Byland Abbey Cistercian monastery: monastic precinct, water-management earthworks, enclosures, ancillary buildings and quarries


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:


Ordnance survey map of Byland Abbey Cistercian monastery:  monastic precinct, water-management earthworks, enclosures, ancillary buildings and quarries
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

North Yorkshire
Hambleton (District Authority)
North Yorkshire
Ryedale (District Authority)
Byland with Wass
National Park:
National Grid Reference:
SE 54653 78822, SE 54679 79184, SE 55226 78250, SE 55274 79116

Reasons for Designation

From the time of St Augustine's mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597 to the reign of Henry VIII, monasticism formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in the British Isles. Settlements of religious communities, including monasteries, were built to house communities of monks, canons (priests), and sometimes lay-brothers, living a common life of religious observance under some form of systematic discipline. It is estimated from documentary evidence that over 700 monasteries were founded in England. These ranged in size from major communities with several hundred members to tiny establishments with a handful of brethren. They belonged to a wide variety of different religious orders, each with its own philosophy. As a result, they vary considerably in the detail of their appearance and layout, although all possess the basic elements of church, domestic accommodation for the community, and work buildings. Monasteries were inextricably woven into the fabric of medieval society, acting not only as centres of worship, learning and charity, but also, because of the vast landholdings of some orders, as centres of immense wealth and political influence. They were established in all parts of England, some in towns and others in the remotest of areas. Many monasteries acted as the foci of wide networks including parish churches, almshouses, hospitals, farming estates and tenant villages. Some 75 of these religious houses belonged to the Cistercian order founded by St Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century. The Cistercians - or `white monks', on account of their undyed habits - led a harsher life than earlier monastic orders, believing in the virtue of a life of austerity, prayer and manual labour. Seeking seclusion, they founded their houses in wild and remote areas where they undertook major land improvement projects. Their communities were often very large and included many lay brethren who acted as ploughmen, dairymen, shepherds, carpenters and masons. The Cistercians' skills as farmers eventually made the order one of the richest and most influential. They were especially successful in the rural north of England where they concentrated on sheep farming. The Cistercians made a major contribution to many facets of medieval life and all of their monasteries which exhibit significant surviving archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

Byland Abbey was one of Yorkshire's largest Cistercian communities. The plan of the abbey is exceptionally complete and is unusual in dating largely to the twelfth century. At this time the abbey was built anew on a freshly cleared site and displays an ornate, Early Gothic style far removed from the austere forms originally favoured by the Cistercian Order. The flamboyance of its architecture may be accounted for in part by the Savignac origins of the site, as this Order was less severe than that of the Cistercians. The survival of extensive earthwork evidence of the monumental water-management system engineered to serve the abbey is also a rare and important survival and allows the location of industrial buildings such as mills to be determined as well as an increased understanding of the layout of the abbey.


Byland Abbey is situated in Ryedale near the village of Wass. The monument comprises four separate areas. Between them these contain the standing remains and inner precinct of the Cistercian monastery of St Mary and a variety of associated features including fishponds and other water-management earthworks, quarries, the sites of ancillary buildings, and the remains of monastic enclosures. Archaeological features relating to the abbey also survive outside the protected area but are not included in the scheduling, being insufficiently understood. The extensive standing remains demonstrate the typical layout of a Cistercian monastery. The earliest are those of the lay-brothers' quarters, which formed the west range of the cloister. These date to the foundation of the abbey in 1177 and include a reredorter (latrine) and drain as well as the ruins of a vaulted undercroft and the 'lane' giving the lay-brothers access to the abbey church. The church formed the north range of the cloister and is of late Cistercian type, with square end and ambulatory, built in early Gothic style, with round-arched windows but pointed vaults. Except for parts of the nave, which include the west-front and the remains of its early 13th century wheel window, the church is late twelfth century. A special feature at Byland is a number of large areas of medieval tiled floor, surviving throughout the church. Most building at the abbey appears to have been completed by c.1200 and the only subsequent work was in minor alterations and additions, including that of a meat kitchen in the 15th century. This was built onto the existing south range which consisted of the kitchens, warming-house and frater or refectory. In the east range were the sacristy, chapter house and parlour, and also the abbot's lodging, monks' dorter (dormitory) and reredorter, served by another drain. Behind the east range lay the monks' cemetery whilst an infirmary lay to the south. Also standing, 150m to the north-west, is the abbey gatehouse. The remains of this consist of a twelfth century arch which spans the Byland- Oldstead road, a pier on the grass verge north of the road, the remains of a pedestrian archway and an area of collapsed masonry in the field to the north which, although overgrown, is believed to be the site of a room of the gatehouse. On the south side of the road, a wall runs westward for c.9m from the main archway and contains a small, well-preserved doorway, now blocked. This wall is believed to have been the north wall of a porter's lodge, and, along with the east wall, which is now incorporated into a modern farm- building, survives to a height of 6m. In addition to its standing remains, Byland also possesses a wide range of other features surviving in the modern fields round about. These include parts of the precinct boundary, visible to west and south as a bank containing occasional evidence of walling, and field earthworks, including the enclosure banks of medieval closes. Also surviving are a number of quarries, including several small pits to the north-west, which are believed to have provided the stone for lining the monastic drains and ponds, and a larger quarry to the east which, due to its position on the same slope as the abbey, without easy access to Wass but with the remains of a paved track leading in the direction of the abbey, is likely to have been the source of its building stone. Numerous platforms throughout the adjacent area indicate the sites of ancillary buildings such as barns and woolhouses, the site of a kiln or furnace to the south and the probable location of a water-mill or fulling-mill in the vicinity of Low Pasture House. Further earthworks have been interpreted as causeways and hollow ways, both serving the abbey and skirting it along its eastern boundary. In addition, extensive earthwork remains of former water-management systems have been identified around the abbey. These include stone-lined conduits or water channels to the north and north-east, dams (pond-bays) constructed of stone and earth to the west and north-west, a complex of fishponds to the north and earthworks relating to the mill noted above, located to the south. Byland Abbey was founded in 1177 by the formerly Savignac monks of Old Byland, who had moved to Stocking in 1147 and become Cistercian before moving again to their final location near Wass. The monastery had an uneventful history and was dissolved in 1539 when its lands were granted to Sir William Pickering. Nothing is known of its post-Dissolution history and it seems to have fallen into ruin gradually, with much of its stone going into the fabric of local farm-buildings and field-barns. The standing remains and inner precinct have been in State care since 1921 and are also a Grade I Listed Building. The Abbey gatehouse is a Grade II Listed Building. Several features within the protected areas are excluded from this scheduling. These are the exhibition building and ticket hut, all modern fencing and walling, all English Heritage fixtures such as notices and rails, all modern buildings excepting those containing original medieval fabric, and the surfaces of paths, carparks and drives. The ground underneath these features is, however, included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.

This list entry was subject to a Minor Amendment on 11/06/2012


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
Legacy System:


Books and journals
McDonnell, J, Everest, D M R, The Waterworks of Byland Abbey, (1965)
McDonnell, J, 'Borthwick Papers' in Inland Fisheries in Medieval Yorkshire, , Vol. 60, (1981)
Byland Abbey, Official DOE Guide
Earthwork survey on file AA 10131/1, White, R, Byland Abbey, (1984)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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