Fountains Abbey/Chapter 2

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The goodness of the brethren made a deep impression upon the community. Turbulent and cruel as were the times, there was, nevertheless, some attention paid to the voice of conscience. It is true that this voice commonly made itself heard after the event, and served rather to reproach men than to deter them; but it did speak, and men listened. The deeds which they did were incredibly bad, but after they had done them, and the fierce heat of passion had died down, they were both sorry and afraid. Then they remembered that "the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much." Doubting the value of their own prayers, they looked about for righteous men to make intercession for them. God sat on His throne, like the king, and had His court about Him, part of angels, part of saints in glory, and part of holy persons still in the flesh. The sinner's hope of success in his petition lay in the securing of the kindly offices of some of these influential courtiers. And these were to be found most readily on earth in monasteries. Accordingly, these companies of praying men seemed, even to the sinners of the neighbourhood, to be engaged in an important and essential business. If the sinner had money enough, he engaged a group of them to pray for him in particular. He built a monastery, and established them in it for that necessary purpose.

Thus Ralph de Merlay, chancing on his travels to spend a day at the Abbey, and there beholding the pious conversation of the brethren, made up his mind, from what he saw, that these were the kind of men to have influence with God; and being in need of friends at that court, he asked the abbot to let him have some of them, pro redemptione animae suae. This was the first colony which went out from Fountains. The year was 1137. The knight took the monks into his castle at Morpeth, in whose neighbourhood he presently built them a monastery, which they called Newminster. The abbot of this new brotherhood was the Robert who had come from Whitby to take the place of the inconstant Gervase after the flight from York: a good man, modest in his bearing, gentle in his conversation, bearing rule with mercy, and at last enrolled in the honourable list of the saints. The abbey, like the mother house, was built beside a little river; and its three daughters, Pipewell, Sawley and Roche, sat likewise, in the true Cistercian manner, on the banks of narrow streams.

In the next year another nobleman, Hugh of Tatshall, in Lincolnshire, resolved to establish a Cistercian house, and sent to Abbot Richard for advice and monks from Fountains, and founded Kirkstead Abbey on the river Witham. At the same time the Bishop of Lincoln asked the abbot for more men—the two companies of colonists leaving Fountains on the same day—and settled them, after some wandering, at Louth Park. Their abbot was the Geoffrey who forsook his companions at the bishop's, and went back to St. Mary's, to return in deep penitence; who was thus assured of their entire confidence in him.

In 1145, Hugh de Bolebec, for the redeeming of his sins, begged for the services of the brethren of Fountains, and an abbey was built at Woburn.

In 1146, the Bishop of Bergen came to Fountains, and his heart was set on having a Cistercian house in Norway. Thirteen brethren were found to brave the sea and the unknown land. Thus was erected the monastery of Lisa-Kloster, the abbey of the valley of light. One of the Ralphs of the original settlement was the abbot. In the library of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, is a manuscript life of St. Olaf, which was once among the books of Fountains. It is bound with other manuscripts in the skin of a seal. Ralph came back after many laborious years to spend his last days in the mother house. He may have brought with him this memento of the Norway mission. It is pleasantly told of him in the narrative that he used to sleep a good deal in his old age, and that the Lord sent a prompting angel to awake him when he slept too long—si sompno, forsitan, per noctes diutius indulgeret, cum excitaret.

The next year, 1147, saw three colonies go out from Fountains. Henry de Lacy, of Pontefract Castle, having meditated upon his misdeeds during a long illness, vowed that he would build a Cistercian house to the honour of the Virgin


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Photo watson
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Fountains Abbey
The East End


Mary. Its tenants were Fountains men, under the abbacy of Alexander, another of the founders. They had many troubles, some on account of the climate, some on account of their neighbours. Serlo, our narrator, was one of them, and might have made his story longer had he chose. It is from another record that we learn that Alexander objected to the nearness of the parish church, whose services distracted the attention of his monks, and for the sake of peace and quiet pulled the building down in spite of the parishioners. The parish appealed to the Archbishop of York, then to the Pope, but the monks prevailed in both courts. The neighbourhood, however, was naturally hostile thereafter, and presently the abbot found a more convenient situation, where they built Kirkstall Abbey.

Five days after the departure of these brothers from the gates of Fountains, another company went, at the petition of the Earl of Albemarle, to found the abbey of Vaudey, the house of the valley of God. The monk Adam, who had been architect of the buildings at Kirkstall and Woburn, and was now in charge of the monks at Vaudey, found that the Earl of Albemarle was disposed to do yet more. He had once vowed, for his sins, to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and had never gone, and now was old and fat and could not go. This, as Adam faithfully reminded him, was a serious matter; but it could be made right. If the earl would build another abbey, Adam promised that his Order would persuade the Pope to take that good work as an equivalent. The promise was performed, through the kindly offices of St. Bernard, and the earl told Adam to choose a suitable site. The monk, accordingly, looked about this way and that in Holderness, where the earl's lands lay. It was the country which the Conqueror had bestowed upon Odo, his brother-in-law. The son of Odo, the earl's father, had complained of its sterility, saying that it gave him only oaten bread to eat. But presently at Meaux, some four miles east of Beverley, Adam came upon a fair hill, which by prophetic coincidence had been named St. Mary's Mount. Woods were growing all about, with open lands which promised good harvests, and streams running through them. There he thrust his staff into the ground, and cried, "Verily, this place shall be called the house of the heavenly King." And there the monastery was built, in spite of the reluctance of the earl, who had already selected the place for a park. The first abbot was the enterprising Adam. This was in 1150.

Thus within a space of less than twenty years, St. Mary of Fountains had become the mother of eight fair daughters. Meanwhile, the Cistercian Order had been growing at some such rate as this in many other places: too fast and too far, they feared at Clairvaux. In 1152, the General Chapter discouraged the founding of new monasteries. After that, no more colonies went out from Fountains.



Meanwhile, the thatched hut about the elm had given place to a group of noble buildings.

A Cistercian monastery consisted of certain invariable structures arranged according to a prescribed plan. St. Stephen's Abbey of Citeaux, St. Bernard's Abbey of Clairvaux, determined all other abbeys of the order. At the heart of the abbey was the cloister, an open square of green, on whose four sides stood the essential monastic houses. On the north was the church; on the east was the chapter-house, with a book-room on one side and a parlour on the other, and the dormitory in the second storey over all; on the south was the refectory, with the warming-room on one side, and the kitchen on the other; on the west was the store-house, having over it the dormitory of the lay brethren. Outside of this cloister group, wherever it was most convenient, stood an infirmary, and a guest-house, and whatever barns and mills and workshops were needed for the maintenance of the conventual life.

During the administration of the first two abbots—Richard (1132–1139), who had been the prior at York, and Richard (1139–1143), who had been the sacrist—these buildings were erected, part of wood and part of stone. The architect was Geoffrey of Clairvaux, whom St. Bernard had sent to instruct the monks at their entrance into the Order. The stone came from the steep banks of the valley. The labourers were the monks themselves, assisted by their neighbours, some of whom were hired, while others gave their day's work as an investment in the securities of heaven. It is interesting to find that the little company of poor monks, rich in faith, laid out the foundations of their church upon the great lines on which it stands to-day. Other generations built the chapel of the nine altars and raised the noble tower, but the vast nave with its transepts was both planned and completed by the men who began the monastery. These large proportions did not necessarily mean that they expected a great number of monks to say their prayers within these wide walls. They were not adjusting the building, after our manner, to the size of the congregation. They were intent upon the glory of God. The church was to be an evidence of their conception of the dignity, the strength, and the splendour of the Christian religion.

First, they built the chancel, which was pulled down in the next century and built over again larger and finer. There they probably held their services while the masons and the carpenters were busy with the other work. Then they built the transepts, and the south wall of the nave as high as the sills of the windows; then the lower courses of the west wall. After that, they finished the south wall, because that was on the cloister side; and built its great bays. Then, the north wall, and the rest; roofing it all in. Mr. St. John Hope is of the opinion that the church, passing through these various stages, and waiting at intervals for additions to the building fund, was quite completed before 1147. The west wall of the cloister belongs to the same period.

Meanwhile, in the midst of all this building, Abbot Richard was called away to Rome. Bishop Alberic of Ostia, making a visitation of the country as papal legate, and meeting Richard, was so impressed by the abbot's piety and sense that he made up his mind that the Pope had need of him. So he took him away from Fountains—whether for a temporary or a permanent absence is uncertain—and brought him down to the Papal Court. There, however, the good man fell ill of a fever, and presently died. This was in 1139.

Richard, the sacrist, who succeeded him, was a man of great humility. He had been chosen, the narrative informs us, by the advice of St. Bernard, by the unanimous voice of the convent, and under the invocation of the Holy Ghost; but still he held back, diffident and honestly reluctant, from the honours of the abbacy—Homo simplex et timens Deum, et totius religionis ardentissimus emulator. Three times he went to Clairvaux hoping to be released, and finally St. Bernard heard him; but when he returned with this permission to retire, the whole assembly of the brethren rose up with such grief and remonstrance that he consented to continue. He died, however, at Clairvaux, where he was attending a meeting of the General Chapter, and was there buried by St. Bernard, in 1143.

Bernard nominated as Richard's successor a Yorkshireman who had for some years been abbot of Vauclair, and he was elected by the brethren. Henry Murdac was a strict disciplinarian. He proceeded at once to destroy such tares as he discovered in the field of the Lord. The second Richard had always insisted that he had no ability or even wish to play the part of Martha. It is likely that under his gentle rule some of the brethren demonstrated the fact that a change of names is not necessarily a change of natures. The Benedictine abbey of St. Mary of York had been forsaken for the Cistercian abbey of St. Mary of Fountains, but the new resolutions had not driven out of all minds a secret preference for a modicum of comfort. So Henry found occasion to amend the monastic ways. He was a great abbot—magnifice administravit. He added to the possessions of the house, and carried on the construction of the buildings.

Unhappily, Henry became deeply involved in the ecclesiastical politics of the time. The good Turstin, the benefactor of the Abbey, had been succeeded at York by William, who was accused of having obtained his preferment by bribery. William had cleared himself of this charge before a competent council, and had been consecrated archbishop by the direction of the Pope. But he had not received the pall when the Pope died, and Eugenius, a pupil of St. Bernard, became Pope in his stead. Bernard believed in the guilt of William. He prevented the new Pope from investing him with the pall. Bernard's representative in England was the Abbot of Fountains, who had already made a journey to Rome to protest against William's appointment. When, therefore, this ill news came to the archbishop's friends in Yorkshire, and they looked about for somebody on whom to visit their indignation, Henry Murdac seemed the person most eligible to that distinction. So they set out, a considerable company of them, well armed, and made their way with clamor of voices into the secluded valley, and forced the monastery gates and sacked the place. Much they broke, some they plundered, and the rest they set on fire. There it blazed, then, that great work, built, as they said, in the sweat of their own brows—in suo sudore constructa. The church, however, escaped great injury. Indeed, the abbot himself, who was lying prostrate at the foot of the altar, was not discovered, being protected by the hand of God. It is likely that the buildings which were thus destroyed were temporary structures, for the most part, made of wood. Whatever damage was done was speedily repaired. The neighbours came in—de vicinia viri fideles—and the reconstruction was undertaken with such zeal that the new was better than the old. Then the chapter-house was built, and the dormitory over it down to the river, and the guest-house by the bridge. To this time belong also the north walls of the malthouse and the bakehouse. The fire took place in 1146 or 1147.

This violence was much more disastrous to the archbishop than to the abbot, for the Pope deposed William and confirmed Henry, who was elected in his place. Thus the monastery lost its third abbot.

It is interesting to remember that William was vindicated after all. When Henry died, in 1153, a friendly Pope restored the deposed archbishop to his place. One of William's first acts on entering his diocese was to visit Fountains, to express his contrition for the harm which his friends, without his knowledge, had committed, and to promise proper compensation. When he died, he was enrolled among the saints, and the Abbot of Fountains was one of the judges who decided that he was worthy to be canonised.

This was Abbot Richard, who had two predecessors with brief terms, Maurice and Thorold. Richard had a long and troubled rule. Our ancient enemy, the devil, disquieted by the peace of the holy house, tempted the brethren, who behaved so proudly towards the abbot that he had to expel some of them. After that, the Lord blessed him abundantly. So he died, in 1170, and was buried in the new chapter-house, the first of nineteen abbots who were to lie there under the monks' feet.

Robert of Pipewell was the next abbot. He was a strenuous person—strenue administravit, says the narrative; and again, multa strenue gessit in administratione sua. He is praised for many virtues, and among others for his zeal for building, but the particular additions which he made are not named. He beautified the church, and erected sumptuous buildings, probably the southern range of the cloister—the refectory side—and the western guest-house. The northern part of the west wall of the cellarium appears to have been made about this time.

William of Newminster (1179–1190) and Ralph Haget of Kirkstall (1190–1203) carried on the Abbey into the thirteenth century; but without any notable, or, at least, discernible, erection of buildings.

With William's administration, old Serlo's narrative stops. He praises William, but says that he may perhaps (forsitan) have been just a shade too strict. The acts of Ralph are described by Hugh of Kirkstall, who has written up to this point at Serlo's dictation. Here, says Hugh, the old man made an end of speaking. You yourself, says Serlo, know well what to say about the holy Abbot Ralph.

Hugh had become a monk while Ralph was Abbot of Kirkstall, and had lived under his rule for seven years. Happy would he have been, he says, could he have continued in that blessed state. Yet those were troubled years at Kirkstall—adversa foras pugnas, intus timores, domesticorum insidias, rei familiaris inopiam, bonorum distractionem. Everything went wrong; without were fightings, within were fears. There was famine, and spoiling of goods, and misconduct of bad brethren. And Abbot Ralph made but an ineffectual effort to cope with these distresses. He was no strenuous administrator. He was busy dreaming dreams, and seeing visions. Once, he told Hugh, he even had a revelation of the Blessed Trinity, in which he distinctly saw three Persons—intribus personis apparentem! But these celestial sights seem not to have made his terrestrial way plain. Nevertheless, on thedeath of William he was made Abbot of Fountains; and, curiously enough, he seems to have done fairly well in this larger place. He enforced the rule, both in the mother house and in the dependent monasteries. He was particularly kind to the poor, who, on the occasion of a famine and a fever, flocked to the Abbey gates and were lodged there by the abbot in huts made of branches of the neighbouring trees, where physicians and priests ministered unto them.

Three Johns ruled Fountains during the first half of the thirteenth century, and substantially completed the fabric of the Abbey. John of York (1203–1211), like his predecessor Ralph, had been a novice at Fountains, and had passed thence to the abbacy of a daughter house. He was recalled to the Abbey from Louth Park. John was a good man, of whom but one complaint has found its way into the chronicle: some envious persons said that he desired to be a bishop. This aspersion, however, seems to have been due chiefly to his unusual grace of manner, and to his large and liberal administration. Bred, though he was, in the monastery, and getting absolutely


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J.M.W. Turner, H. A. portrait
Art Repro Cọ

Fountains Abbey
From a drawing in the possession of J. E. Taylor, Esq.


nothing—as the chronicler assures us—from his native place but his name, he appears nevertheless to have been acquainted with the world. He was a hospitable person—Dapsilis in mensa, communis in victu—and excelled in magnificence all who had preceded him. The King of England, at that moment, was of the same name as the abbot; whom, however, he resembled in no other particular. King John perceived the great wealth of the religious houses, especially of the Cistercians, and began to lay hold of it with a rapacious hand. But Abbot John, partly by courtly manners, partly by his prudent use of the Abbey's money, won the King's favour, and was thereby enabled to aid other houses in distress.

It may have been this general danger, and the comparative immunity of Fountains in the midst of it, which at this time greatly increased the monastic household. There were now so many brethren that the choir was too small for them, and there were not altars enough. Abbot John, accordingly, conceived the idea of rebuilding and vastly enlarging the east end of the church. To him is commonly ascribed the plan of the new chancel, and of the chapel of the nine altars. He had already laid the foundations of these splendid structures, to the amazement of his contemporaries, and had raised certain columns, when in the midst of his work he died—feliciter migravit ad Dominum.

The second John (1211–1220) took up the great task and carried it forward. The chronicle has now come to an end, and we know nothing from its pleasant pages about this John or his successors. There is, however, a letter in existence which was written to him nine days after Magna Charta, by King John himself, in which the king directs that certain treasures hidden by him for safe keeping at the Abbey—vasa, pocalia, aureaet argenta—be now immediately and privately sent back. King John, in anticipation of trouble, had trusted the monks of Fountains. Now, expecting peace, he takes his valuables into his own house. Abbot John soon came into relation with the other great actor in the Magna Charta matter, for in 1220 he was made bishop by Stephen Langton. Thus he removed from Fountains to Ely, where he died five years after, and was buried in the choir of his cathedral, wearing his episcopal ring, clad in his robes, and having beside him his stout pastoral staff.

John of Kent (1220–1247) succeeded John of Ely. He splendidly completed (gloriose consummavit) the great beginnings of his predecessors. The chapel of the nine altars and the great infirmary were finished in his time. So were the new choir, and a reconstruction of the cloister, and a guest-house—or the improvement of the existing guest-houses—and a new paving of the church floor in tiles of a geometrical design. This abbot built also the bakehouse, and the bridge. Leland,in 1541, speaks of many shafts of black marble in the chapel of the nine altars, in the chapter-house and in the refectory; and Mr Walbran traces the stone to the Abbey lands at the upper end of Nidderdale, and to the hand of a prosperous stone-worker of that neighbourhood, Thomas Marmorius de Sallay.

Thus the completed Abbey stood in splendour, the work of a whole century: part of it done while Henry and Stephen and Henry Plantagenet were ruling England, while Becket was Archbishop of Canterbury; part of it done in the reigns of John and the third Henry, in the time of Stephen Langton.