Fountains Abbey and a Jewish cemetery in Cornwall

This is a transcript of episode 27 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, Very Reverend Dr David Ison, Dr Joe Flatman, Remona Aly, Hazel Southam and Andrew Morrison as we continue our journey through the history of faith and belief in England.

A History of England in 100 Places is sponsored by Ecclesiastical

Subscribe on iTunes


This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Hello, I'm Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, historian at the University of Roehampton and you are listening to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places.

In this series we explore the amazing places that together tell the story of England. How does it work? 10 expert judges, 10 categories and thousands of your nominations will lead us to a list of 100 places, which have helped shaped England.

Today we are exploring with The Very Reverend Dr David Ison's picks from our Faith & Belief category.

If you are enjoying this series, don't get forget to subscribe so you don't miss an episode. If you're listening on iTunes, please rate this podcast and leave a review.

In today's episode I'm joined again by Historic England's Dr Joe Flatman and journalists Hazel Southam and Remona Aly.

Let's begin this episode in North Yorkshire because it is here that the country's largest monastic ruins nestle in the sheltered valley of the River Skell.

Fountains Abbey was once a religious powerhouse that created and transformed this community between the 12th and 16th centuries. It was founded by a group of 13 monks from York in 1132. They had grown weary of the city life and were hungry to reform the Benedictine order to which they belonged.

They selected this peaceful part of the Yorkshire countryside to start afresh, or at least that's one interpretation. The other is they were expelled from York after a riot. Either way, the monks ended up here and set up camp and converted from the Benedictine order to the emerging Cistercian order, guided by monks from Burgundy, which was dedicated to a life of austerity and fasting. Along with religious reform came social reform too.

The first few years were turbulent with buildings in the church added, destroyed, and then rebuilt, but the Abbey began to develop a reputation for its care of the poor and needy.

Because of its rural location monastic life was intertwined with working and living off the land. It was this connection that meant Fountains Abbey ended up having a powerful effect on the local community. How did this happen, Joe?

Joe Flatman:
The impact of Cistercian communities like this on the landscape can't be overemphasised. The sheer scale of their impact, the scale of their work is extra- ordinary and quite unlike anything else. You would have to think of it as being industrial in its scale. I can't think of a community, until the Industrial Revolution, which has so impacted on the landscape, in terms of landscape management, where things were happening, when things were happening…just the order and structure of activity!

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Do you think there is a sort of tension between their devotional life and their work on the land?

Remona Aly:
For me, working the land is also an act of worship. So I feel that it's a holistic sense of worshipping God. In the Koranic concept, the earth is a trust for all of us, for humanity, so we are its stewards. So working the land, being able to work the land, these are all gifts from God.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And actually, these monks developed all sorts of income streams, I suppose we'd call them. Wool production and animal husbandry, quarrying, lead mining and the monastery became very wealthy. This is a sort of irony that this is a monastic order dedicated to austerity that became one of England's wealthiest monasteries. Of course, this continued to provide for the poor and needy, and was a place for honest work as worship up until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539.

Fountains Abbey was reported in the 1535 Valor Ecclesiasticus, which is the report that Henry commissioned about the vice and laxity and wealth of the abbeys, to have within it 6 monks that were guilty of sexual relations with women; 4 who were guilty of sexual relations with men; and an Abbott called William Thirsk who was said to have greatly dilapidated the house, committed theft and sacrilege, and notoriously kept 6 whores.

The Abbey ruins are now in the care of the National Trust and we met with the National Trust's Andrew Morrison, the Lead Curator of the North region, to get a taste of how the monks unified work and worship at this magnificent site.

Andrew Morrison:
My name is Andrew Morrison. I am the Lead Curator for the North region for the National Trust.

We are standing in one of the rooms of the square cloister at Fountains Abbey. The cloister is the heart of the Abbey, where there was a garden and Garth.

We are standing in the warming room, which is probably quite appropriate because we are here at about 8:30 in the morning and it's snowing- there is nobody else on site. We're stood beside what would have been 2 giant fireplaces.

Fountains was founded in 1132 and if you believe its own history, 14 monks leave York and they leave the Benedictine Abbey of St Mary after a dispute within the convent there.
The Cistercians had arrived in Yorkshire in 1127, when they set up Rievaulx Abbey. This new 'back to basics' austere reform of monasticism was spreading through northern Europe. A group of monks thought that actually living this way was better for their soul and decided to leave the Abbey in the middle of York and head out to find somewhere where they really could get back to very simple living to honour God.

We've now moved out into the alley, a square open quadrangle with a covered lean-to pathway around it. If we look up, we see the enormous edifice of the 12th century church on our left-hand side. But dominating it is the 15th century tower, known as Huby's Tower, which was constructed by one of the last Abbots of Fountains Abbey, Marmaduke Huby, at a time, really when the Abbey saw a huge resurgence in its fortunes- the economy of the Abbey is based on agriculture, particularly on sheep and selling their fleeces. Then on the right-hand side we see the multilayered arches that lead us to the Chapter House, which actually was the real soul of the Abbey.

So on a morning, every single morning, the choir monks would assemble, listen to the day's business, find out what their jobs were because they worked very much in hand. The snow is drifting down rather beautifully in the valley because Fountains Abbey sits in this rather picturesque valley with the River Skell running through it and like all good Cistercian houses, the river and the landscape were manipulated to allow them to construct such a fantastic Abbey.

We are standing at the moment, sheltering under umbrellas, under some very fine Yew trees. It is a very picturesque valley. But we mustn't forget that also, people come here for religion, so for that religious focus. The landscape, the valley, the planting all adds to that.

An Abbey at its core is a small number of monks, but servicing those monks are 120, 150 servants and then labourers. Then you can perhaps at times triple or quadruple that number if you're working in an industrial precinct around it. So it was a very lively spot, even though it's a closed order.

So I think sometimes you think of monasteries as being this place where all you ever hear are Gregorian chants and bells chiming, but actually they were very lively spaces.

A lot of local people have been coming here for generations, of course, so they have their own stories and their own significances.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
This is what our judge had to say.

David Ison:
I find it a fascinating experience to walk around Fountains and to imagine what it would have looked like 5 or 600 years ago when it would have been at the centre of a huge economic enterprise but also, a spiritual enterprise.

The great monasteries and abbeys shaped the economic and social landscape, particularly in the more remote areas of Britain. Also that came to a sudden halt with the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. There is always that tension in your faith about how do you gather together and do things well and how do you do things which are more local and intimate. The whole idea of hospitality, where hospitals come from- originally it was a place where travellers are received and get cared for when they're sick. So that tradition of monastic hospitality, where you welcome every guest as though they are Christ you are ministering to, is a very powerful impetus to be generous and hospitable and open and warm and welcoming.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
David noted in his selection how Fountains Abbey exemplifies the huge destruction the Reformation brought about. There is a kind of parallel today with religious persecution?

Hazel Southam:
Yes, you go somewhere like Fountains Abbey and you say "lovely ruins", but you have got to remember these were real people's lives and this is where they lived and worshipped and the whole thing is destroyed- that's why it's a lovely ruins. But all around the world now, people are being persecuted for their faith. I've spent the last 5 years interviewing people who have fled wars in the Middle East and been very much persecuted for their faith.

So Fountains Abbey isn't a thing that is kind of stuck in time- it is irrelevant to us today. There are people today who are fleeing because their religion doesn't hold up against people with guns.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
You always think that the dissolution of the monasteries is a phrase that is well worn but think about the impact on the lives of the monks and nuns. 800 religious houses: one estimate at the time was that 20,000 monks and nuns were put out into the community. But also, think about the impact on the local communities. The ending of that hospitality and provision and education, everything they had provided, was quite crucial too.

As we all know England is a multicultural, multilayered country and in the spirit of that we'll move on now to Judaism. Specifically, we are heading to location number 8, which is a Jewish cemetery established in 1780 in the town of Penryn in Cornwall. The Very Rev Dr David Ison had this to say.

David Ison:
There's been quite a hidden history of different faiths in this country. The fact there is a Jewish cemetery in Penryn in Falmouth, Cornwall, on the edge of the country, it is a surprising thing. But there are people of different faiths all over the place. It is a reminder of the richness and variety of the English communities and our histories, which we share. Having a different bit of land to be buried in is something about your own community staying together, that also in death as in life you can have faith that you are alongside these people. That you're living and dying in a way which is in accordance with what you believe and what you hope for.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Do you know something about the Jewish community in England? How did this community come to Falmouth?

Joe Flatman:
This particular one came about because of one pioneering individual called Alexander Moses settling here in 1740. This is quite often the case with the Jewish communities outside of the major urban centres in the country. We are often talking about quite modest communities, never being very large at all, even in the bigger urban centres like London. So here, in this particular case, it is a coastal area. It is about trade and communication. It is that sense of money moving people around and people identifying opportunities and quietly practising their faith. A site like this to me is so interesting because it is about that sense of just a quiet community, perhaps trying to find its way a little tentatively in the world, perhaps a little bit concerned about drawing attention to itself. I think that draws quite a lot of parallels today where people might feel nervous about drawing attention to their faith.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
It is quite small. We have a record of 50 burials here, apparently 30 of the gravestones are legible. Do we know who was buried there?

Joe Flatman:
We've got a number of different individuals- some of them, their details survive on the list entries for these types of sites. We have got a listed stone of a man called Isaac, son of Benjamin, dating to around 1790. That is the earliest gravestone.

We have got a much more recent burial of 1913. So this is a community with intergenerational or multigenerational burials there, but unfortunately it does eventually die out just because there's such a small community and when the ties of fortune, trade and business move people away, so the community moves away. We are very lucky to have a survival like this and there aren't that many up and down the country.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
There was a decline in the Jewish community in Falmouth. By 1875, the trade fortunes of Falmouth had declined so much that there were only three Jewish families left there. But the synagogue when it closed in 1879, was mapped, or at least the land was mapped not long after, so the remains are relatively unchanged.

One interesting thing about this cemetery: it is actually the arrangement of the graves that tells us an interesting story about the integration of the community within this small English fishing village, isn't it?

Remona Aly:
Yeah, the graves are actually facing Jerusalem, which is such an important place for Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. It is something that also for Muslims, we are buried facing Mecca. So there is this importance of where our roots are from but also there's a really important lesson in where we are locally. So the graves actually combine Ashkenazi style with the local culture and I think that's a really beautiful expression of faith in the world in fact, because often you see huge faith cultures going around the world absorbing the local customs, getting the flavour of the local societies and I feel that religion can't really be expressed without a cultural lens.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
This is an evocative, rather exposed site, which was forgotten for so many years after the Jewish community left the area. But still it remains and it has so much to tell us about the spread of religious faiths in England. It's sadly very fragile, but how and where we choose to commemorate our dead of every faith deserves to be recognised on this list.

That's it for now. Thank you for joining us. Next time we will be back with David's final 2 selections in the Faith and Belief category of a History of England in 100 places.

Remember, you can join in our conversation by using the hashtag 100 places, that is the number 100 and find out more on line at places.

Thanks to my studio guests, Hazel Southam, Remona Aly, and Joe Flatman. I am Suzannah Lipscomb, and I'll catch you next time.

This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group. When it feels irreplaceable, trust Ecclesiastical.

Was this page helpful?