The Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire is known as one of the most beautiful ruins in Europe and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is not only one of the greatest, but also one of the largest ruins in the country.
The first Fountains Abbey was a tree that lived well into the eighteenth century. In the beginning, the monks ate, slept, and prayed under an elm tree that stood in the middle of the valley. They belonged to the Order of Cistercians, which was the newest religious society in the twelfth century when the Abbey began. Saint Gregory the Great had said that he who would see angels must sleep with his head on a stone (Genesis 28:11-22). The Cistercians believed it.
A Cistercian monastery consisted of specific invariable structures arranged according to a prescribed plan. Notre-Dame de Cîteaux Abbey in Saint-Nicolas-lès-Cîteaux and Clairvaux Abbey in Ville-sous-la-Ferté determined all other abbeys of the Order.
At the center of the Abbey was the cloister, an open square of green, on whose four sides were the domestic quarters and workplaces of monastics. The church was on the north side, the chapter-house in which larger meetings were held, with a book-room on one side and a parlor on the other was on the east. The common bedroom of the monks was on the second floor. The fratery, with the warming-room on one side where the community assembled for the purpose of reading, with a kitchen on the other was located on the south side. On the west was the store-house, and over it, the dormitory of the lay brothers. Outside of the cloister was a monastic hospital and a guest-house in addition to whatever barns and mills were needed for the maintenance of the conventual life.
During the administration of the first two abbots, Richard (1132-1139), who had been the prior at York, and Richard II (1139-1143), who had been the sacrist, these buildings were erected, with wood and stone. The laborers were the monks themselves, assisted by their neighbors, some of whom were hired, while others gave their day’s work as an investment in the securities of heaven. It is interesting to find that the little company of poor monks, rich in faith, laid out the foundations of their church upon the great lines on which it stands today. Further generations built the chapel of the nine altars and raised the grand tower, but the enormous nave with its transepts was completed by the men who began the monastery.
During the time of John of Kent (1220-1247), the chapel of the nine altars, the monastic hospital, the new choir, the improvement of the existing guest-houses, and the new paving of the church floor in tiles of a geometrical design were finished. This abbot also built the bakehouse and the bridge.
After 100 years, the Fountains Abbey stood finished in all its splendor for over 300 years until its cessation in 1539 under the order of Henry VIII, King of England from 1509 until his death in 1547. The work of a whole century, partly completed in the reigns of Stephen of Blois (1135-1154), Henry Plantagenet (1154-1189), Richard I (1189-1199), John (1199-1216) and Henry III (1216-1272).