Swamp Abbey's reputation gets a firmer foundation

ITS grand ruins may tower high over the North York Moors – but Byland Abbey has not enjoyed a reputation as glamorous as rivals at Fountains and Rievaulx for a very long time.

As its cloisters collapsed over the centuries, so the true picture of how the abbey looked when it was built in 1177 faded and died.

While historians knew that the Cistercian monks built the abbey on a drained swamp, they believed that the ruins still viewable marked the boundary of its grounds.

But now archaeologists working at the site near Coxwold in North Yorkshire believe that Byland Abbey may have been even more spectacular than previously thought.

So much so, that for a while it may have even eclipsed the north's two other "shining lights" of Rievaulx and Fountains.

English Heritage archaeologists armed with GPS equipment are undertaking a six-week survey in the fields around the ruin, plotting humps and bumps that have puzzled historians.

Much of this area was believed to be under water during the monastic period, a mixture of lakes, fish ponds and bogs, with the abbey itself perched on an island of firm ground created by the monks.

But now extensive earthwork evidence of major monastic buildings has been discovered in this part of the 110-acre monastic precinct, linked together by causeways, some of which were previously mistaken for dams.

Al Oswald, English Heritage senior archaeological investigator, said: "It is not just that we are finding evidence of buildings where we thought there was water, but that these were major structures, laid out in a geometrical pattern.

"We know Byland's monks were gifted engineers and toiled for 30 years to drain the land, but if anything we may have underestimated their skills.

"Using rudimentary equipment, muscle and not a little faith, they drained a much larger area than we had thought. The abbey must have resembled a small town in its scale, making it one of the great feats of monastic engineering."

The abbey has always had an interesting history – and an important rivalry with near-neighbour Rievaulx.

Byland's monks originally set out from Furness Abbey on the north west coast of England. They endured numerous misfortunes to establish a new home.

They were chased out of a previous site by Scottish raiders, before settling at Old Byland, about five miles north of the present site. Unfortunately the church bells could be heard over the hill at Rievaulx Abbey, causing confusion over prayer times.

That culminated in an order from Rievaulx's less-than-neighbourly abbot for the newcomers to leave. Eventually they settled a temporary home near Kilburn in 1147 and then spent the next three decades preparing the site at Byland before moving in.

John Lax, English Heritage visitor operations manager, said: "This latest research work at Byland is revealing the full scale of the monks' achievement in building this magnificent place, which even after 850 years stands firm on the ground they laboured to reclaim."

Researchers now plan to carry out a full search of literature, maps and illustrations, before eventually re-writing Byland Abbey's guidebook.

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