Tour de Force: Abbey Roads

“In the 12th century an argument broke out on the remote North York moors,” says Sarah Cowling. “In the white-robed corner, on one side of the river Rye were the Cistercians, a group of monks who arrived at Byland in 1131. In the greyrobed corner, a rival order of Savigniacs, who in 1143 provocatively plonked themselves across the river from the white monks.

“The two monasteries rang their prayer bells at different times of day; confused monks were turning up for worship at the wrong time. But the Cistercians stood their ground, winning the ‘battle of the bells’ and the Savigniacs packed up and moved on.”

Sarah Cowling has strong links with the battling abbey: “My ancestors worked at Byland Grange for generations. When the abbey was in its heyday they probably laboured for the monks as part of the great monastic medieval business empire.”

Today Byland is a magnificent ruin, a majestic monument in the countryside that Sarah returned to in 2014 when she qualified as a Yorkshire Blue Badge guide. “I’d been away for nearly thirty years, but wanted to return. As my aunt says, ‘the good ones always come back, that’s what happens with Yorkshire’. I hope she’s right!

“Yorkshire was the monastic kingdom of the North. One of the jewels in its crown was Whitby Abbey. Founded in 657, today it is one of the most evocative and dramatic remains in Britain, commanding the cliff-top from a windblown headland, the ruins visible for miles around. BBC History magazine named it as one of the 100 Places That Made Britain.


“Whitby was founded by Saint Hilda. The abbess turned a plague of local snakes to stone so that her church could be built. According to local legend, this explains the serpentine ammonite fossils found on the sea shore.

“Whitby was one of the earliest monasteries in Yorkshire. One of a string of abbeys founded by black-hooded Benedictines who arrived here some 1400 years ago on a mission to bring ‘prayer and work’ to the wilderness.

“But much of the ’work’ was done by local peasants who were expected to give two days labour a week in return for the monks praying for their souls. The abbeys also provided education, hospitals for the sick and dying and alms for the poor.

“Many of these poor souls found charity at St Mary’s Abbey in York. Established in 1088, it was one of the wealthiest monasteries in the country – the abbey church was larger than the city’s great minster. York was so rich in religious institutions that mendicants would work their way around the city seeking alms in one place after the next – a sort of medieval ‘benefits tourism’.

But how did monasteries like St Mary’s become so rich? “There was profit in prayer. Kings and knights who killed enemies in battle would pay for a monk to chant for them, hoping to absolve these sins and finance their way to heaven.

“The ‘pay to pray’ abbeys inherited huge legacies from patrons seeking salvation in exchange for land and money. Silent meditation was replaced by noisy commerce and monastic estates – some of which encompassed entire counties and taxed everyone on their land. St Mary’s Abbey swung a toll rope across the river Ouse, charging boats travelling into the city of York. In 1266 the angry, overtaxed townsfolk rioted – St Mary’s repelled them by building a three-quarter mile long wall around the Abbey.

“In response to this unholy greed, a new order of monks decided to take monasticism back to basics. The Cistercians, who wore white robes as a symbol of purity and poverty, were determined to return to St Benedict’s mission of prayer and rigid discipline. Benedict’s Rule – written in balmy 6th century Italy – made no reference to underpants as monastic clothing, so even in the freezing Yorkshire winters the Cistercians wore nothing under their habits.


“Bare-bottomed piety arrived on the Yorkshire moors in 1132 when twelve Cistercian monks founded Rievaulx Abbey. They started by living in simple huts, but over time these were replaced  by grand, stone buildings housing 140 monks, 40 lay brothers and 260 hired men who worked the abbey’s 6,000 acres and shepherded its 14,000 sheep. “Like the Benedictines, the Cistercians eventually rejected the life of an austerity monk. The brothers abandoned Rievaulx’s dormitories, living in private rooms with fireplaces, upstairs bedrooms and en suite toilets. St Benedict ruled that, ‘unless they were sick, monks should not eat the meat of four-footed creatures’. So the brothers ignored refectory meals and dined in the infirmary where, on weekly feast days, they would consume 16 courses, some 6000 calories a day, ten times that of a labourer – the legend of ‘merrie monk’ Friar Tuck’s stout girth is based on truth.

“The Cistercians became a business brand. At Fountains Abbey they developed a breed of ‘super sheep’ that produced high quality fleece, establishing Yorkshire’s international dominance in the wool trade. Their abbeys were a kind of medieval ‘Ikea’ – they all used same floor plan, featured the same furniture and books, spoke the same language (Latin) and followed the same rules and customs. It was said that you could take a blind Cistercian from France and drop him in an English abbey and he wouldn’t notice the difference.


“But the monasteries’ empire-building and money-making ventures would be their downfall. Ordinary people resented their power and in the 1530s King Henry VIII seized the abbeys’ land and treasures and ransacked their buildings.

“The legacy of this devastation has left an extraordinary imprint on the Yorkshire landscape – dozens of ghostlike ruins that rise on the moors, shores and valleys. Beautiful echoes of a monastic empire that once ruled the county.”