via The Cistercians in Yorkshire Project

About the Project
The Project will focus on five of the Yorkshire houses with significant standing ruins: Fountains, Rievaulx, and Byland principally, but also Roche and Kirkstall. The architecture of each site, explained in the context of other local churches (and European Cistercian abbeys), will open visual and textual windows onto the Cistercian way of life as experienced by the monks, the lay-brothers and their secular neighbours.

Fountains Abbey, capture d’écran | Cistercians in Yorkshire Project

La fondation de Fountains n’était pas prévue. Ce fut la conséquence d’une série d’événements imprévus au début des années 1130 qui a forcé un groupe de moines réformateurs de l’abbaye bénédictine de St Mary’s, York, à fuir leur maison à la recherche d’une forme plus pure de vie monastique

Fountains Abbey : Origins


Foutains provenaient de la maison bénédictine de St Mary’s, York, où un groupe de moines réformateurs ont fui leur abbaye pour poursuivre un mode de vie monastique plus dur et plus discipliné.

Fountains was the second of the Yorkshire houses to be founded. In spite of its rather inauspicious beginnings, Fountains became the largest and richest of the Northern abbeys and headed an extensive family that extended to the shores of Norway. Fountains stemmed from the Benedictine house of St Mary’s, York, where a group of reform-minded monks fled from their abbey to pursue a harsher and more disciplined way of monastic life. They were at first sheltered by Archbishop Thurstan, who assumed the role of patron and adviser. Thurstan later settled the community on land at Skeldale, near his archiepiscopal manor at Ripon. The monks were not at this time part of the Cistercian community, but were soon welcomed within the family of White Monks. […]


The foundation of Fountains was not planned. It was the consequence of an unforeseen chain of events in the early 1130s that forced a group of reform-minded monks of the Benedictine abbey of St Mary’s, York, to flee their house in search of a purer form of monastic life.

There are several contemporary or near contemporary accounts of the events that led to the foundation of Fountains, chiefly, the Narratio de fundatione Fontanis monasterii (the ‘Foundation History of Fountains’) and Archbishop Thurstan’s monumental letter to William, archbishop of Canterbury, explaining the crisis in the North of England and defending the monks’ desertion of their abbey. The description of the flight from St Mary’s and the community’s foundation of Fountains bears considerable similarity to the story of the monks from Molesme who, seeking a simpler and more rigorous form of monastic life, left their Benedictine abbey and formed what would later be known as Cîteaux, the first Cistercian community and the mother-house of the Order. These parallels were seemingly deliberate, and were intended to reinforce Fountains’ links with the Cistercian Order and, more particularly, to portray it as the Cîteaux of the North.

[…] La description de la fuite de Sainte-Marie et de la fondation de la communauté de Fontaines présente une grande similitude avec l’histoire des moines de Molesme qui, à la recherche d’une forme de vie monastique plus simple et plus rigoureuse, quittèrent leur abbaye bénédictine et formèrent ce que l’on appellera plus tard Cîteaux, première communauté cistercienne et maison-mère de l’Ordre. Ces rapprochements apparemment délibérés visaient à renforcer les liens de Fountains avec l’ordre cistercien et, plus particulièrement, à le présenter comme le Cîteaux du Nord. (google trad.)

Tumult at St Mary’s

Le groupe de moines de Clairvaux envoyé pour établir la première communauté cistercienne du nord de l’Angleterre a eu un impact phénoménal et durable sur l’abbaye bénédictine de St Mary’s, à York.

The group of Clairvaux monks sent to establish the first Cistercian community in the North of England, made a phenomenal and lasting impact on the Benedictine abbey of St Mary’s, York. News of these holy and religious men, and of their simple way of life at Rievaulx, near Helmsley, fanned discontent amongst a band of high-minded monks of St Mary’s, who were incited to seek the reform of their own abbey. The group included a number of the abbey’s leading monks, amongst them, Prior Richard. They objected to the community’s preoccupation with worldly concerns, in particular the rich and abundant diet, ornate clothing and tendency to gossip, quarrel and even engage in dirty talk.

The group’s desire for reform was neither shared nor appreciated by Abbot Geoffrey of St Mary’s, « a man undoubtedly honest and good, as far as his sense and intelligence went, but somewhat simple and uneducated. » He dismissed this as ‘novelty’, threatened the monks with disobedience and took decisive action to curb any prospect of change. Geoffrey’s efforts were however, in vain, for the more he tried to dissuade them, « the more did the fire burn, fed with the fuel of fervour and faith. » Deeply committed to a more rigorous way of life, Prior Richard sought the help of Thurstan, archbishop of York, who subsequently planned to visit St Mary’s, to negotiate peace. His visit had unimaginable consequences and resulted in the reforming party fleeing for their lives, clinging to the archbishop for safety. […]

Events at St Mary’s, York, in October 1132

When Archbishop Thurstan arrived at St Mary’s in October 1132, he was confronted by the sight of Abbot Geoffrey at the chapter-house door, with a crowd of his monks. […]

Thurstan wrote a lengthy letter to Archbishop William of Canterbury […] he also sought to engage William’s support for the reformers and for reform in general […] Thurstan stressed that the monks did not desert their abbey, since their departure was a necessity, and that this was not an act of disobedience, as they sought to fulfil and commit themselves more fully to the Benedictine way of life, not to shirk it.

He explicitly compares their departure and situation with that of the monks who left Molesme in 1098 to establish the first Cistercian community, and in so doing presents the Yorkshire monks as the Cîteaux of the North, an analogy that is echoed throughout the Narratio.

Il compare explicitement leur départ et leur situation à celle des moines qui quittèrent Molesme en 1098 pour fonder la première communauté cistercienne, et ce faisant présente les moines du Yorkshire comme les Cisterciens du Nord, analogie qui se retrouve tout au long de la Narratio. (google trad.)

Desperately seeking solitude

The group of thirteen monks who fled from St Mary’s included a number of leading members of the community, such as the prior, sub-prior, sacrist, and precentor. Given the hastiness of their departure, the monks left in only the clothes they were wearing. They had no other possessions and were completely dependent on Archbishop Thurstan, who assumed the combined role of patron, adviser and host. […]

The new community: hardships at Skelldale

Les moines dormaient sous ses branches, se couvrant de paille et de tout ce qui se trouvait à portée de main, pour se protéger du froid mordant. La vie était dure dans cet endroit désolé et inhospitalier

[…] Whilst the community had a site, a leader, and the solitude that it had sought, it lacked buildings and also provisions, save the bread received from Thurstan and water afforded by a nearby stream. To make matters worse, this was winter and the site was cold, barren and unwelcoming.

The poignant account of their hardships in the foundation history (Narratio), paints a bleak image of the way of life at Skelldale. This describes how the community’s only shelter was an elm tree that stood in the middle of the valley. The monks slept beneath its branches, covering themselves with straw and anything else at hand, to keep out the bitter cold. Life was hard in this desolate and inhospitable spot […] It was in this way that the new community passed the winter of 1133.

Foundation: a Cistercian identity

Having endured the winter of 1133 at Skelldale, the community sought affiliation with the Cistercian Order, in order to receive the guidance and support of the Cistercian family, instead of functioning in isolation.

The monks decided to subject themselves to Clairvaux Abbey, in Burgundy. They sent a letter to the abbey’s charismatic leader, Bernard, explaining their departure from St Mary’s, their present situation and hopes for the future. They hoped that Clairvaux would be their mother and Bernard their father, who would advise and support them in all matters. Bernard responded with a positive and encouraging letter, fully approving of their decisions and commending their way of life. In 1135 the community was formally welcomed within the Cistercian family.

Membership of the Cistercian Order
As members of the Cistercian family, the Fountains community now had an identity and a sense of belonging to this large and highly-renowned movement which, it was claimed, offered the surest path to salvation. This would have surely boosted the community’s flagging morale. Incorporation within the Order also brought security of sorts and, more importantly, the support of the Cistercian family. On a more practical level, the monks were now expected to follow Cistercian customs to the letter, for the Order was greatly concerned to uphold unity and uniformity of practice. This meant that every aspect of daily life was highly regulated, from the clothes that the monks wore to the food and drink that was served, the celebration of the Divine Office and, not least of all, the layout and design of their buildings. Bernard sent one of his monks, Geoffrey of Ainai, to instruct the Skelldale community on all manners of Cistercian life

Après avoir enduré l’hiver 1133 à Skelldale, la communauté a cherché à s’affilier à l’Ordre cistercien, afin de recevoir les conseils et le soutien de la famille cistercienne, au lieu de fonctionner dans l’isolement.

Les moines décidèrent de se soumettre à l’abbaye de Clairvaux, en Bourgogne. Ils ont envoyé une lettre au chef charismatique de l’abbaye, Bernard, expliquant leur départ de Sainte-Marie, leur situation actuelle et leurs espoirs pour l’avenir. Ils espéraient que Clairvaux serait leur mère et Bernard leur père, qui les conseillerait et les soutiendrait en toutes choses. Bernard répondit par une lettre positive et encourageante, approuvant pleinement leurs décisions et saluant leur mode de vie. En 1135, la communauté fut officiellement accueillie au sein de la famille cistercienne (google trad.)

En tant que membres de la famille cistercienne, la communauté des Fountains avait désormais une identité et un sentiment d’appartenance à ce grand mouvement très réputé
qui, disait-on, offrait le chemin le plus sûr vers le salut. Cela aurait sûrement remonté le moral défaillant de la communauté. L’incorporation au sein de l’Ordre a également apporté une sorte de sécurité et, plus important encore, le soutien de la famille cistercienne. Sur un plan plus pratique, les moines devaient désormais suivre à la lettre les coutumes cisterciennes, car l’Ordre était très soucieux de maintenir l’unité et l’uniformité de la pratique. Cela signifiait que chaque aspect de la vie quotidienne était très réglementé, des vêtements que portaient les moines à la nourriture et aux boissons qui étaient servies, la célébration de l’office divin et, surtout, l’aménagement et la conception de leurs bâtiments. Bernard a envoyé l’un de ses moines, Geoffroy d’Ainai, pour instruire la communauté de Skelldale sur toutes les manières de la vie cistercienne

Geoffrey was an experienced instructor who had visited a number of monasteries that had subjected themselves to Clairvaux, to teach them Cistercian customs. The account of his visit to Fountains shows how precisely the Order sought to implement unity and uniformity of practice across Europe. […]

A real Cistercian community was therefore established at Skelldale: there were buildings and workshops, the monks had an abbot and an identity […]

Geoffrey était un instructeur expérimenté qui avait visité un certain nombre de monastères qui s’étaient soumis à Clairvaux, pour leur enseigner les coutumes cisterciennes. Le récit de sa visite à Fountains montre avec quelle précision l’Ordre a cherché à mettre en œuvre l’unité et l’uniformité de la pratique à travers l’Europe. […]

Une véritable communauté cistercienne s’établit donc à Skelldale : il y avait des bâtiments et des ateliers, les moines avaient un abbé et une identité […]

On the brink of surrender

Pendant deux ans, la communauté a lutté dans un état de pauvreté dans cet endroit désolé. En désespoir de cause, l’abbé Richard se rendit en Bourgogne pour demander l’aide de leur « père », Bernard de Clairvaux […] mais cela ne fut finalement pas nécessaire

For two years the community struggled in an impoverished state in this desolate location. In desperation, Abbot Richard travelled to Burgundy to seek the help of their ‘father’, Bernard of Clairvaux. Richard hoped that Clairvaux might absorb his community and grant Fountains land nearby, where the monks could move and begin afresh. Bernard agreed and plans were made for the Fountains community to relocate to Longué, one of Clairvaux’s granges, in Haute-Marne. The move proved unnecessary, for when Richard returned to Yorkshire he found that Fountains’ fortunes had changed and that the monks were once more in good spirits. The reason for this turnaround was the arrival of a new recruit, Hugh, the former dean of York Minster. He was a rich man and brought with him considerable money, as well as furniture and a collection of books – the origins of the Fountains’ library. […]

The Fountains family

The Fountains community had stood firm in the face of adversity and weathered the storm to establish deep and enduring roots. Now, some five years after the reformers had fled from St Mary’s, Fountains’ future was secure. The community’s reputation spread, attracting recruits and benefactors who wished to be in some way affiliated to such a praiseworthy abbey. Ralph de Merley, lord of Morpeth, was so impressed that he granted Fountains land on his estate in Northumberland to found another monastery, Newminster [Novum Monasterium]. In the January of 1139, when the necessary buildings had been erected, Fountains sent a colony of its monks under the leadership of Robert, to start a new community at Newminster. The fact that Fountains had the numbers and resources to found Newminster – and the other daughter-houses that soon followed – was testimony to the abbey’s success and commitment to the Cistercian policy of expansion, a tradition strongly upheld by Fountains’ mother-house, Clairvaux, which had fostered a large and wide-spread family. Fountains soon expanded into Lincolnshire, founding daughter-houses at Kirkstead and Louth Park. The two monks of Fountains sent to lead these new communities, Robert of Sewell and Gervase, had been members of the founding community that had fled from St Mary’s in the tumult of 1132.

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