Kirkstall Abbey: A History

Last month, the society had its summer picnic at Kirkstall Abbey in western Leeds. Kirkstall Abbey is a major historical site for the city of Leeds and held an important role in the city’s development from the High Middle Ages onwards.

The abbey’s history begins in the mid-12th century with local Anglo-Norman nobleman Henry de Lacy (died 1177), 4th Baron of Pontefract and 5th Lord of Bowland. In 1147 Henry fell seriously ill. Fearing for his life he prayed to the Virgin Mary offering to give land to the church if she saved his life. As fate would have it he recovered and as promised he offered to donate a portion of his vast estates to Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire for the building of a new daughter abbey. Fountains Abbey, near Ripon, was run by the Cistercian Order, a monastic order of monks and nuns known for their simple life of work, prayer and self-denial and their white robes.

Initially de Lacy gave them land at the village of Barnoldswick (now in Lancashire but then considered part of the West Riding of Yorkshire) with which to found a daughter abbey. Abbot Alexander and twelve monks thus set out from Fountains and set up home in Barnoldswick. However they were not successful there, their crops failed, they were attacked by bandits and worst of all the citizens of Barnoldswick objected to their presence because the Abbot wanted to demolish their parish church because its services disturbed the monks in their prayers.

Unable to stay in Barnoldswick, Abbot Alexander searched for another location and eventually chose a site upon the Aire River valley later known as Kirkstall. At the time Kirkstall was a region of dense forest along the banks of the River Aire inhabited only by a group of hermits. Leeds was but a small market town surrounded by small villages and hamlets, the nearest to Kirkstall being the villages of Headingley, Bramley and Armley. It was chosen because not only was there no permanent settlement at the site to clear but also it had ample supplies of timber (from the surrounding forests) and stone (from nearby Bramley Falls which was a stone quarry).

Thus construction of Kirkstall Abbey began proper in 1152. The construction took around thirty years to finish, with most of the buildings, such as the church and chapterhouse, being finished by 1182. Abbot Alexander proved a good administrator and the monks prospered in their new home and attracted many new members to their brotherhood. They also brought business into Leeds (via their involvement in the wool trade) and helped the local community.

Most of the buildings we see today at the site were constructed around this time. A few additions were made over the centuries after such as the infirmary and the Abbot’s lodgings. The tower of the church is also a later addition. The original was much shorter and modest, as befitting modest men of god, however as the monastery grew increasingly wealthy and powerful later Abbots sought to build a new larger tower to proclaim their prestige and it is this one that you can see today.

Monasteries such as Kirkstall were major components of medieval European society. Their primary purpose was to serve as a religious community dedicated to the constant worship of God and monks of all orders spent much of their daily lives either in prayer or attending church services. This may seem silly or pointless to Humanist eyes today but for medieval peoples the existence of God was unquestionably real, and all were moved by the need to ensure their salvation in death and to keep God’s favour upon the land. Thus the monasteries provided an important function both in praying for people’s souls and for ensuring God continued to bless the land and its people.

Monasteries also provided a pragmatic solution for the problem of second sons. Most nobles wanted to keep their lands together and passed to only one son. However this not being a time with ample contraception they would often have more than one. A solution was to send the second son into the monasteries, thus removing them from the line of inheritance (since monks were forbidden from inheriting titles or estates). Usually said family would also make a monetary donation to the monastery to compensate them. As monasteries grew wealthier and more powerful in the later Middle Ages, noble families would often seek to have some of their progeny in the local monastery so as to give them influence over this powerful local institution.

Another important function of monasteries, including Kirkstall, was their position as centres of learning and education. In a time before schools and universities were common, monasteries provided schooling to all boys whose families could pay, teaching them reading, writing, arithmetic, and scripture at the very least. Some would go on to become monks, particularly if they had been promised to the order by their family but not all. Perhaps most importantly to modern scholarship is that the monasteries were among the few repositories of books and texts in medieval times and many monasteries, including Kirkstall, were involved in copying and storing works both ancient and contemporary, on a wide variety of topics. Not just scriptures either but countless works on medicine, philosophy, science and literature from the ancient world, preserved from the ravages of the dark ages thanks to the monks. Kirkstall Abbey itself had a significant library, though sadly none of the books from that library are known to have survived to modern times.

So treasured were books by the monks that they would often put the needs of the books ahead of those of the monks themselves. For example most monasteries, including Kirkstall, had a Warming House, usually the only place in the monastery where there was a fireplace. Kept lit only during the winter months each monk had an allowance of time inside the Warming House every day however if the books became wet or moist then they would be expelled from the Warming House to make way for the books.

Charity was also a central part of monastic life and monks would offer their medicinal knowledge to the local community where possible, assisting the old and poor of the community in their infirmary or dispensing medicinal herbs from their gardens to the needy. All Cistercian monasteries were required to have a guest house so that visiting travellers or nobles could have a place to rest. In Kirkstall this can be seen as the ruins in the field in front of the abbey. It was always set apart from the main body of the abbey so as not to disturb the activities of the monks but was always open to the weary traveller.

There were two types of monk at Kirkstall Abbey. The Choir Monks who were literate, highly educated for their time and largely drawn from the gentry and nobility. They were the monks we are most familiar with, spending most of their lives either reading, copying manuscripts or in prayer. Then there were the Lay Brothers. They were illiterate and uneducated, largely drawn from peasant stock and for most of the monastery’s history were the more numerous of the two. Both had to follow the same rules of poverty, chastity and devotion to God but the Lay Brothers were largely concerned with manual labour, working the vast agricultural lands owned by the Abbey as well as other menial tasks and only attended church once a day. Although this may seem like a rotten deal for the Lay Brothers its worth pointing out the attractiveness of their life compared to that of other peasants as they were guaranteed a place to live and a meal a day for life, something few outside the nobility could hope for.

Over the centuries Kirkstall Abbey grew larger and wealthier. Although there was a brief period of financial difficulty in the late 1200s, they were bailed out by the descendent of their original benefactor Henry de Lacy and by the 1300s they were one of the wealthiest landowners in all of West Yorkshire, owning farmlands all around the area including at Chapel Allerton, Headingley, Roundhay, Seacroft and even as far away as the Yorkshire Dales. The monks at Kirkstall were particularly involved in the wool trade, one of the main industries of medieval Europe, and one of the reasons Leeds would become a starting point for the Industrial Revolution and textiles industry in particular was the connection of the city to the wool trade established by Kirkstall Abbey (Leeds being the nearest market for its goods).

Most of these lands were acquired as gifts from nobles who sought to guarantee their place in Heaven with a gift to the church. Not all the farms were worked by the monks either, more distant lands were rented to local people to farm on the abbey’s behalf.

Over time however the monasteries all over Europe began to decline as society changed. As more economic opportunities opened up the attractiveness of becoming a monk began to diminish and monasteries began shrink with some having barley a handful of brothers where once were hundreds. Kirkstall Abbey was no different and by the reign of King Henry VIII, there were only a handful of monks remaining including the last Abbot John Ripley. In 1534 Parliament, at the behest of the King, passed the Act of Supremacy. This severed ties with the papacy and proclaimed Henry VIII supreme head of the Church of England, thus beginning the English Reformation.

The subsequent ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’ occurred for a number of reasons; one was that as the most devout Catholics and deeply connected to the Roman Catholic Church organization they would undoubtedly remain loyal to the church in Rome. A second reason was more mercenary, although many were but shells of their former selves, the monasteries still owned vast estates across the land and had vast wealth and riches stored within. All this wealth and land would be Henry’s once he abolished the institutions that owned them.

Thus on 22nd November 1539 the King’s agents arrived at Kirkstall Abbey. They knew it was coming and unlike the violence that blighted some of the take overs in the south, the monks of Kirkstall surrendered peacefully with the last Abbot John Ripley handing over the keys to the Abbey to the King’s agents and signing a deed of surrender formally transferring all the monasteries possessions to the crown. The monks subsequently went their separate ways and, because they had surrendered peacefully, received modest pensions from the state. Abbot John was gifted the old gatehouse of the abbey to turn into his private home, now the Abbey House Museum. In order to ensure the abbey could not be used as a place of worship, the king had the old Leeds Road (now Kirkstall Road) rerouted through the centre of the church, removing its front doors and demolishing the back wall. If you visit the abbey you will notice there are scraping marks up and down the columns of the church caused by wagons travelling through the ruined abbey into Leeds in subsequent centuries.

The land the abbey sits upon was given to one of the king’s allies, the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer in 1542. However it returned to the crown when Cranmer was executed by the Catholic Queen Mary I in 1556 as part of her short lived attempt to restore Catholicism in England. Local nobleman Sir Robert Saville purchased the land from the crown in 1584 and it remained in his family’s hands for almost a century before it passed into the hands of the powerful Brudenell family, the Earls of Cardigan in 1671. During this time much of the stone was removed from the abbey for use in construction projects in Leeds. Indeed stone from the abbey has been found in Leeds Bridge in the city centre.

In the 18th century the abbey’s picturesque grounds attracted artists such as JMW Turner and Thomas Girtin and it became a popular local historical site and parkland. In 1889, the Brudenell family having fallen on hard times, the abbey was sold at auction. It was feared that it would be purchased by wealthy developers who would demolish it to make way for new factories or homes. Fortunately it was purchased by local businessman and investor Colonel John North, known for his investments in gunpowder and rubber. He subsequently donated Kirkstall Abbey and its grounds to Leeds City Council in 1890 on condition that the council maintained entry to the site free of charge, something they have done to this day. Much restoration work was subsequently done to the abbey by Victorian and modern restorers and thanks to their efforts Kirkstall Abbey is one of the best preserved Cistercian abbeys in the country.

If you get a chance I would strongly recommend a visit to the site. It is quite beautiful and though we may struggle to appreciate the religious purpose of the monastery I think we Humanists can at least appreciate the love, devotion and industry put into the running and building of the monastery by the monks who lived and worked there for so many centuries.

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