Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments

Plates IX-XII: Fountains Abbey in the county of York, four diverse sides of the ruins. N.1-4

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  • Plate ix: The old stones of Fountains Abbey in Skeldale, three miles from Ripon in the county of Yorkshire, just as they appear today at [Lybem ].  This Monastery was once most famous for the 13 Brothers, who had separated from the monks of the Abbey of St Mary, York in order to cultivate a more austere life.  Thurstan, Archbishop founded [the Abbey] to receive them in 1132.  But, with such meager resources, they could first only lodge themselves under a leafy elm tree. [They were] entirely without resources, but still anointed.  St Bernard immediately adopted them into the Cistercian order, under whose Rule they gained ample resources, [namely] 423 farms.  They had given that estimate[d figure] in rents annually to Henry VIII, the Suppressor [of the Monasteries] himself. 
  • Plate x: East Side of Fountains Abbey Church    
  • Plate xi: Western view of Fountains Abbey
  • Plate xii: Southwestern view of Fountains Abbey from the hill commonly known as Wakeman Tower


Engravings by George Vertue (1723) after four drawings by Samuel Buck (1722), as recorded in the SAL Minutes for 1722-23.  Unlike most of the others, these plates are neither signed nor dated in the copper.  With his brother Nathaniel, Buck was at this time embarking on his own publication series A Collection of Engravings of Castles, and Abbeys in England (1726-1739).  It seems likely that his growing reputation as an antiquarian illustrator in York caught the attention of Roger Gale, who commissioned the drawings and proposed the project to the Society.


Ruins of the former twelfth-century abbey church of Fountains, Yorkshire, with extant monastic structures.

Provenance and Location:

Built in the twelfth century and partially dismantled under Henry VIII in the sixteenth century, Fountains Abbey is one of the great Cistercian Houses of the British Isles.  Dissolved under Henry VIII, the Abbey has been subject to campaigns of despoliation, and is now largely ruinous.  The images are thus significant visual evidence of the site as it stood in 1722, recording subsequently lost fabric, including the late twelfth-century cloister arcades, the tracery of the main windows of the abbey, the presbytery arcades and high altar enclosure.

Commentary [MR]

In modern historiography, Fountains Abbey is the most intensively studied Cistercian house in Europe.  It was the second Cistercian outpost founded in the North of England, and came to become the largest and richest Cistercian house in the country.  According to Serlo of Kirkstall (fl. 1205), Fountains was founded by Benedictine monks from St Mary’s abbey, York, who sought a simpler and less worldly life.  In December 1132, Archbishop Thurstan of York brought a group of 13 monks from York to the valley of the River Skell (4 miles west of Ripon) to the wood of Herleshowe, where he gave them lands to found a monastery.  In 1133 Fountains was admitted into the Cistercian order by St Bernard of Clairvaux as part of his colonizing of the North of England and Scotland. The first wooden church on site was replaced by a stone church before 1147 when a fire is recorded.  The subsequent campaign between c. 1150-1250 saw the erection of much of the present structure, including most of its outbuildings.

The end of Fountains as a working monastery came with the general suppression of English monasteries in November 1539.  Unlike some other monastic sites, the abbey buildings at Fountains were not immediately dismantled at the Dissolution, because Henry VIII intended to create a new bishopric with jurisdiction over Richmondshire and parts of Lancashire.  This temporarily saved the buildings from ruin and accounts in part for why so much remained to be recorded in 1722.  By October 1540, however, the sale of the abbey was completed and the buildings began to be dismantled and its stained glass and lead dispersed, leaving the building without roofing or complete walls.  Because its new owner—Sir Richard Gresham—did not rebuild Fountains or transform it into a residence, it was saved from further ruin through domestication. To the north side of the abbey precinct, a new residence—Fountains Hall—was begun in the early seventeenth century based upon the designs of Robert Smythson, using some stone from the abbey ruins, but it is notably not represented in any of the engravings.

The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century reception of Fountains was focused as much on the architecture of the monastery as on its topographical setting.  By 1682, the ruins of Fountains received poetic testimony: the historian Robert Thoresby visited in that year and described the site as "a noble wreck in ruinous perfection." In the early eighteenth century, Fountains became enveloped into the Studley estate and its gardens (identified on plate xii).  The first phase (1716 -1730) involved diverting the river into a canal at the centre of the Skell valley and adding geometric fishponds.  Garden buildings were built after 1732 and the entire garden was complete by 1742.  The abbey ruins remained at the west end of the garden as a vista, a relationship shown in a painting by Balthazar Nebot of 1768 (now in the National Trust).

Inheriting the Studley Royal estate on his father’s death in 1742, William Aislabie continued the landscaping of the lower Skell valley and bought the Fountains estate in 1768 for the immense sum of £16,000.  He sought to redesign the gardens in keeping with contemporary picturesque taste of Capability Brown. Fountains was no longer conceived as a ruin at the end of a vista but was brought into the garden itself, as part of an informal arrangement of lawns framed by trees.

The Society of Antiquaries Minutes for 1721-22 record details of the images’ conception.  On 7 June 1721, Roger Gale displayed drawings of Fountains by Dr Johnston of York at the Society’s meetings.  It may be that these images were not approved by the Society, because on 7 Feb 1722 “Mr Roger Gale brought four drawings of Fountains Abby Yorkshire drawn by Mr [Samuel and or Nathaniel] Buck which were ordered to be Engraven and Mr Vertue was desir’d to take care thereof.”  These drawings became the Vetusta Monumenta plates.  Forming a visual survey of the property from its four cardinal points, the drawings were conceived in the tradition of the Bucks’ contemporary views, which frequently took advantage of surrounding promontories to offer both bird’s eye views and perpendicular elevations.  Also typical of the Bucks’ contemporary work, the emphasis is on the location of the buildings within their natural surroundings and atmospheric conditions.  The format of the Bucks’ four-image survey of Fountains was not repeated in Vetusta Monumenta, thus underscoring the experimental nature of the first volume.  By 22 May 1723 George Vertue had to hand proofs of the images.  Conceived in 1722, the four views thus record the abbey in the midst of the first campaign, as evidenced by some of the youthful foliage described as "Young Ash Trees" in pl. xi. As elsewhere in Vetusta Monumenta, the attention of members of the Society was drawn to ancient monuments by contemporary works of restoration or destruction, and we may surmise that the contemporary gardening works were an impetus to record the buildings as they stand, and an impetus to omit later structures like Fountains Hall.  Here we may detect an early ethical commentary on modern “restorations” of the sort that would characterize the Society’s endeavors in the later eighteenth century.

Works Cited

Christopher Norton and David Park (eds).  1986.  Cistercian Art and Architecture in the British Isles. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Draper, Peter.  1977.  “The Nine Altars at Durham and Fountains” In British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions: Medieval Art and Architecture at Durham Cathedral.  74-86.  Durham.

Coppack, Glyn.  2004.  Fountains Abbey: The Cistercians in Northern England. Stroud.
Fergusson, Peter.  1984.  Architecture of Solitude: Cistercian Abbeys in Twelfth-Century England.  Princeton: Princeton UP. 

Society of Antiquaries of London.  1718-.  Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.

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