Byland Abbey, North Yorkshire

In the early part of the 12th century, a group of Savigniac monks were trying to establish a colony in England, their first base being near Preston in Lancashire, but eventually relocating to Furness in Cumbria. This site suited their purposes very well enabling the monks to prosper and soon they were able to send a small colony of monks to found a daughter house. Initially the monks settled at Calder but, after suffering a Scottish raid and then becoming caught up in a series of monastic disputes with Furness Abbey, they eventually established a base in the small North Yorkshire village of Coxwold. By 1177 Byland Abbey, now under the new Cistercian rule, was finally founded having overcome four false starts and lots of problems.

Despite the thickly wooded, swampy site they had been given, the monks built a beautiful abbey church and an almost perfect monastic complex surrounding sizeable cloisters. Once established Byland Abbey began to prosper, and the completed monastery of the mid 13th century was considered to be one of the three great monasteries of the North, alongside those at Fountains and Rievaulx. From hereon life at Byland Abbey appeared to be relatively calm and uneventful, except for one occasion in 1322 when nearby Scottish raiders pillaged the abbey. At the Suppression in 1538 there were still 25 choir monks and an abbot in residence at Byland Abbey, and they all granted pensions on surrendering the site. Being stripped of all saleable assets, the once magnificent buildings were then subjected to nearly four centuries of neglect, and inevitable decay.

During the 1920s the site was cleared, excavations began, and the enormous task of consolidation and preservation began. Substantial sections of the abbey church walls remain standing, many of the decorative capitals and corbels found were placed in the museum at Byland Abbey, and some amazing glazed floor tiles were uncovered. Perhaps the best example to show the intricacy of the patterns used by the medieval tilers, remains in situ in the south transept chapels. It is quite evident from the sheer size and the many fragments of elaborately carved detail, that the monks at Byland Abbey created a spectacular church.

Today the impressive west front of the abbey church, deeply hollowed out where once a great wheel window existed, provides a distinctive landmark to approaching visitors. If you are fortunate enough to see this marvellous ruin bathed in late afternoon sunlight, the full glory of the mellow sandstone is reflected in an array of soft tones. The village of Coxwold is a little off the beaten track, but the quiet and unspoilt location makes it all the more fitting for such a majestic abbey.

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