Furness Abbey is a well known Lancashire monastery, but now sits within the modern county of Cumbria. Located in the evocatively named Vale of Nightshade, it is one of the most substantial abbey ruins in the whole of Britain.
Monks from the Savignaic order were invited from France to set up an abbey in England by Stephen, Count of Boulogne and Mortain. He held substantial amounts of land in Lancashire and later became king of England. The first site he gave them was at Tulketh near Preston. However, this location proved unsuitable and so, after three years, Stephen moved them north to Furness.
The 1127 foundation charter of Furness Abbey stated “Considering every day the uncertainty of life, that roses and flowers of kings, emperors and dukes, and the crowns and palms of all the great wither and decay: and that all things, with an uninterrupted course, tend to dissolution and death”.
The new site was close to the small town of Dalton. There were routes across the estuaries of the River Kent and the River Leven at low tide. Close by was Walney Island which gave access by boat to the Isle of Man and Ireland. Stephen endowed the monks with a large amount of land on the peninsula, making them the most powerful landowners in the area.
Twenty years later, the Savignaic order merged with the much larger Cistercian one. The abbot of Furness, Peter of York, was opposed to this, but his resignation three years later meant he could be replaced by an abbot from Savigny.
Furness Abbey went on to become the second richest Cistercian monastery in England, with only Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire being larger. It owned many profitable sheep farms (known as granges) and these were overseen by the lay brothers. In the first hundred years of existence the abbey brought into cultivation 2000 acres of arable land. Its monks and lay brothers ran fulling mills and tanneries, mined iron ore, made charcoal, and dug peat. To recover salt from the sea they built salt works at Barrow, Millom and Stalmine on Wyre. The fishery rights were extensive, as they could catch fish from the rivers of Duddon and Lune, and owned fishing boats on Windermere and Coniston. The catch was stored at the fishponds at Beaumont Grange and at one next to the abbey, in the area known today as ‘the amphitheatre’. The monks owned three corn mills. One was at Orgrave between Marton and Dalton; a second, known as Little Mill, was below Mill Brow. The third one was New Mill, close to the abbey’s precinct wall near the infirmary.
Law and Order
Over time, the abbot was given increasing administrative and military powers in this isolated part of England, becoming as powerful as a baron. He was responsible for the appointment of bishops, sheriffs and coroners. The abbot had his own law court at Dalton, in the form of the fortified pele tower of Dalton Castle. (See our page on it here).
The isolation of the region and its proximity to Scotland meant that it was very vulnerable to attack by the Scots. Just ten years after the foundation of Furness, a daughter monastery at Calder Abbey in Cumberland was attacked, forcing the monks to abandon it. They returned to Furness but were not re-admitted (probably due to lack of resources in the early days of the monastery) and had to relocate to Yorkshire. As the abbey matured and prospered, the intermittent wars between the English and Scots meant that the peninsula was subject to further incursions. The region saw a serious attack in 1316 and then again in 1322, the latter led by Robert the Bruce. Abbot Robert Cockerham went out to meet Bruce, and he was invited back to the abbey where he was bribed not to attack the abbey lands. The devastation Bruce’s army wrought on the rest of the Furness peninsula impacted the area for over 20 years, as so much had been stolen or destroyed. In 1327, the castle on nearby Piel Island was rebuilt to bolster the region’s fortifications.
As the 1300s progressed, the monks moved away from directly running the granges themselves and started to lease the land out instead. This reduced the need for lay brothers and so by the end of the century there were not that many employed by the abbey. During the 1400s, the number of choir monks was diminished too, and as Tudor times began the abbey’s future was becoming increasingly precarious.
Decline and Ruin
The last few decades of the abbey were ones of turmoil. Abbot Alexander Banke presided over much of this time, but a John Dalton is recorded as having deposed him and ruled in his place for a period. In 1516, Abbot Banke was taken to court by William and Isabel Case on behalf of the people of Sellergarth, a small farming hamlet that existed near the monastery. The abbot had demolished the settlement and turned it into farmland for sheep. The charges read “the said abbot with more than 22 of his monks… in riotous manner….turned out the said plaintiffs… to the plaintiffs utter undoing”. Abbot Banke had appeared as a defendant in the Duchy Courts eight times for his attempting to take land or fisheries either by force or through nefarious means.
In 1536, Henry VIII’s parliament passed an act to close the smaller monasteries in England, and then planned to shut the larger ones too. The monks of Furness became involved in the protest movement against the dissolution of the monasteries known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. However the last abbot, Roger Pyle, chose to hand over the abbey to the king rather than face trial. The deed of surrender was signed by the abbot, his prior Brian Garner and 28 monks on 9th April 1537 in the chapter house.
On June 23rd 1537, Robert Southwell, the court’s receiver, arrived to survey the monastery buildings. Accompanying him was Sir James Layburne, Thomas Holcroft and John Assheton. Southwell wrote to Thomas Cromwell, the king’s chief minister, that even though the monks were still living there, demolition had commenced. Thomas Holcroft was put in charge of the destruction. He paid workers £70 to pull down the buildings and gave them scaffoldings and ropes to do so. Lead was removed from the roofs as it had a valuable silver content. The decorative traceries of the windows were broken and the stained glass destroyed or taken. Fragments of the glass can still be seen in the windows of Urswick and Dalton churches today.
Thomas Holcroft bought up lands of a number of Lancashire monasteries and rented them out, including Preston Friary, Lancaster Friary, Warrington Friary and Lytham Priory. His brother John purchased Upholland Priory, amongst others. The Holcrofts were asset strippers, and would rapidly raise the rents of the lands they owned.
Furness Abbey was clearly used as a source of stone and timber for some time to come. In 1546, William Sandes, the King’s baliff, used material from the site to repair Dalton Castle. Many of the local barns on nearby farms have been made with stone from the abbey. After Ulverston Church tower collapsed, it was remade using both stone and wood from the abbey. Documents not thought important were turned into scrap paper. However, the Coucher books which gave details of charters about property and mineral rights were taken to London for the king.
The monks did not receive a pension but they were awarded £2 each, about half a year’s wage for a labourer. Three old and sick monks living at the infirmary received £3. The 100 boys at the cloister school were sent home as the school was closed permanently. Thirteen patients from the hospital were given 13 shillings and 4 pence, and sent away to depend on charity. The abbot was fortunate enough to be made vicar of Dalton Church.
In 1540, Sir Thomas Curwen leased the site from the king and passed it on to his son-in-law, John Preston, six years later. A document from the time shows that Preston wanted to build a new house in the grounds. The Preston family retained possession of the ruins and the house for several family generations. From them it passed to the Lowthers of Holker Hall and finally to the Cavendishes. The families often did not live there but leased the house to tenants. The 1700s saw the buildings decline as they were being used for farming purposes, with the manor house becoming a farmhouse.
The Ruins and the Picturesque Movement
Some effort was made in Georgian times to survey Furness Abbey. The Bucks brothers made detailed sketches of the ruins in 1727. Fifty years later Thomas West, a Jesuit priest and topographer, produced the first ground plan.
The late 1700s and into the 1800s was the age of the romantic artistic movement. The search for the picturesque meant many people came up to view and draw the ruins. William Gilpin produced a written description and an aquatint of the well-preserved infirmary chapel. He noted that the remains had “suffered from the hand of time, only such depredations as picturesque beauty requires”. Famed artist William Turner made three highly accurate pencil sketches, featuring the gateway and the old manor house, the infirmary chapel and the main church’s north transept and crossing. William Wordsworth visited as a young man and used the abbey as inspiration for his poetry. He later wrote a guide to the Lake District and this served to make the abbey a popular tourist destination.
The coming of the railway was the biggest driver of tourism. A train station constructed next to the site was completed in 1865, and the Cavendishes sold the manor house to the railway company. This was converted into the Abbey Hotel. However, not everyone was in favour of this increased access. Wordsworth commented “many of the trees which embowered the ruin have been felled to make way for this pestilential nuisance.” Some time later, art critic and social reformer John Ruskin wrote “…that glorious England of the future; in which there will be no abbeys all having been shaken down, as my own sweet Furness is fast being, by the luggage trains”.
At the same time tourism increased, so did a desire to understand the abbey as a historical artefact. William St John Hope completed a detailed ground plan of the abbey at the beginning of the last century. His work was the first systematic and thorough assessment of the extent of the ruins. He used archaeological trenches to work out the exact locations of the foundations. Foliage and vegetation, that were once seen as enhancing the remains, were now removed from the site to reveal the architectural features underneath.
In 1923, Lord Richard Cavendish donated the monastery, placing it in government ownership. It came under the care of the recently established Ministry of Public Buildings and Works. Sir Charles Peers, the Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments, immediately set up a restoration programme. It was discovered that the foundations of the huge walls of the abbey church were being supported by oak piles. These had lasted for centuries, but with the passage of time subsidence had set in and modern methods utilising concrete had to be employed to prevent further sinkage.
Visiting Furness Abbey Today
The museum provides an excellent summary of the history of the site along with some superbly preserved carvings, showing the skill of the Medieval masons. On leaving the museum, much of the foundations of the whole monastery complex can be viewed, and using the guidebook a visitor can easily locate all the main buildings that featured in abbey life. There are also numerous large standing remains, which we will outline briefly below.
The church is particularly very well-preserved with large tall walls and arches, some still standing at their original height. The priests seats (sedilia) are in good condition and there is a vaulted tabernacle above them. Near the high altar is the place where a hugely important burial of a man 40-50 years of age was discovered. A crozier (pastoral staff) was laid over his left shoulder which reached down to his feet. Elaborate and well crafted, it features two gilded discs showing St Michael wrestling a dragon. He was probably an abbot, or a bishop. The staff and the rest of his artefacts are on display in the museum.
At the far end of the church is the huge West Tower. Standing at over 60 feet high it would once have been even taller, perhaps as high as 160 feet. It was constructed in the late 1400s when large towers were in vogue. Unable to expand the original central tower, this new one was built at the far end of the church and would have rivalled the one at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire.
The east range remains a substantial feature with its five elaborate ground floor arches. Part of the building would have formed the living quarters of the choir monks. Two of the arches at the north end would have contained a pair of large book cupboards holding the abbey’s library, with the arch in the middle acting as an entrance to the Chapter House. This is very impressive, and well preserved. The Chapter House was where the monks met every day to hear a chapter from the rule of St Benedict read out, were given their orders for the day and where the abbey’s business was discussed.
The Infirmary Chapel has been the subject of many drawings and paintings since Georgian times. The Infirmary had its own kitchen, chapel and latrines, almost a mini abbey complex in itself. Much of this is just foundations now, but the chapel is in excellent condition with fine ribbed vaulting. A wall bench for the old and sick to sit on still runs around it.
English Heritage continue to maintain this remarkable monastery that has brought delight to so many visitors who enjoy history, art and human ingenuity.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2019. This page written 2020.
Open throughout the year. Visit the English Heritage website for Furness Abbey here
Nearby, just a drive away Dalton Castle
Furness Abbey and Piel Castle, Edited by Louise Wilson (2018), English Heritage. Available to buy from the abbey or online at the abbey website.
Furness Abbey: Romance, Scholarship and Culture, C. Dade-Robertson (2000), Centre for North-West Regional Studies, Lancaster University
A History of Furness Abbey, Alice Leach (1987), Furness Heritage Press