Fountains Cistercian Abbey; monastic precinct, mill, water management works, agricultural and industrial features and 18th century gardens


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

North Yorkshire
Harrogate (District Authority)
North Yorkshire
Harrogate (District Authority)
Lindrick with Studley Royal and Fountains
National Grid Reference:
SE 27501 68209

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.

Fountains became the most powerful and prosperous monastic house in the North of England. The main monastic buildings survive remarkably well and retain important architectural evidence of the changing wealth and status of the community. In particular the Chapel of the Nine Altars, unique in England, is preserved to its full height and the cellarium of the west range still retains its vaulted roof for a length of 91.5m. The whole precinct layout of the abbey and its ancillary buildings can be identified both as upstanding features and buried remains. The extensive water management system demonstrates well the importance of a sufficient supply to support domestic, agricultural and industrial activities. The incorporation of the abbey into the formal gardens of Studley Royal Estate provides important insights into 18th century landscaping and the contemporary attitudes to the past. Together these various features allow the development and workings of the whole precinct to be studied and provide an important opportunity for detailed analysis of the monastic economy. The exceptional state of preservation and variety of features found within the site makes Fountains of particular importance to European Cistercian studies.


Fountains Abbey is situated south west of Ripon, lying in a narrow valley of the River Skell, the north side of which has been quarried to form a cliff. The monument comprises a single area containing the standing remains of the monastery, and associated features lying within the outer precinct wall. Also included are elements of the 18th century gardens of Fountains Hall. Lying to the north of, and occasionally straddling the river itself, the extensive and exceptionally well preserved standing remains demonstrate the usual layout of a Cistercian monastery, with an east to west orientated church forming the north range of a four-sided complex known as the cloister, the remaining sides containing accommodation for lay and monastic brethren, and domestic and administrative functions. Further buildings lie to the east and west of the main claustral complex. The remains of timber buildings and of the first stone church built in the 1130s and 1140s respectively have been revealed in excavations within the existing standing remains and it is thought that similar traces will be preserved elsewhere. The main body of the existing church, nave, aisles and transepts, dates primarily to the 1150s and 1160s when an earlier church, partly damaged by fire, was replaced by a much larger structure. The grand scale of its design and plan are typical of mid 12th century Cistercian building in Europe, and the order's austerity is shown in the nave by the lack of a triforium or gallery. In the crossing, where the transepts meet the nave, is a set of stone lined pits known as resonance chambers which served to amplify the sound of the offices being sung in the choir stalls set above. The mid 12th century presbytery, at the east end of the church, was aisleless and square ended and, along with the inner transept chapels, was demolished in the early 13th century to be replaced by the larger aisled presbytery and further transept which stands today. This second transept known as the Chapel of Nine Altars stands to almost its original height and much of the original architectural detailing is preserved. To the north of the main transept Huby's tower also stands to its original height of 48.7m. Built in the early 16th century, it survives intact but for its floors, roof, bells and some window tracery. The cloister and claustral ranges to the south of the church were originally laid out in the 1140s and were further modified and enlarged in two phases of rebuilding, between the 1160s and the 1180s. The east range has on its ground floor the library, the chapter house, the parlour, and a long room used for manual work projecting beyond the cloister. The whole of the first floor was originally occupied by the monks' dormitory. The south range has the monks' refectory at its centre, with the warming house on its east side and the kitchens, which also served the lay brothers' refectory, to the west. The refectory itself is one of the noblest rooms in the abbey, retaining many of the original features that define its use. The west range is 91.5m long and the southern end is carried over the river on the footings of an earlier bridge. The ground floor, which housed the cellarium or storehouse and the lay brothers' refectory, survives completely. It is vaulted in 22 double bays from a line of central piers from which the ribs spring without an intervening capital, and although now a single open space, it was originally subdivided into separate rooms. Above this the lay brothers' dormitory was located. The chapter house and the north part of the west range were built in the 1160s and the south part of the west range, the south range and the cloister arcade were constructed in the 1170s, and throughout the existing ruins remains of the earlier structures can be clearly identified. The rebuilding of the 1150s to 1170s also saw the expansion of the abbey complex to the west with the construction of the guest houses, which still stand to the first floor level, and the abbot's lodgings to the south east. The lay brothers' infirmary standing astride the river also dates from this time. Further to the east of the abbot's lodgings lie the remains of the monks' infirmary, a large complex of structures straddling the river over seven vaulted tunnels dating to the early 13th century building phase of the abbey. In common with monastic tradition the precinct falls into two distinct areas, the inner court where religious and administrative activities took place and the outer court which was given over to agricultural and industrial processes. The inner court is defined by the River Skell to the south and the quarried cliff face to the north. To the west a wall and large gatehouse close the neck of land between the Skell and the cliff. Built in the 1170s, the gatehouse had two vaulted halls, a porch and a porter's lodge, of which the south and north walls of the hall remain visible. In the outer court are features associated with the day to day economic and industrial activity of the abbey. Most prominent of these is the corn mill dating mostly to the early 13th century, with elements of earlier buildings incorporated within it. This building still stands and was in use as a working mill until 1937, powered by a leat fed from the River Skell. To the east lie the remains of the woolhouse and the malthouse; both structures only stand to their lower courses. There is a complex water management system running east to west through the site. The River Skell was rerouted in the 1140s to run 28m further to the south along stone revetted and lined channels to form the edge of the inner precinct, whilst a stone drain was constructed along its old line to flush latrines that were built above. A further channel fed water from a weir and sluice to the west of the outer precinct to provide motive power to the corn mill before rejoining the main channel. The woolhouse and malt house were fed by a ghyll running down Kitchen Bank to the east. The river continues under bridges, and through channels and tunnels, beneath the west claustral range and both the infirmaries, where it flushed latrines and aided sanitation in the buildings above. The river continues to be channelled to the east, across two weirs and becomes part of the formal gardens of Studley Royal. Water was provided to the abbey itself through a system of pipes leading from wells. One such well, known as Robin Hood's Well, lies to the east of the infirmary and dates to the 1160s. The wellhead has an ornate 18th century cover and is fed from a reservoir on the slope above. On the slope to the south of the river are the earthwork remains of 21 buildings with yards and linking roads. They are concentrated along the banks of a ghyll running north to south, fed in part by a reservoir at the top of the hill and culminating at the woolhouse at the bottom. They are believed to be the remains of buildings associated with the ancillary industrial and agricultural activities of the abbey such as workshops and stores. However the full extent and nature of these earthworks is not yet fully understood. Surrounding most of the site, the outer precinct wall still stands to much of its original height for most of its length. Dating to the early 13th century, it survives up to 3.4m high to the top of its coping and originally enclosed an area of 37.2 ha. It is well preserved on the west and south sides, whilst to the east only the lower courses remain. In the north west the wall extends eastwards from the West Gate to join the inner gatehouse. After the dissolution the inner precinct became part of the gardens firstly of Fountains Hall and secondly within the formal planned gardens of Studley Royal, where the abbey was considered as a romantic ruin. There is a walled garden to the south and a series of terraces to the east and north of Fountains Hall, whilst at the east end of the area is the site of a rustic lodge which forms part of the Studley Royal gardens. The abbey was founded in 1132 by a party of monks from the Benedictine Abbey of St Mary in York and was adopted by the Cistercian order the following year. It was intended as a Cistercian mission centre from which colonies were sent out to found daughter houses throughout the North and Scotland. The early years were hard, the abbey grew considerably but under Abbot Murdac in the 1140s the abbey was transformed and the replacement of an informal layout of simple timber buildings by the formal enclosure of the cloister reflected reform and the changes in philosophy within the Cistercian order. A disastrous fire which ravaged the abbey in 1146, occasioned a phase of rebuilding which replaced much of Murdac's recent work. Further developments under abbots Murdac, Pipewell and Huby, saw the abbey increase in size and grandeur to become the most powerful house in England. The abbey was finally suppressed in 1539, when like most monastic houses it was stripped of all fittings and partly quarried. The site passed first to the Gresham family and then to the Procters who built Fountains Hall partly from material quarried from the abbey. The abbey passed through several hands until it was acquired by the Aislabie family from the adjacent Studley Royal Estate when it became a feature within the formal landscaped gardens. Parts of the east end of the site were cleared and altered to provide a more pleasing aspect of the site as viewed from the east. A series of excavations and surveys have taken place at Fountains from the early 19th century, and continue to this day. The abbey was sold to the County Council in 1966 who in turn sold it to the National Trust in 1983. The abbey has been in the care of the Secretary of State since 1966. The abbey is a Grade I Listed Building. Several other buildings with Listed Building status lie within the area of the scheduling. These include Fountains Hall and the mill, which are Listed Grade I. The steps and terracing to the north and the gate piers and flanking walls of the Hall; the weir 10m east of the infirmary; Robin Hood's well and the weir 120m west of the reservoir are all Listed Grade II. Several features within the protected area are excluded from the scheduling. These include Fountains Hall, as defined by the exterior face of masonry, and its garden to a depth of 300mm, the West Lodge, Deer Cottage, the museum and works buildings in Mill Yard, farm buildings at Seven Sisters, farm buildings and the surrounding yard surfaces against the precinct wall by Skell View Cottages, and the surfaces of all public and modern estate roads and paths, signs and fences although the ground beneath all these features is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.


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

Legacy System number:
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Books and journals
Coppack, G, Abbeys and Priories, (1990), 81
Coppack, G, Abbeys and Priories, (1990)
Coppack, G, Fountains Abbey, (1993), 89-97
Coppack, G, Fountains Abbey, (1993)
Coppack, G, Abbeys and Priories, (1990), 115


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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