Kirkstall Abbey, West Yorkshire, UK
Created | Updated Dec 5, 2015
Cinemas | Kirkstall Abbey | The Royal Armouries
Located three miles west of Leeds city centre, the ruins of Kirkstall Abbey, are among the finest mediæval remains in West Yorkshire. Kirkstall Abbey's grounds are now known as Kirkstall Park, and contain not only the abbey but also a playground, sports pitches and a narrow-gauge railway. One of the former abbey buildings houses Abbey House Museum, a child-friendly museum dedicated to Victorian life in Leeds. This makes Kirkstall Abbey and its grounds unique, especially with its proximity to a busy city centre.
The History of the Abbey
Kirkstall Abbey was a Cistercian abbey. The Cistercians were a holy order of monks that were introduced into Britain in 1128 and had their origins in the village of Cîteaux in France, as an attempt to return to Benedectine1 ideals. Although over 90 Cistercian abbeys would be founded over the coming centuries in Britain, Kirkstall Abbey was one of the first despite being Yorkshire's last.
An important part of Cistercian beliefs2 was that abbeys should be built far from cities, towns and villages in order for the monks to avoid contamination and corruption. In the years after the Norman Conquest and subsequent Harrowing of the North3, Yorkshire was an ideal choice in which to set up an abbey away from the rest of mankind, as most of the indigenous population had been slaughtered. Consequently many of the first Cistercian abbeys in Britain were founded there. All those in Yorkshire were founded within 25 years of the first Cistercian abbey to be founded in Britain. The Cistercian abbeys in Yorkshire were:
- Fountains Abbey (1132) - National Trust
- Rievaulx Abbey (1132) - English Heritage
- Byland Abbey (1138)4 - English Heritage
- Jervaulx Abbey (1145)5 - Privately owned, open to the public
- Roche Abbey (1147) - English Heritage
- Sawley Abbey (1147)6 - English Heritage
- Meaux Abbey (1151) - Only earthworks exists
- Kirkstall Abbey (1152) - Leeds City Council
The Creation of Kirkstall Abbey
In the mid 1140s, Henry de Lacy, lord of Pontefract Castle, was a rich and powerful Norman. He became gravely ill and vowed that should he survive he would found a new Cistercian abbey.
De Lacy recovered from his illness and in 1147 presented some land at Barnoldswick near Skipton to the Cistercian monks at Fountains Abbey. An abbot, Alexander, and assisting monks therefore went to set up an abbey at Barnoldswick. This did not go smoothly, as the site was close to a few villages which were on land owned by the monks. The monks promptly evicted all the villagers and destroyed their parish churches to prevent them from returning. The villagers complained, and their case even made it to the Pope, who decreed that these acts were justified, although after this date no more land was donated to Cistercians in Yorkshire. Having made themselves unwelcome neighbours, the monks were frequently robbed and their harvests failed. Abbot Alexander declared the site unsuitable, and in 1152 abandoned Barnoldswick.
De Lacy and his feudal vassal William de Peitevin gave the monks new land at Kirkstall, next to the river Aire and a few miles away from an insignificant settlement known as Leeds. This site was close to sources of durable stone, Hawksworth Wood nearby provided all the required timber and the river allowed both to be transported to the site with ease. The monks moved to Kirkstall on 19 May, 1152.
Kirkstall Abbey was constructed quite quickly, between 1152 and 1182, and it is said that De Lacy laid some of the foundations of the church with his own hands as well as paying for the construction of the building. Once completed, the abbey underwent surprisingly little modification. The height of the main tower was later increased and the refectory rebuilt. The quality of the original design and construction, however, based on the common Cistercian design, was to prove ideal for its purpose and needed few changes until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539.
Arranging the Granges
The abbey did not exist in isolation, and was in fact the focal point of a network of granges constructed to help support the abbey itself. A grange was an outlying farm that produced food and stored it to supply the abbey: the word 'grange' derives from 'grain' – its primary function was originally that of a granary7. In addition to barns and granaries, each grange had a large house at the centre of the estate, for accommodation and religious purposes. Any surplus food would be sold to raise funds for the abbey.
These satellite granges were of considerable importance to the abbey, and in addition to the site at Barnoldswick, which became in effect the abbey's first grange, Kirkstall Abbey gradually acquired several more granges, either as a result of direct gifts from wealthy patrons or through the purchase of the land. Kirkstall Abbey had a network of granges in the Leeds and wider Yorkshire area. In 1173, however, Henry II confiscated the wealthy grange of Micklethwaite, claiming that before it was owned by the abbey it had belonged to traitors to the crown and it was not until 1205 that Kirkstall Abbey was able to recover their grange, at an extortionate price from King John.
Wool from sheep owned at the abbey and its granges was sold as far away as Florence in Italy. The land the abbey owned also contained iron ore deposits, and this too was traded, although there are records that fights broke out between the lay brothers of Fountains and Rievaulx abbeys to try and gain access to Kirkstall Abbey's iron ore.
Another important source of income was rent, usually from tenant farmers or other people on the abbey's land. Around 1192, Kirkstall Abbey exchanged the grange at Cliviger for the township of Accrington, evicting the people from their homes in order to construct a new grange. In revenge, the locals burnt down the grange and killed three lay brothers.
Despite these granges, the abbey suffered from severe financial mismanagement throughout the 13th Century until 1284, when the newly appointed Abbot Hugh Grimston appealed to King Edward I for a rescue package to ensure the abbey's survival. This was granted and under Abbot Grimston's leadership, Kirkstall Abbey paid off its debts and became self-sufficient once more.
Life in the abbey was a series of services and hard work, with the timetable changing depending on the time of year. There were two distinct classes of men in the monastery, the monks, known as 'choir monks' and the lay brothers. There were approximately 50 monks in Kirkstall Abbey at any one time, with perhaps between 75 and 150 lay brothers at the abbey and approximately a further 75 lay brothers at the various granges.
In the summer, the day started at 2am with the services of matins and lauds, before a rest in the dormitory, followed by the first hour of the monastic day, prime. At 6am each day, a meeting was held in the chapter house, at which the day's work was allocated, and any sins confessed. This would last until 7:30am, when the monks would go to their tasks, returning for the next service at 11:30am in the church. At midday they would eat plain bread, cheese, eggs, vegetables and fish with milk, water, ale and wine to drink – only the sick in the infirmary were allowed meat. During the meal, one monk would read a passage from the Bible and otherwise silence was strictly maintained.
After dinner, the monks were allowed to rest before the service of nones at 3pm. Then they would return to their work until vespers at 6pm, followed by a light supper. The monks would then gather in the cloister to hear a reading known as the collation, with compline held before nightfall and the monks would go to bed. In the winter, the services were held at different times as daylight allowed, with only one meal in the day and a longer nine-hour sleep at night.
The lay brothers, who were peasants, did much of the hard work in the monastery and outlying granges. They ploughed and harvested the fields, looked after the animals and mined the iron ore. They had a separate refectory, dormitory and privies to the monks. They had two meals a day, larger than the meals of the monks as they carried out the hard physical work, and had access to medical care, but were not taught how to read and write; talking more than absolutely necessary was discouraged.
The head of the abbey was the abbot, and Kirkstall Abbey is the earliest known abbey in Britain to contain a separate abbot's house. Abbots had originally been expected to share in the living conditions of their fellow monks.
The End of Kirkstall Abbey as a Monastery
The Cistercian movement began as an attempt to get away from the rest of mankind and live a simple life dedicated to the rules of St Benedict. This principle, however, was not maintained. Although the rules forbade the eating of meat except for the sick, monks began to circumvent that rule by eating in the hospital. While talking was forbidden during meal time, the Cistercians invented a whole sign language, used in Cistercian abbeys throughout Europe. According to the rules of St Benedict, the monks were supposed to do all the hard work themselves and not employ servants, yet by calling their servants 'lay brothers' and classing them as lesser monks, they bypassed that rule also.
The Cistercian order in Britain, like the Cluniac and Benedictine orders before them, gained wealth and power, corrupting those inside. Fewer lay brothers began to volunteer to join the monasteries and two of the abbots of Kirkstall Abbey are known to have attacked people and private property outside the abbey in personal squabbles. In the 14th Century, the monks began a campaign of intimidation, damaging the property of those who did not show them the respect they demanded.
The 12th Century author Walter Map8 wrote,
It is prescribed to [the Cistercians] that they are to dwell in desert places, and desert places they do assuredly either find or make... they proceed to raze villages, they overthrow churches, and turn out parishioners... Those upon whom comes an invasion of Cistercians may be doomed to a lasting exile.
It is hardly a coincidence that in many Mediæval tales, such as The Canterbury Tales and the earliest recorded tales of Robin Hood, monks are portrayed as fat, greedy and wealthy rather than devout.
The first serious attempt to limit the acquired power of the monasteries was in 1410. A bill was presented in Parliament proposing that monasteries should be stripped of their excessive wealth, but this was rejected by Henry IV, a man who had claimed the throne by right of conquest with the aid of the Archbishop of Canterbury. By the 1530s, Henry VIII was prepared to take advantage of the unpopularity of the monasteries by closing the smaller ones and seizing their assets. This was objected to in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire and in 1536 the Pilgrimage of Grace, a rebellion against the closures, erupted. In December 1536, the abbot of Kirkstall Abbey, John Ripley, attended the rebels' meeting in Pontefract Castle. A truce was agreed after which a second rebellion occurred; the ringleaders were arrested and executed and the rebellion ended by February 1537.
A consequence of the Pilgrimage of Grace was that larger monasteries such as Kirkstall Abbey were suspected of sympathising and supporting the rebels, and consequently all abbeys were now targets for closure. By the end of 1538, Byland and Rievaulx Abbeys had surrendered to crown ownership, while Kirkstall Abbey surrendered by November 1536. The 31 remaining monks were pensioned off and given between £2 and £6 13s 4d. The last abbot, John Ripley, is believed to have retired to the abbey's gatehouse, known as Abbey House, and lived there until his death in 1568.
After the Dissolution
Kirkstall Abbey first became the property of the Archbishop of Canterbury, then it passed to the Crown, who initially rented it out. In 1583, the site was purchased by Robert Savile, whose family owned the abbey until 1671. Then it passed by marriage to the Brudenells family, the Earls of Cardigan. The abbey was used both as a thoroughfare through the church and as a source of useful building material; some of its stone was used to build Leeds Bridge and extend the Abbey gatehouse, which was used as a private residence, although many of the other buildings were preserved for use as barns. In the 18th Century, Kirkstall Abbey was a popular subject for Romantic artists, including J M W Turner. In 1757, it was written that:
At Kirkstall... beasts and carriages do frequently herd and pass through the body of the choir and nave of the church.
Kirkstall Abbey was left to disintegrate: the roof, west wall and vaulting collapsed by 1746, the church tower collapsed in 1779, and the choir monk's dormitory vaulting fell in 1826.
In the 19th Century, the settlement of Leeds three miles away grew from a small town to an engulfing conurbation at the very heart of the industrial revolution9. In 1868, Lord Cardigan10 died, and his estate was in financial disarray. After struggling for years, his widow decided to sell Kirkstall Abbey in an auction in 1888. Leeds Corporation, the local municipal council, attempted to raise money to buy the abbey but was unable to meet the asking price. It was feared that the abbey lands would be bought by a developer and the abbey would be gone for ever. However, a local wealthy industrialist, Colonel North, bought the abbey for £10,000 and presented it and its land to the City of Leeds in 1889. Although Colonel North purchased the whole site, he did not give Abbey House, the abbey's former gatehouse, to the City of Leeds. This he retained and sold.
Between 1892 and 1896, conservation work was carried out to preserve the ruin: leaning walls were given support and overgrowth was cut back. The abbey grounds were laid out as a public park, complete with bandstand, benches and a cafe. The park was opened to the public by the Bishop of Ripon11 in 1895. Kirkstall Abbey is now a Grade I Listed Building.
Abbey House Museum
Although Colonel North had bought the entire Kirkstall Abbey estate, he did not donate the Abbey House to Leeds but instead sold it to Colonel Harding in 1893. The house continued to be rented out until 1925, when it was sold to the Leeds Corporation and rejoined the same ownership as the rest of the Kirkstall estate.
In 1927, Abbey House, a Grade II* Listed Building, opened to the public as a museum displaying the history of the people of Leeds. In the mid-1950s, the downstairs of Abbey House was transformed with the construction of mock-Victorian streets inside – Abbey Fold, Harewood Square and Stephen Harding Gate. These had faithful recreations of houses, shops, a church and a pub inside showing what life in Leeds would have been like in the 1880s. Above, in the first floor, are collections of more aspects of Victorian Leeds, including toys, clothes and furniture.
Remains and Layout
Kirkstall Abbey was built by the Cistercians, who were renowned for using the same architectural design in all their abbeys. It was said that a blind monk from Scotland could easily find his way around a Cistercian monastery in Scandinavia, as they were built to the same design. Kirkstall Abbey certainly follows the standard pattern, with a central cloister, or courtyard with a covered walkway around it. North of the cloister is the church, a large crucifix-shaped building on an east-west axis, the nave, or large west section of which is open to the elements in the middle but the aisles and presbytery, or east of the church, are covered. East of the cloister is the Chapter House, a well-preserved meeting room, and west of the clositer was the cellarium on the ground floor, with the lay brothers' frater or dormitory on the first floor above. South of the cloister were the kitchen and associated malt house, warming house, meat kitchen and misericord. This was originally the hospital but later became the monks' dormitory.
Attached to the abbey to the south east were the Abbot's lodging, a visiting abbot's lodging and the Infirmary, which had its own kitchen and scullery. These buildings have sparse remains today, although their layout and the first courses of the walls are visible. Attached on the southwest is the lay brothers' reredorter, a roofed building that survives and now houses a small museum and the abbey's gift shop. A short distance west of the main abbey range are the remains of the Guest House building, which once had a Great Chamber and Great Hall, its own kitchen as well as its own stables. Northwest of the abbey, and now across the busy A65 road, is the Abbey Gatehouse, now the Abbey House museum.
When the abbey was constructed, water was used to maximum effect. Some water was channelled from springs on the slopes north of the abbey through lead and bronze pipes; one of the original bronze taps has survived. Other water came from the monastic millpond, now the site of the Kirkstall Park carpark. After driving a mill and cleaning the toilets in the guest house, the water ran beneath the south of the abbey range to the monks' and lay brothers' latrines, as well as the latrines in the infirmary, where sewage would drop into the drain and be washed downhill into the river Aire. The drain was also used to dispose of kitchen waste.
Kirkstall Abbey Today
Today, Kirkstall Abbey is well worth a visit, and is perhaps neglected in favour of the more glamorous and picturesque Fountains Abbey nearby, which is a World Heritage Site. Although Kirkstall Abbey's dark and brooding appearance cannot compete equally with the splendour of Fountains Abbey it is still well worth a visit, particularly as entrance to the abbey is free. A charge is made, however, to visit the Abbey House Museum. Kirkstall Abbey is off the A65, with the abbey's car park and playground on the other, north side of the A65. This is a busy road which can be crossed through the use of a pelican crossing. It is also close to Headingley railway station and is on the opposite side of the river Aire to National Cycle Route 66. This runs from Kingston upon Hull to Manchester via Beverley, York and Leeds, and Kirkstall Abbey can easily be accessed from it by crossing the Kirkstall Bridge and turning left. The Abbey is also close to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, so can be accessed by canal boats.
The Abbey Light Railway usually operates only on Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays in the abbey grounds a short distance from the abbey remains. It runs southwest from the abbey and crosses the mill race, a journey of ¼ mile. There are rumours that the railway wishes to extend its line from Kirkstall Abbey to Armley Mills, the Leeds Industrial Museum, which contains a number of railway engines. This would be a remarkable achievement and would serve to unite the three Leeds City Council museums of Kirkstall Abbey, Abbey House Museum and the Armley Mills Leeds Industrial Museum. Unfortunately, however, it is sadly unlikely due to the distance and obstacles including crossing various roads as well as the river Aire and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. At a time when Leeds City Council and the British Government have been unable even to construct their much-anticipated supertram system, a tourist narrow-gauge railway that only runs on Sundays is unlikely.
Other Places to Visit
For other mediæval sites in the Yorkshire area that can be visited, have a look at our series of entries on Yorkshire's Castles.