bases and columns was provided for the lay brothers' cloister on the outer side of the W range, see report on Lay Brothers' accommodation.

So much has been written, and is still being written, on this site that the fieldworker has few general observations of their own to add. By the same token, the site has been recorded, measured and assessed by many more knowledgeable eyes than theirs. It remains for this Corpus report to record sculptural details in other standing buildings. This particular work is urgent (to the extent that it too has not been done already) since decay is actively proceeding and some of the carvings were never very bold in the first place. At close quarters, decay of the sandstone by wind and water erosion has made descriptions of mouldings and the taking of measurements largely futile; measurements are only given if meaningful.


G. Coppack, Fountains Abbey: the Cistercians in Northern England (Stroud, 2009).

Photographic collections:

Bingley Collection, Special Collections, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds

A catalogue of loose stones by Stuart Harrison and others for English Heritage is kept at their Helmsley store, North Yorkshire.

L. G. D. Baker, ‘The Foundation of Fountains Abbey’, Northern History, 4 (1969), pp. 29-43.

G. Coppack, English Heritage Book of Fountains Abbey (London, 1993).

G. Coppack, ''According to the form of the order': the earliest Cistercian buildings in England and their context', pp. 35-45 in T. N. Kinder (ed.) Perspectives for an Architecture of Solitude (Tournhout: Brepols, 2004).

R. Gilyard-Beer, Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire (HMSO, 1970).

R. Gilyard-Beer and G. Coppack, 'Excavations at Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire: the development of the early monastery', Archaeologia 108 (1986), pp. 147-188.

S. Harrison, 'Kirkstall Abbey: the 12th-century Tracery and Rose Window', in Yorkshire Monasticism: Archaeology, Art and Architecture, BAA Conf. Trans. XVI (1995), ed. L. R. Hoey, pp. 73-8.

W. H. St J. Hope, ‘Fountains Abbey’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 15 (1900), pp. 269-402.

Kinder, T. N. Cistercian Europe: Architecture of Contemplation (Kalamazoo, 2002).

N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Yorkshire, West Riding (Harmondsworth, 1967), 2nd. ed. Revised E. Radcliffe (1967).

D. M. Robinson (ed.), The Cistercian Abbeys of Britain: far from the concourse of men (London, 2002).

D. Robinson and S. Harrison, 'Cistercian cloisters in England and Wales', in The Medieval Cloister in England and Wales, ed. M. Henig and J. McNeill, Journal of the British Archaeological Association 159 (2007), pp. 131-207.

H. Whone, Fountains Abbey: photographs taken and texts chosen by Herbert Whone (Otley, 1987).