Kirkstall Abbey and precinct including a prehistoric cup and ring marked rock


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Ordnance survey map of Kirkstall Abbey and precinct including a prehistoric cup and ring marked rock
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Leeds (Metropolitan Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SE 25948 36191

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.

Kirkstall Abbey is a unique example of early Cistercian architecture which in many places still stands to its full height. The quantity and quality of both archaeological and historical documentation provides a clear account of the establishment, use and dissolution of the monastery and of the lifestyle, economy and beliefs of the religious order. Kirkstall is unusual in that it survived the renewed late 18th century interest in monastic sites. Many abbeys at this time were transformed into houses or partly dismantled for incorporation into garden schemes or wider landscape designs. Being located in an open public park, Kirkstall has also escaped encroachment by growing urban development. Both the standing and buried remains display a high level of preservation. Areas of archaeological investigation and the extent of existing earthworks attest to the level of survival of remains beneath the ground surface.


The monument includes the standing and below ground remains of Kirkstall Abbey. The site lies in a valley on the north bank of the River Aire and straddles the A65 (Abbey Road) which was cut through the precinct in 1827. The key monastic buildings which have been identified include the church, cloister, infirmary, chapel, abbots lodging, refectory, Guest House, pantry, buttery and other associated buildings. The monument also includes the abbey precinct with its perimeter wall, inner and outer gatehouses, the Vesper Gate and the earthwork remains of the water management system. A prehistoric cup and ring marked rock which lies within the precinct is also included in the scheduling. Kirkstall Abbey, a Grade I Listed Building, was a daughter house of Fountains Abbey and was founded in 1152 by a community of Cistercian monks, led by Abbot Alexander. The monks originally left Fountains Abbey to found a monastery on the lands of Henry de Lacy in the village of Barnoldswick. The climate and hostility of the local people made life difficult, so the monastery was relocated to Kirkstall. The church, cloister and surrounding buildings were completed by 1182 when Abbot Alexander died. Generous donations in the 13th century made the abbey a major land owner in Airedale and a thriving producer of wool. Medieval monasteries were essentially self contained and self sustained institutions depending on income from agricultural and industrial estates, and Kirkstall was no exception. Although the community depended heavily on the production of wool, a reference to two mills and a forge demonstrates the overall diversity of the economy at Kirkstall. Monastic life came to an end in 1539 when Abbot John Ripley surrendered the abbey to Henry VIII's commissioners. Initially all the buildings were constructed of wood but these were replaced almost immediately by Bramley Fall gritstone structures. The abbey church, which survives to roof level, is aligned east to west and was built in a symbolic cross shape. A tower which stands to the east end of the church is flanked on either side by transepts and it is these which give the abbey its characteristic cruciform. A door in the north transept gave access to the cemetery; the southern transept housed the night stairs which led from the monks' dormitory. Beyond the tower to the east lies the presbytery where the high altar stood and where mass was held. The appearance of the abbey was changed in the early 16th century, with battlements and corner turrets added to the roof and the great central tower enlarged to house a belfry. The tower bears the initials of Abbot William Marshall, the instigator of these changes. The weight of the extension led to the collapse of the north west corner of the tower in 1779 and damage to two piers of the North Aisle. To the south of the church lies the cloister, an open square courtyard surrounded by covered walkways. The walkways provided access to various buildings in the surrounding ranges. The buildings enclosing the cloister are well preserved, many still standing to roof height and others to at least first floor level. The northern arcade served as a scriptorium (where books were copied) whilst that to the west backed onto the lay brothers lane and was used as a corridor. Openings in the east arcade include the book cupboard and doors to the library, the chapter house, the parlour, the day stairs to the monks dormitory and the passage to the infirmary. The southern arcade gave access to the warming house where, during the coldest months of the year, a fire was lit in order to offer warmth to the monks and to keep records dry in the room above. The southern arcade also gave access to the towel cupboard, the lavatorium (where the monks washed before dinner), the refectory, kitchens and malthouse. The library was altered during the 19th century for use as a summer house by the occupants of Abbey house. To the south east of the church is the chapter house. Here the community met with the abbot to commemorate their saints and deceased brothers, to hear a chapter of the rule of St Benedict, to confess and receive correction and to transact their business. To the south east of the chapter house, and linked to the eastern range, is the infirmary which was used for the care of old or sick monks. This rectangular building was originally built in the 13th century but was later remodelled with further improvements being made in the 15th century. A separate chapel was provided to serve the infirmary and was located to the south west and linked by a covered passage. On the ground floor of the infirmary chapel was a kitchen which served not only the infirmary but the visiting abbots lodging which was attached to the southern wall of the infirmary. This group of buildings has suffered from stone robbing and survive only as low walls, but the layout of the buildings and their relationship to other buildings is still clearly visible. The southern range housed the domestic buildings. These include the abbot's lodgings, the reredorter (the latrines for the choir monks dormitory and the abbots lodgings), the warming house, meat kitchen, the refectory and the kitchen. To the west of this complex of buildings is a lane which provided access to the west range. The upper floor of the west range was used as the lay brothers' dormitory. A door led to the lay brothers' reredorter at first floor level, a building situated at right angles to the southern end of the laybrothers' dormitory. The vaulted ground floor of the west range served as their refectory, cellarium (storehouse) and, at the north end, as an outer parlour where monks could meet with outsiders. The western and southern walls of this building collapsed in about 1750. To the west of the church and cloister lies the Guest House, the bakehouse and what is believed to be the lay brothers infirmary. All these were cleared to ground level during the Dissolution. Excavation of the guesthouse, which is a Grade II listed building, between 1980 and 1988 revealed that it was constructed between the 13th and 15th centuries and took the form of a medieval manor house with an aisled hall open to the roof and a central hearth. At the northern end a two storey great chamber was provided for the most important guests. To the south a domestic wing included a pantry and buttery. Both ends of the building were provided with latrines which were built over a main subterranean drain. Later the building was extended to incorporate stables, a kitchen and a scullery arranged around a small courtyard to the south. Excavations at Kirkstall in the 1950s recovered evidence of a developed water system, of which the earliest phase was contemporary with the earliest stone buildings. The supply was provided by a pipe running from the direction of the infirmary to feed a cistern in the south east corner of the cloister, passing through and contemporary with the footings of the east range. The cistern acted as a filter and waste water was carried away to the south in a drain below the south cloister range, where it ran into the main monastic sewer to help flush the monks' latrines. The layout of the plumbing was extended in the late 12th century when the refectory was rebuilt and provided with a lavatorium set in the south wall of the adjacent cloister walkway. Additional pipework running from the west range provided water to the scullery to the south of the Guest House kitchen. A pipe was also run from the old laver in the cloister, through the warming room to a stone lined cistern in the yard to the south. From here a water supply was taken south, in a stone culvert below the monastic sewer to other unexcavated buildings in the inner precinct. A small laver against the west wall of the refectory was fed by a pipe which led from the new lavatorium in the south wall of the cloister. Stone built drains were provided to carry away waste water from the kitchen, the scullery and from the west range, discharging into the main sewer. Further pipe work associated with the water supply system remain unexcavated. Situated to the north of Abbey Road and to the east of Abbey Walk is the inner gatehouse. The inner gatehouse provided access between the inner precinct, in which the core ecclesiastical buildings were located, and the wider outer precinct. The inner precinct would have been enclosed in some way, probably by a wall. Unfortunately nothing survives above ground to indicate the position of this wall. The gatehouse was constructed in the 12th century of coursed squared gritstone with a stone slate roof. The ground floor is three bays deep and forms a vaulted passage which would have provided the main access to the inner precinct. Upper rooms were reached by a stone spiral staircase on the south west corner. In the 15th-16th centuries a new wing was built to the south west and after the Dissolution the gatehouse was converted to a dwelling house. Further additions were made in the early 20th century. The building now houses the Abbey House Museum and is a Grade II* Listed Building. At the junction between Abbey Walk, Spen Lane and Morris Lane, and beneath the current road surface, lie the remains of the outer gate. This would have served as the main entrance for people coming into the abbey precinct which was surrounded by a high wall. Remains of the road linking the inner gatehouse and the outer gate were uncovered during excavations in 1994. Other standing remains include a single pillar of the Vesper Gate. This is situated approximately 280m north west of the Abbey House Museum and to the north of Vesper Lane. This gate served as the western entrance to the precinct and led on to Vesper Lane, a path or bridle track which ran from Horsforth Woodside (about 1.5km north west of the abbey) through Hawksworth Wood to the inner gatehouse. Within the outer precinct area the trackway ran along the top of a medieval dam built to retain water in the abbey mill pond to the north of the track. The pond was fed by a small stream known as Hell Hole Gill which ran north to south through the precinct. The stream, originating at Hawksworth Wood, entered the precinct through the northern wall and continued south (now beneath Abbey Road) to meet the river between the Guest House and the modern tennis courts. A line of mature trees towards the northern edge of the precinct may mark the line of this early watercourse. The dam formed part of a unique water management system which powered at least two corn mills. A surviving description of the abbey precinct at the time of the suppression describes two corn mills powered by water, but their precise location is not documented. The pond was infilled in about 1978 to reclaim the land for use as a playing field. The precinct wall survives in a number of places around the perimeter of the abbey complex and would have served to contain the community. The most obvious remains survive to a height of approximately 1m and can be found incorporated into the northern boundary of the field to the east of the museum. Further standing remains are evident to the south of Vesper Gate incorporated into the eastern boundary of Vesper Lodge. The line of the eastern precinct wall was revealed during excavation in 1990. The outer precinct would have contained agricultural and industrial buildings, as well as water meadows, pasture fields, orchards, mills and residential buildings for craftsmen. The survival of such features at Kirkstall is indicated by the extensive earthworks visible throughout the area. Other remains will survive beneath the modern leisure facilities which have grown up within the public park. Following the Dissolution in 1539 the Abbey passed to Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, but reverted to the Crown following his execution in 1556. In 1583-4 it was purchased by Robert Savile and it stayed within that family until 1671 when it passed by marriage to the Brudenells, the Earls of Cardigan. The building was stripped of its roofs, windows and furnishings and became overgrown by trees and bushes. It became a romantic ruin, a fashionable asset in the 17th and early 18th century, and was a popular subject for poets, writers and painters. With the sale of the Cardigan estates in 1889 the site passed to Colonel John North, a wealthy local business man who immediately presented it to the City of Leeds for the enjoyment of its people. The scheduling also includes a carved gritstone rock measuring 1.5m by 1.2m by 0.9m. It is situated in the public park south west of the remains of the Abbey Guest House, 8m west of a path junction and 1.4m south of the edge of the path. The carving on the east end of the rock consists of five cups, all with single rings, one with a possible second ring and some with grooves from the cup. A number of features are excluded from the scheduling; these are the Abbey House Museum, all modern path, road and car park surfaces, all modern fences and walls, recreation facilities including rugby and football goal posts, changing rooms, pavilions, tennis courts, bowling green, benches, picnic tables, sculptures, information boards, toilets, wooden bridges, rubbish bins and lighting; the ground beneath all these features is, however, included.

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


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

Legacy System number:
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Books and journals
Brears, P, Kirkstall Abbey, (1990)
Coppack, G, Abbeys and Priories, (1990), 90-91
Holbrey, R, Kirkstall Abbey Gatehouse Archaeological Evaluation, (1994), 1-8
Hope, St John WH, Bilson, J, 'The publications of the Thoresby Society' in Architectural Description of Kirkstall Abbey, , Vol. XVI, (1907)
Weldrake, D J, Kirkstall Abbey Watching Brief, (1990)
West Yorkshire Archaeological Services, Kirkstall Abbey, The Guest House. An interim summary of the Exca, 1980,


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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