The Furness Abbey

Maybe you are among the few people, able to place Furness geographically. Most people won't though. Therefore let me begin with the place. Furness is a peninsula in the Northwest of England, south of the Lake District. Today part of Cumbria, earlier it belonged to Lancashire. You will agree, that it isn't exactly the centre of the world. The more amazing it is, that you find a building of this dignity there.
On one hand. On the other hand the area has been important to a lot of peoples, starting with the Romans, defending their empire against enemies in the North (the Picts). Later on the Vikings settled in this area, which easily can be seen in quite some Scandinavian names. Kirkby is Norwegian, still in our days, meaning Churchtown. And - I don't know, if I am right here, but "-ness" would in Scandinavian countries mean "land protruding into the sea", which is a peninsula, after all.

A model of what the Abbey looked like in its heyday

But all of this had happened before there was any abbey. I just wanted to show, that it stands on historical grounds. Today the abbey is situated in the "Vale of Nightshade", between Barrow and Dalton, but that was not its original place.
It all started with Count Stephan. He was Count of Mortain in northern France and had married Anne of Boulogne, so he became Count of Boulogne as well. This implied, that he was quite influentual. As he was a grandson to William the Conqueror, he became King of England in 1135. But already in 1123 he had persuaded some monks from Mortain, of the Order of Savigny, to establish a monestary near Preston. The first abbot was called Ewan d'Avranches - much more isn't known about him. Avranches, also situated in the Normandy, had been a bishops' seat since 511 - apparently a place with many holy men.
The monks settled at Tulketh, but three years later they moved to Furness and the Valley of Bekansgill, by poets called Vale of Nightshade. Like, for instance, Leticia Elizabeth Landon, who in the early 1800's wrote the poem about "Furness Abbey - In the Vale of Nighshade, Lancashire", which two first rows read like this:

I WISH for the days of olden time,
When the hours were told by the abbey chime

About a decade ago, it was noticed that the were cracks in the wall of the presbytery. The first thing was to stable it up.
Now it is tried to strenghthen the ground, as the 500 year old oak stems, on which the building was erected, start to decay.
The history behind that expression goes back to Latin. "Solanum Lethale" (compare lethal) meant "Deadly Nightshade", which later became "Lethel Bekan" and "gill" (of Scottish origin) means a small valley. All of this linguistic background probably goes back to the fact that the Nighshades are plants, many of them poisonous. Belladonna is one of that group, as are the Bittersweet and Black Nightshade. On the other hand, even potatoes and tomatoes are nightshade plants. But they were not known, neither by the Romans, nor by the monks at that time. Still, even today one should not eat green potatoes, as they contain more toxic solanine, than might be good for you. Enough of the background, though.
In 1147 the Order of Savigny was incorporated in the much bigger congregation of the Cistercian Order. The abbot of Furness, Peter of York, did not agree with this fusion, but three years later he resigned and Furness became Cistercian as well.
A word about the Cistercians - the name of their founder is not unimportant. It was St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who rereformed the rules of the Benedictine Order to the harsher, original rules. The highest level of the Cistercians were so called choir monks. They were known for their austerity and had no contact to the outer world. There were lay brothers for keeping in touch with the secular world. Neither of the monks did much physical work. For this, they used simple people, who had converted to Christianity, but were mostly illiterate.

In 2010 this crozier was found in an abbot's grave onsite. A crozier is the staff of an abbot or a bishop. The head, of guilded copper alloy contains a silver disk on either side, showing archangel Michael.
Only eight years after having settled in Furness, there were three new congregations, in Cumbria, in Lincolnshire and on the Isle of Man. The house in Cumbria was attacked by a Scottish raid and the homeless monks wanted to come back to Furness, but were not allowed to do so. The reason might have been a shortage of food, but it was scarcely an act of grace of charity ...
The displaced monks had to find a new home in Yorkshire. All this happened still under the Order of Savigny. But after the unification the new order expanded even more rapidly. Within fifty years only, there were eighthundred new congregations all over Europe.

In the same grave, this ring was found. It was probably made for the abbot personally.
All monasteries of the Cistercians were dedicated to Virgin Mary. So even St. Mary of Furness.
Stephan had become King in the meantime and he granted "his" monastery vast areas of land, so that Furness soon was the main landowner in Low Furness and Furness Fells. From then on the abbey acquisited more and more estate and reached an outstanding independence, which gave the abbot even strong civil influence, comparable to a feudal lord. Because of this, Furness Abbey was able to heap a lot of wealth within its grip. It is supposed, that the abbey had an income of about 800 pound per year, at the time of its dissolution. By then it was second only to the Fountain's Abbey in Yorkshire.
The main income of the abbey was farming, often in previously unused land, as well as sheep farming. The latter gave wool, which mainly was brought to Flanders. But there were also fulling mills (at Marton, Dale Park and Sawrey) and tanneries for the preparation of hides on home ground. Apart from this, there were natural resources in form of iron and coal (north of Dalton) and fishing throughout the area.
But there were not always good times. The 14th century brought raids from Scotland (Robert Bruce), famine and the plague.

The infirmary chapel has its roof left. There you can see a nice example of ribbed vaulting.
Also the war with France took its toll of the economy.
Throughout history there has been an alternation between religious and profane tendency. The 12th and 13th century had been deeply religious (the founding of Orders, the expansion of the monasteries), but now the pendulum started turning. The 15th and not at least the 16th century were utterly secularised. In Italy the Renaissance started and universities were built, which influenced scientific thinking. Finally the English Reformation, Martin Luther and other reformers, diminuished the influence of the church.
Even the monasteries felt this tidewave. In the fifteenth century the number of monks diminuished. Pope Sextus IV allowed the Cistercians to eat meat three times a week, at the end of the fifteenth century, in order to make life easier, to make people stay in the monasteries.
No wonder, that the English Reformation meant the end of Furness Abbey as a cloister. The last abbot was Roger Pyle.

Furness Abbey is mainly built of local red sandstone. This material gets very weathered, therefore there is not much left of medieval carving.
He preferred to hand over the abbey and its possessions to the King, rather than facing a trial for treason. The paper was signed on April 9th, 1537 by the abbot, the prior and twenty-eight monks.
In June that same year, a certain Robert Southwell came, together with three other Comissioners, to "take care" of the estate. He didn't do that very tenderly. In a letter to Thomas Cromwell, who was sort of Prime Minister, Southwell wrote, that they had pulled the lead from the roofs, broken the tracery of the windows and dismantled the building. It didn't bother them, that some of the monks still were living there.
What a shame, by the way. Even if the monastery was to be closed, it was not necessary to ruin all the buildings. They could have been used in some other way.

There were a lot of buildings apart from the church and the cloister, like undercrofts for storing, guest houses, latrines and much more. Today remain only the outlines of the buildings.
In our days we get upset, if we hear that cultural assets are broken in a zone of war, as in the Iraq or Syria, but we forget, that we have done the same, during all of our history.
The site was leased to some Thomas Curven, who gave it to John Preston afterwards. The Preston family held the site for a couple of generations and in 1671 there was a notice about a "stately new house" on the grounds. Later, other families, more or less interested, came to be in charge of the site, which eventually led to its decline. According to William Wordsworth's writings, the abbey became a tourist attraction in the early nineteenth century. This became even more pronounced, when the Furness railway was built in 1847, which was expanded to Ulverston and Lancaster a decade later. The manor house was sold to the railway company, which remodeled it into the "Furness Abbey Hotel". Around the turn into the twentieth century, excavations took place in a more organised way and in 1923 the state bought the ruins of Lord Richard Cavendish. A general tidying up followed. In 1941 the hotel was hit by a bomb and in 1953 it was demolished. As I have heard from a first hand source, the site and the ruins were used by children as a thrilling playground, as it was said, that it was infested by ghosts.

A part of the old watercourse

In 1982 the car park and the museum were opened in the place of the old hotel. This is, where you enter the site today. Residents have free entry, by the way, which is a very nice idea.
On entering, your first sight will be from the outer court of the abbey. This far, and into the church, visitors were allowed. In front there are the remains of a guest house. The main view will be onto the church, stretching from left, where the presbytery is stabled up, until the western tower to the right. This part was the nave, the longest part in the cross-formed church. In the northern transept is the entry. The church itself was begun in the twelfth century, but has been altered many times later.

The view of the abbey, seen from the entry.
While the long part of the church is called the nave (or naves, if there are side-aisles), the arms of the cross is formed by the transepts on either side of the nave. The center, where the nave and the transepts meet, is, logically enough, called "the crossing".
The first church, built in the twelfth century by the monks, while they still belonged to the Order of Savigny, was in classical Romanesque style, whereas the newer parts already show signs of early Gothic style. The transepts consist almost entirely of the original walls from the twelfth century. The church was remodelled once again in the fifteenth century, when most windows were enlarged, to give an example.
The church forms the northern end of a rough rectangle, consisting of the cloisterbuildings behind and the infermary hall in the southern end of it.
The gate was built in the fourteenth century and leads to the monastery's graveyard. The graveyard is close to the presbytery in the head of the church, where the altar was to be found. The monks wanted to be buried as close as possible to the altar, the holiest place in the monastery.

The arched gate divides the outer from the inner court, where the graveyard was situated.
In the walls of the northern transept you can find the "new" Gothic style, when the bottom floor windows were enlarged. You see here that the windows have pointed arches, whereas the openings one storey above, in what once was the triforium, look Romanesque, which means, that the arches are rounded. A triforium is a shallow arched gallery, opening into the inner church, mostly without windows on the outside. It is possible, that the origin of the word comes from "thoroughfarum", meaning passage or gangway. On the other hand, there are "false" triforia, which have no passage behind the arches. The triforium was mainly built in later Romanesque or early Gothic churches. Above the triforium, there is another storey, called clerestory.
The northern transept had to be steadied already in the 1920's, because it was sinking due to bad foundations. It was not before this time it was noticed, that the building stood on oak piles.
Behind every one of the three windows was a chapel, of which there are only traces left today. You must observe, that it is the inner wall of the transept, that we see on the photo, there is not much left of the outer wall.

The northern transept, where you find the entry to the church.
Above the crossing, there was the central tower, which had become unstable already in the fifteenth century, so that there were measures taken, to stable it up. Today there remains almost nothing. Only the eastern arch is left, which once supported the tower.
Turning left, you see the inner part of the presbytery, where the high altar stood. This part was altered twice, first at the rebuilding in Gothic style and a second time in the fifteenth century. Still, the lower part of the sidewalls are a survival of the oldest church.
We turn back and look into the southern transept. In the south wall, there is a doorway, but quite a bit higher than the churchlevel. There were stairs, which the monks used at nighttime, when they came for late (or very early) services.

View at the southern transept and to the left the wall of the Chapter House.
There was another door, further down the nave, where the lay brothers could enter for night services. In spite of being brothers of the same order and living purest christianity, there was quite some difference between the monks and the lay brothers. Even the nave was parted by two screens, the first close to the crossing, dividing the monks choir from the rest of the nave. The second, called the rood screen, split off another part of the nave, good for nothing, and then, finally there was the choir for the lay brothers, as far as possible from the "real" monks. That is, what I call real altruism - "thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" ...
But back to the tower. It was first in the fifteenth century, when tower building was very trendy, that the western tower was raised. This happened mainly, because it was impossible to heighten the central tower, as it already was crumbling. The remains today are short of twenty meters, but the tower in its full height was well above fifty meters.
Now the entrance was moved to the western part and because of the difference in ground level, there was an internal staircase built.
Grace of charity or not, the remains of the church are a memory of what man has been able to build almost a thousand years ago, without our modern tools and machines. And - thinking of that - it is awe inspiring.

At the end of the nave you can still see the impressive remains of the West Tower.
The cloister was connected to the church on the southern side. What remains today gives but a poor picture of what it looked like in medieval times. What can be seen today is the center part of the cloister with storage rooms, the outer parlour and the dormitories of the monks. They were divided into single bays. The lay brothers had their dormitories on the upper floor - and there is nothing said about any bay ...

The western side of the cloister, up to the remaining nave of the church.
But the cloister consisted of many more buildings, flanking the central part. Today their outlines are marked by the remnants of old walls, or even only stones, laid into the ground, where the buildings had stood. The entire cloister formed an enclosed rectangle, which made it impossible to get a view of the outside. Within the courts, there were covered alleys on both sides, arcades giving free sight onto the gardens.
The eastern side consisted mainly of the monks' dayrooms and the library as well as the Chapter House connected to it. The latter replaced the old Savignac building entirely. You can notice the new style in the form of the windows and the false arcades, as well as in the port. This was the meetingplace for the monks, where they confessed their sins and received punishment for them. It was called chapter house, because every day somebody read a chapter from the Rule of St. Benedict.
On the east side there was also the entrance to the inner parlour, the only room, where the monks were allowed to speak. Then followed the day room, which stretched all the way to the southern side of the building.

The interior of the chapter house
South of the main cloister there are more interesting buildings. The abbot's lodging, close to the cliff - actually it was partly cut into the cliff, when it was enlarged. There was also the old infirmary hall. The new infirmary hall was built late in the thirteenth century. Monks, to sick to compart the daily life, were living there.
As the infirmary hall lies within the inner court, we can suppose, that it was for sick monks only. There were guesthouses on the outer court. But there were many abbeys, which had a "hospital", both for the sick and for passers-by in need of accomodation. The word "hospital" is, by the way, the origin of our "hospitality".
Close to the infirmary hall there was a servery and a kitchen, so that the sick didn't need to move far. Of the kitchen is nothing left, apart from the very base of the building, which shows the eight sided polygon, that formed it. There is also the infirmary chapel, so that the sick could keep in close contact with their God. Above the chapel was the room for the infirmerer, which could be reached over a staircase from the servery.

Through the hole in the southern wall, you see the infermary chapel and behind it the servery.
It is, of course, impossible, to give a full description of the abbey within this article. I hope, that I could give you a little background to England's second largest Cistercian abbey. If you, by chance, live in, or come to Barrow or Dalton, you should not miss a visit there. At the ticket counter they have a booklet to guide you round the buildings and the area. It is worth its price. Take it with you and follow its directions to get most out of your time there.

Copyright Bernhard Kauntz, Västerås 2018

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last update: 15.8.2018 by