Fountains Abbey/Chapter 4

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For two hundred and fifty years—from the time of Abbot John of Kent, whose day ended in 1247, to the time of Abbot John, called Darnton, whose day began in 1479—no notable additions were made to the fabric of the Abbey. The energies of the brethren were directed to the diligent living of their daily life.

In Craven, the Abbey owned a hundred square miles within a ring fence; in the neighbourhood of Ripon, their lands ran in one direction for thirty uninterrupted miles. The monks of the daughter house of Kirkstead had farms in Lincolnshire, forty thousand acres of pasture land in Wildmore Fen, and property in Boston, Lincoln and London. They had tithes of the deer in Kirkstead Chase and the swans on Witham river. They sold wool in Flanders. They maintained several large mills and an iron works. And Fountains was much richer than Kirkstead. These possessions brought heavy responsibilities, and made a great demand on the monks' time. There were tenants and title-deeds to be looked after, collections to be made, markets to be considered, with buying and selling, and the care of sheep and cattle.

In addition to these cares, the abbot was the official visitor of eleven other abbeys—the eight daughter houses, with three which had grown out of the first—and went about among them on journeys of inspection and encouragement and counsel. Also, as late as the fourteenth century, he had a seat in Parliament, where he wore his mitre and discussed the affairs of the wide world. Early in the fifteenth century he attended the Council of Constance, where he heard Wyclif condemned and saw Hus burned. Late in the same century, when Henry VII., the last of the mediæval kings, kept St. George's Day in state at York, it was the Abbot of Fountains who read the epistle at high mass in the Minster.

This abbot was John Darnton, who resumed again the old enthusiasm for making the Abbey beautiful. He put new windows in the place of the plain old ones, in the west end of the nave, and in the chapel of the nine altars, east and north and south. After him, on the very eve of the Suppression, looking forward to centuries more of prosperity and peace, Abbot Marmaduke Huby built the noble tower.

About this time the Abbey bought a map—"a paper map of the world"—for which the bursar paid eight pence. There it hung upon the parlour wall, that all the monks might see what sort of place they lived in—a small world, whose centre was at the altar of St. Peter's Church in Rome. But while the new glass was being put in the big new windows the tidings came that a new world had been found across the sea; and to this expansion it soon became necessary to readjust the horizons both of maps and of ideas. In the process of this readjustment the Abbey came to an end.

When the Reformation began, the abbeys were all against it. To the men of the cloister, living by rule and wonted to silence, the bold ideas of the robust prophets of the new time had a harsh and forbidding sound. Rumours of the current sayings and doings found their way into the Abbey—the farmer made report to the cellarer when he brought in his beets and onions—and the brethren shuddered to hear them, as men shake and shiver upon whom the cold wind blows around the corner after a day spent by the warm fire. In the ening contention between the old learning and the new the monks held with the past.

Thus it was also in the increasingly embittered politics of the time. At Jervaulx Abbey, on a July Sunday in 1536, a monk sharply interrupted the preacher who was maintaining that the king was the head of the Church. The monk said that he neither would nor could take the king's highness for to be the only and supreme head of the Church of England. He affirmed that the Pope was the head of the Church, and not the king. And his brethren agreed with him. That was what they held at Fountains. On one side were the king and the bishops, on the other side were the Pope and the monks. The contrast between abbey and cathedral—between the monks' church and the bishops' church,—is of like significance with the contrast between the castles of Kenilworth and Warwick. The two castles took ent sides in a great national division; and Kenilworth, which chose the side of Charles, and lost, is a battered ruin, while Warwick, which chose the side of Cromwell, and won, is a stately inhabited mansion. The abbey and the cathedral made their choice in an earlier division. It needs but a glance to tell which chose the side that was defeated.

Fountains, like the other monasteries, was ill prepared for the heavy storm. The convent had decreased in numbers. One of the fire-places in the warming-house, one of the ovens in the refectory kitchen, had been blocked up as being no longer needed. The partitions down the rows of pillars in the nave had been removed, for there were no lay brothers to sit in the long lines of stalls. Men were asking menacing questions as to the practical value of these vast establishments which were withdrawing from the general life of the nation so much wealth and strength. Parliament pressed nearly four hundred of the lesser monasteries, partly on the ground that they were places of evil living, partly on the ground that their revenues were needed for the better benefit of the people; and there were few complaints. Though the greater abbeys were expressly exempted at that time from the accusations of immoral conduct, even they could not escape the charge of rendering but a scanty and uncertain service to the community.

It was the misfortune of Fountains, at this critical time, to have an incompetent and unworthy abbot; though even a saint could not have saved the place from the hand of the spoiler. In 1530, the Karl of Northumberland appealed to Cardinal Wolsey, in behalf of the brethren of Fountains, to remove the abbot. Abbot Thirsk, he said, doth not endeavour himself like a discreet father towards the convent and the profit of the house, but hath, against the same, as well sold and wasted the great part or all of their store in cattle, as also their woods in divers countries, neither does he maintain the service of God like to the ancient custom there. The King's commissioners, Layton and Legh, said worse things about him. They declared that he was defamed a toto populo. They complained that there was no truth in him, one day denying and the next confessing various sins laid to his charge. They were especially indignant because one night he took secretly out of the sacristy or treasure room a gold cross adorned with stones, and in company with a jeweller, who had come from London, whom he took into his lodgings, did abstract from the cross an emerald and a ruby, which the London jeweller bought of him, cheating the abbot badly. It is plain that the poor man was at his wit's end, sorely badgered by these insistent visitors, seeing the ruin of his holy house, and trying, if possible, to save something out of it. Finally, he resigned his office into the hands of the commissioners, who assigned him a scanty pension. He took refuge in the Abbey of Jervaulx, where he became involved in the revolutionary proceedings of the Pilgrimage of Grace, and atoned for such misdeeds as he may have committed by being hanged at Tyburn.

Abbot Thirsk's successor, Marmaduke Bradley, was selected by the commissioners. They said that he was the wisest monk in England; and he showed that he was even as wise, as the Bible says, as a serpent, by doing what his masters bade him. In 1539, at their demand, he surrendered the Abbey to the King.

The commissioners came down from London, late in the November of that year, and called a meeting, probably in the chapter house. There they assembled the abbot and the convent and the chief people of the neighbourhood, to whom they duly declared "the godly determination of the King's majesty to alter and change that house, with many others, from an unchristian life to a trade of virtuous and honest living." The thirty-two brethren were promised proper pensions. They were accordingly advised "to submit themselves to his Majesty's clemency and goodness, and by way of surrender to yield up into his Grace's hands their monastery, with all the lands, possessions, jewels, plate, ornaments, and other things belonging to the same." The commissioners then took possession of the convent seal, with all the keys, and made an inventory. Thus politely, and even piously, was this royal robbery effected.

The abbot betook himself to Ripon, where he held a prebendal stall. The prior and his thirty brethren were turned briskly out of doors to face the approaching winter. Despoiled of their own garments they were given suits of citizen's clothes, and were set outside the gates of their fair paradise to make their way, as best they could, over the strange roads of the cold world.

The gold and silver of the rich altars, with all things of value such as could be moved, were put in waggons and sent to the king. Distant though the Abbey was from any town, the rumour of these proceedings would attract a crowd. And the crowd stole what they could. The servants of the commissioners, who had a better chance, stole more, according to their opportunity. They rode about in those days, from the wreck of one abbey to the ruin of another, with rich copes for travelling cloaks and chasubles for saddle cloths. The master thief was abroad, and it was a pity if the little thieves could not have a share.

Then the windows were taken out, so carefully that but a handful of the precious glass remained in all the ruins, and were disposed of, nobody knows how or where. The bells were taken down and carried off; one to be hung, tradition says, in the cathedral tower at Ripon. Finally, the roofs were pulled off, and the lead brought into the dismantled church; and there between the great pillars, betwixt the broken altars of St. Mary and St. Bernard, in a fire whose fuel was the carved work of the choir stalls, it was melted into convenient shape for the market.

An eye-witness has left a description of the spoiling of the dependent house of Roche Abbey. "The sudden spoil fell," he says, "the same day of their departure from the house. . . .The church was the first thing that was put to the spoil, then the abbot's lodging, dorter and frater [i.e., dormitory and refectory] with the cloister and all the buildings thereabout within the abbey walls. . . . The persons that cast the lead into fodders plucked up all the seats in the choir where the monks sat when they said


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Fountains Hall


service, which were like to seats in minsters, and burned them and melted the lead therewith, although there was wood plenty within a flight-shot of them, for the abbey stood among the woods." Everybody was busy, he says, pilfering what he could and hiding it among the rocks, "so that it seemeth that every person bent himself to filch and spoil what he could." At Fountains, the ashes of such fires remained until the last century, amidst the general wreck.

The place was sold within a few months to Richard Gresham, a gentleman of London, who paid seven thousand pounds for it. In 1597, the heirs of Gresham sold it to Stephen Procter, a courtier of Elizabeth, who pulled down some of the buildings outside the cloister that he might get materials for his fine new Fountains Hall, near the west gate. His affairs falling into great confusion the place was again sold, and thereafter passed from hand to hand until, in the middle of the eighteenth century, it came into the possession of William Aislabie, the owner of the neighbouring estate of Studley Royal. From whose granddaughter, Miss Lawrence, it passed by will to the Earl de Grey, the uncle of the present owner, the Marquess of Ripon.


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