Fountains Abbey/Chapter 1

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The first Fountains Abbey was a forest tree. In the days of the simple beginning, the brethren ate and slept and said their prayers under an elm which stood in the middle of the valley.

The elm lived into the eighteenth century, and toward the end of its life was made to divide its honours with a group of venerable yews. Some said that the monks found their first shelter under the yews. But Serlo settled the matter, hundreds of years ago, in favour of the elm. Ulmus, he said, Ulmus erat vallis in medio, lignum frondosum. The yews were there, however, in the first days, and one or two of them are still surviving.

They are propped up on either hand, like an old man leaning on his staff; but they live. The elm has wholly disappeared. Mr. Walbran's maternal great-grandfather remembered "the stump of an enormous elm tree in the last stage of decay, which was called 'the Fountain's elm.'" It stood "between the river Skell and the stream from Stank's pond, not far from the eastern boundary of the Abbey site." But the smooth turf covers the place. Only the yews look down from their gentle hill upon the broken walls. There they were when the monks came, a little adventurous company, to begin their life of seclusion and prayer. Their leaves were green when the Abbey rose in splendour, and mitred abbots walked in their shadow. They saw the expulsion of the convent and the ruin of the monastery. They are a symbol of the persistence of the quiet, elemental forces amidst our human chance and change.

The monks of Fountains Abbey belonged to the Cistercian Order.

In the twelfth century, when the Abbey began, this was the newest religious society. The Benedictines, after splendid services to civilisation, had encountered the temptations which accompany the praises and the gifts of grateful communities, and had been worsted. They had verified the wise saying, "When anybody does a good thing, all the neighbours join together to keep him from doing it again." They had grown rich in the treasures which are subject to the invasions of moth and rust and thieves, but they were growing poor in the accounts of heaven. The purpose of the Cistercians was to return to primitive monastic simplicity. Gregory the Great had said that he who would see angels must have his head pillowed on a stone. The Cistercians believed it.

Stephen Harding, who founded the Cistercian Order, was an Englishman, from Dorsetshire. He spent his early years in the monastery at Sherborne. Thence he went wandering, in the free fashion of the time, partly to see the sights, partly to save his soul, and made a pilgrimage to Rome. On his way back, in Burgundy, he chanced upon a little company of monks, who were encamped in a clearing in the midst of a thick forest. They had built a chapel with the trunks of trees, and around it had gathered a forlorn group of huts made of the boughs, and were freezing and starving to their hearts' content. All this filled Stephen with devout envy. He joined this monastery, and thereafter saw England again no more.

But presently, the rule seemed to many of the brethren to be too hard for human endurance, and they relaxed it, and began to live more softly, so that Stephen was dissatisfied. And out he went, and a few like-minded brethren with him, in quest of hardship, which they found at Citeaux. This was a wild place in the dark woods, with a deep stream running through the midst of it, the banks of which were the residence of beasts of prey. Here Stephen was made prior; the honest severity of Benedict's laws was sought again; the brethren lived in holy simplicity.

And then friends appeared. This good life was appreciated by rich and powerful neighbours, and they brought gifts and built a church; and one of them was buried there. This was Odo, duke of Burgundy, whose son Hugh, with a company of friends, people of the court, took a fancy for going to church at the monastery chapel, so that the plain place shone with their silks and jewels, and the simple brethren were distracted in their prayers by the neighbourhood of all this fine array. The chapel was becoming a fashionable church. By this time Stephen was the abbot—abbot of Cistercium, which was the Latin for Citeaux. And Stephen stopped it. He turned all these gay worshippers out of doors, forbade them ever to come in again, and shut the monastery gate in the face of all his influential friends.

Then he made the plain services more plain. He forbade that "in the House of God, in which they wished to serve God devoutly day and night, anything should be found which savoured of pride and excess, or can in any way corrupt poverty, that guardian of virtue, which they had chosen of their own accord." There must be no gold or silver in the church, except a silver cup for the sacramental wine. A single candlestick must suffice for light, and that must be of iron and straight from top to bottom. Vestments must be of common stuff, no more of silk or cloth-of-gold. All the pictures must come down. The brethren said their prayers in a chapel as severe as a Puritan meeting-house. In the midst of a time of monastic splendour, when monks of St. Benedict and even monks of Cluny rode abroad like knights or princes, Stephen Harding's household were separate from the world in all sincerity.

Once, when the poverty which they invited came and lodged with them so long that the pantry was bare even of crumbs, one of the brothers went out to beg for bread, and came home with a great apronful. But when Stephen found that the bread had come from one who had made his money by dishonesty, he took it off the table, carried it into the fields and gave it to the shepherds. The brethren used to notice that in the evening, when the abbot went into the church, he often stopped, after he had shut the door, and pressed against it with his hand. And when they asked him what it meant, he said, "I am forced during the day to give free course to many thoughts for the ordering of the house; all these I bid remain outside the door, and tell them not to venture in, and to wait till the morrow, when I find them all ready for me after Prime has been said."

It seemed, for a time, as if this severity of discipline and this unworldliness of spirit would forever bar the door against new-comers. Brethren died, and nobody took their places. At last, however, all this good planting came to its proper harvest. One day, in the year 1113, thirty men appeared at the gates of Citeaux, asking to be received as novices. And their leader was a man whose character and strength made him presently the greatest churchman of his time. With the accession of Bernard, the Cistercian monastery grew speedily into the Cistercian Order; and the Cistercian Order came in due time into England.

Turstin, Archbishop of York, wrote to Bernard at Clairvaux, asking for Cistercian monks; and Bernard, being now, in Stephen's old age, at the head of the Order, sent over a colony which settled in the valley of the Rie, at Rievaux. There they lived their new life of simple devotion. And presently the fame of the sanctity of the monks of Rievaux began to vex the consciences of their neighbours.

The Benedictine abbey of St. Mary of York was a rich and vast establishment. It had received gifts from William the Norman, and from William his son. It was so fine that Richard the prior and a little company of sympathetic brethren, touched by the example of the simple manners of Rievaux, came to the conclusion that it was too good a place to be an appropriate residence for a Christian. They determined to leave it.

Richard the prior, Gervase the subprior, Richard the sacrist, Walter the almoner, and Robert the precentor were of one mind in the matter, and presently a sufficient number of devout conspirators was added to make thirteen. That was the required number for the beginning of a monastic colony. Together they came to the old abbot and asked leave to go. But the abbot met them with a stout refusal. The malcontents were made to understand that they had asked a grievous thing; they had despised their order, and brought confusion into the holy house; they had attempted to break their solemn vows. To this, the prior made appropriate answers, but satisfaction was impossible. Back and forth, the matter was discussed all summer, most of the monks taking the abbot's part. At last, in October, the archbishop came. There was a noisy meeting in the cloister; abbot and archbishop, monks and seculars; with the townsfolk crowding at the abbey gate. "Your church is interdicted!" cried the archbishop, raising his voice above the din. "Interdict it, for aught we care, for a hundred years!" shouted the brethren. Then they made a rush for the prior and his friends, who got with great haste into the church, the archbishop being with them, and barred the door for fear of their lives. Finally, they escaped in safety. The affair made a great commotion in a day when abbots and bishops were seldom on good terms. The abbot sent messengers to the King, the first Henry; the bishop wrote to the legate of the Pope. But the thing was done, and stayed done.

Two Richards, two Ralphs, Gervase, Walter, Robert and Alexander, Geoffrey, Gregory, Thomas, Hamo and Gamel thus abandoned St. Mary's, and for the ment were lodgers in the archbishop's house. Even this little company were not all of one mind, for presently two of them were homesick and went back; of whom Ralph "made terms with his flesh and his belly clave to the ground," that is, he remained in the old way, but Gervase again repented and cast his lot with the reformers. Ralph's place was taken by a second Robert, a monk of Whitby.

Archbishop Turstin had a country seat at Ripon, to which he went to keep the Christmas of 1132, bringing the thirteen brethren with him. And on the morrow of the festival, taking them out three miles into the country, he established them upon a piece of his own land, in the narrow valley of the Skell. The deed of gift of this land—the "charter of foundation"—is still preserved at Studley Royal. William the dean of York, William the treasurer, Hugh the precentor, Robert and William the archdeacons, five canons of St. Peters, five canons of St. Wilfrid, and nine laymen signed it as witnesses.

The place, as the narrative says, was a long way out of the world—locum a cunctis retro seculis inhabitatum; it was full of thorns and rocks, and seemed a better dwelling for wild beasts than for men. But they accepted it with gratitude. In the midst of the valley they made a thatched hut, with the trunk of the great elm for roof-pole, and having chosen the prior Richard to be their abbot, they began with contented minds to live the life of devotion and straitness for which they had longed amidst the pernicious comforts of the Abbey of St. Mary. They named their little monastery De Fontibus, from the springs which abounded in the valley. "O ye wells, bless ye the Lord," they sang—Benedicite, fontes Domino, and the words were echoed back in the frosty air from the cliffs on either side.

The same spirit was in all their hearts—the spirit of religion, the desire to devote themselves more perfectly to God. They took life very seriously. They had stout convictions, and purposed to live in consistency with them, and sought a place where that should be possible.

In the following spring, the brethren sent messengers to St. Bernard at Clairvaux, asking to be admitted to the Cistercian Order. Bernard was at that time the greatest man in Europe. He had just decided between two rival claimants which was the true Pope. He received the men of Fountains with great kindness, finding in them a spirit kindred with his own. He sent them back with a gracious letter, which is still preserved. Fratribus charissimis et desideratissimis, he wrote, Ricardo abbati et hiis qui cum eo sunt, frater Bernardus abbas Clarevallis, in Domino, salutem. And he sent with them Geoffrey, a monk of his own monastery, a person of ability and experience, to teach them the new ways. Thus the new life began; and presently their number was increased. Seventeen new brethren came, seven of them being in orders.

Their number was increased, but their resources were in no way enlarged. The archbishop, indeed, continued to be good to them, and the neighbours occasionally sent things in,—housewives at their weekly baking remembering the brethren and putting in an extra batch for them.

A little money they earned by making mats. But that year there was a famine in the land, till the abbot had to go out through the surrounding country to find food, and even then found none; so that for a time they lived on leaves which they boiled with salt in the water of the stream—the friendly elm, as the narrative says, affording them food as well as shelter. One day, they said, the Lord Christ knocked at the door, in the guise of an ill-clad, hungry man, and asked an alms in the starving time, when they had but two loaves and a half, and no prospects of more. At first, they had prudently refused him, but when he continued asking had given him one loaf. And behold, within a half-hour, two men appeared from Knaresborough Castle with a plentiful supply of bread, over which the monks recited the "Inasmuch as ye have done it" of the Gospel.

Finally, the situation became intolerable. The brethren had, indeed, made choice of poverty, and had come out into the wilderness in devout search of her; but this was a different matter. This was destitution rather than poverty, so that, the next year, when there appeared no likelihood of any betterment, the abbot made a journey to Clairvaux, and begged St. Bernard to give them lands in France, or in any place where they might live and not die. And Bernard agreed to give them a habitation near his own abbey.

Happily, they did not need the gift. Abbot Richard, on his return, found a change in the fortunes of the house. The colony had been joined by Hugh, the dean of York. He had been in the company of the archbishop on the day of his stormy visitation, and had seen the men of Fountains as they faced the reproaches of their brethren; and being now an old man and tired of the world, he had resolved to say his prayers for the rest of his life with them. Thus he had resigned his high position, and turned his back on his splendid minster, and had cast in his lot with the starving colony. And he was fortunately rich, and brought books with him, and money. Part of the money they gave to the poor, part they put into the general fund, part they used to pay the carpenters and masons who were building the church and cloister.

After this, prosperity continued. Canon Serlo, of York, who, like the dean, had witnessed the escape of the monks from St. Mary's, and whose name is still to be seen among the witnesses to the charter of foundation, now became a brother of Fountains; and with him Canon Tosti, who is remembered in the narrative as a pleasant person. And each added to the treasury. Then Robert and Raganilda de Sartis, owners of the neighbouringestate of Herleshow, gave it to the monks, adding to it the forest of Warsall. Also Serlo de Pembroke, a young courtier—juvenis quidam de domo regis—lying at the point of death, gave them his country-seat at Cayton, and when he died was buried in the monks' graveyard, inter sanctos. This was probably the first interment in the little cemetery which awaited the brethren to the east of the rising church. About the same time, the abbot got a farm at Aldbrough—grangiam fertilem—in a place which even from Roman times had been a fruitful region.

Presently, in 1135, King Stephen being at York, the monastery was exempted by him from payment of "taxes, danegelds, assises, pleas and scutages." Also, a little later, in 1141, Pope Innocent exempted the monastery from payment of tithes.

From that day, says Serlo the narrator, who had now become a member of the monastic household, the Lord blessed our valleys with the blessing of heaven above and of the deep that lieth under, multiplying the brethren, increasing their possessions, pouring down showers of benediction, being a wall unto them on the right hand and on the left. What perfection of life, he cries, was there at Fountains! What emulation of virtue! What stability of discipline! The house was enriched in wealth, without; still more in holiness, within. Its name became famous, and the great people of the world reverenced it.