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Fountains Abbey is near to Aldfield, approximately two miles southwest of Ripon in North Yorkshire, England. It is a ruined Cistercian monastery, founded in 1132. Fountains Abbey is one of the largest and best preserved Cistercian houses in England. It is a Grade I listed building and owned by the National Trust. Along with the adjacent Studley Royal Water Garden, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A dispute and following riot at St Mary's Abbey in York led to the founding of Fountains Abbey in 1132. After pleading unsuccessfully to return to the early 6th century Rule of St Benedict, 13 monks were exiled and taken into the protection of Thurstan, Archbishop of York. He provided them with a site in the valley of the little River Skell. Although described as a place "more fit for wild beasts than men to inhabit" it had all the essential materials for the creation of a monastery: shelter from the weather, stone and timber for building, and plenty of water.
Three years later the exiled monks became part of the Cistercian Order, founded in France in 1098. Under its rules they lived a rigorous daily life, were committed to long periods of silence, followed a diet barely above subsistence level, and wore the regulation habit of coarse undyed sheep's wool (underwear was forbidden), which earned them the name "White Monks." One of the Abbey's most important developments was the introduction of the Cistercian system of lay brothers. They were usually illiterate and relieved the monks from routine jobs. Many served as masons, tanners, shoemakers and smiths, but their chief role was to look after the Abbey's vast flocks of sheep, which lived on the huge estate stretching westwards from Fountains to the Lake District and northwards to Teesside.
Without the lay brothers, Fountains could never have attained its great wealth or economic importance. By the middle of the 13th century it was one of England's richest religious houses and, as well as farming, was mining lead, working iron, quarrying stones and horse breeding. But the seeds of failure lay in the very success of the system. The lay brothers encouraged the monks to extend their estates beyond what was necessary for monastic self-sufficiency. In the 14th century economic collapse followed bad harvests and Scots raids, and the Black Death exacerbated the effects of financial mismanagement. The community of lay brothers reduced in size, many of the monastic granges were leased out to tenant farmers, and in the late 15th century dairy farming replaced sheep farming.
Despite its financial problems, Fountains Abbey remained of considerable importance in the Cistercian Order. The abbots sat in Parliament and the abbacy of Marmaduke Huby (1495-1526) marked a period of revival. Fountains once again flourished, but its life was brought to an abrupt end in 1539 by Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. The abbot (Marmaduke Bradley) received a pension of £100 pa, his prior received £8, and 30 monks each received £6. For a few months after the Dissolution, the Abbey buildings stood empty in the hope of being the site for the cathedral for a new Dales bishopric. This was not to be, and by 1540 glass and lead from the dismantling of Fountains had found their way to Ripon and York. The buildings and parts of the estate were sold to Sir Richard Gresham, whose family subsequently sold them on to Stephen Proctor, the builder of Fountains Hall. Then the abbey passed through several hands until it came into the possession of the Messenger family. In 1767 it was sold for £18,000 to William Aislabie, who landscaped the abbey ruins as a picturesque folly to be viewed from the Water Garden.
Excavations and repairs were carried out in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In the meantime, it is thought, the ivy-covered ruins might have been used for a variety of entertainments.