The Cotman Collection | Kirkstall Abbey, founded 1152

Kirkstall Abbey

founded 1152

Completed between 1152 and 1182, Kirkstall Abbey still stands substantially to its full height, its massive structure presenting a unique example of early Cistercian architecture. Although its community was disbanded in 1539, it has continued to attract the attention of increasing numbers of visitors, for no other building so completely illustrates this early period of English monastic life.

The ideal of the monastic life is that a man who enters it shall give up all share and interest in the affairs of the world and devote his whole life to the service of God. About 525 St. Benedict gathered together a community of such men at Monte Cassino between Rome and Naples, where he drew up a series of rules to guide their daily life and worship. Monasteries following the Benedictine rule were soon established in most European countries, but their increasing laxity led to a number of revivals, the most important of these beginning in 1098 with the foundation of the Abbey of Citeaux in Burgundy in eastern France.

Stephen Harding, an Englishman, became abbot here in 1109. Within the next decade he drew up the 'Charter of Charity', the constitution which bound together the Cistercian order under the government of a general chapter, or assembly of abbots. In addition, a series of 'customs' were established which ensured that all Cistercian monasteries followed the same interpretation of St. Benedict's rule as practised at Citeaux. By 1120 some twelve Cistercian monasteries had been founded, but by 1152 their number had increased to three hundred and thirty. In Yorkshire the major expansion took place in the 1130s and 1140s, the community which was to found Kirkstall Abbey leaving Fountain Abbey near Ripon in 1147.

Under the leadership of Abbot Alexander, the monks first tried to settle on the lands of Henry de Lacy, Baron of Pontefract, at Barnoldswick, a Pennine village near Skipton. Here both the climate and the local inhabitants proved so inhospitable that a new site had to be found. While passing through Airedale, Alexander came upon a pleasant stretch of country well stocked with timber, stone and water, and inhabited by a group of hermits. As this land was in the ownership of William of Poitou, a vassal of Henry de Lacy, the Abbot Alexander was able to use Henry's influence to gain possession of the site.

On May 19th, 1152 the monks transferred from Barnoldswick to Kirkstall, there to build their monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary. At first all the buildings were of wood, but within a few years these were being replaced by massive masonry structures in the local Bramley Fall gritstone. So quickly did the work progress, that the Church, the Cloister and its surrounding buildings were all completed in the lifetime of Abbot Alexander, who died in 1182.

The Dissolution
On November 22nd, 1539, monastic activity at Kirkstall came to an abrupt end when the abbot, John Ripley, surrendered the abbey to the commissioners of Henry VIII. John Browne, the Prior, and thirty other monks were immediately granted pensions, while according to tradition, the abbot passed into retirement in the Gatehouse.

In 1542 the Abbey and its lands were granted to Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, but reverted to the Crown in 1556 when he was burnt to death for his religious beliefs.

Following a sequence of complicated legal transactions, the abbey was purchased by Sir Robert Savile in 1583-4, and remained in his family until 1671, when it passed by marriage into the hands of the Brudenells, Earls of Cardigan.

Having been stripped of its roofs and windows, the abbey served as a quarry for local building works, including the stairs leading to the water's edge at Leeds Bridge. Fortunately all the major buildings survived intact, however, most of them being re-used for agricultural purposes.

The Chapter house, Chapels, and novices' room provided housing for a herd of cattle, the lay brothers' building became a barn, the Cloi