The march of the White Monks: How Cistercian abbeys took over Yorkshire

They're some of the most impressive ancient monuments still standing in Yorkshire.

Byland Abbey
Byland Abbey

The remains of the county's Cistercian abbeys tell an intriguing story of how a French monastic order penetrated England and changed the way of life in many rural communities. Known as the White Monks, their members have had a considerable impact on the landscape and society. Yorkshire was the seat of their power.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538 brought an end to the Cistercian era, and the residents of these grands abbeys were evicted before they were left to fall into ruin

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Fountains Abbey

Byland, near the village of Coxwold, was founded in 1134, and absorbed by the Cistercian order in 1147. It became renowned for sheep farming and the quality of its wool, and its 12th-century church was known all over Europe.The monastery's existence was threatened by war, famine and plague during its history, but it survived until the Dissolution.

The ruins can still be visited and include 13th-century floor tiles. The old altar table is now at Ampleforth Abbey, a Benedictine house nearby. A stone lectern base recovered from the chapter-house is the only surviving example of its kind in England.

The site is maintained by English Heritage.

Fountains Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey

Fountains, founded near Ripon in 1132, was the jewel in the Cistercian crown, their wealthiest monastery and the head of a network of estates. It had a vast income and many associated business interests.

The ruins, managed by the National Trust, were Yorkshire's first World Heritage Site and sit alongside the Studley Royal Water Gardens, which were laid out by a later owner of the estate.

The abbey had its own watermill and tannery, and the monks began to acquire farmland across the north, as well as bases for grain export. They were involved in mining, quarrying, iron-smelting, fishing and milling.

Jervaulx Abbey

Nowadays, Kirkstall is an oasis in the middle of urban Leeds, but when it was founded in 1152, it was at the centre of a large rural estate and had its own farms and fish-ponds.

The ruins are considered the best-preserved and complete example of a Cistercian abbey in Britain, and are managed by Leeds City Council.

The monks would often travel to St Mary's Abbey in York, stopping for rest and refreshment at the Bingley Arms in Bardsey, reputedly the oldest inn in England.

Rievaulx Abbey

Roche Abbey

This abbey near Helmsley was built as the White Monks' 'mission centre' - the base from which their influence would spread across the north.

It was a lucrative establishment with its own lead and iron mining operations, and it was renowned for sheep-rearing, with wool buyers all over Europe.

Rievaulx hit rougher times in the 13th century, when an epidemic of sheep scab affected its revenues. Scottish raiders also attacked the monks. The population of the monastery declined and much of the land was leased to tenant farmers.

Nowadays the ruins are owned by English Heritage.

Jervaulx was a sister abbey to Byland established in East Witton, near Ripon, but it had a significant impact on the local economy that is still being felt to this day.

The monks began the tradition of breeding horses that the nearby village of Middleham is still widely known for. It was also the original creamery for the production of Wensleydale cheese, which today is centred on Hawes.

The estate where the ruins stand was passed to several aristocratic families, and is now owned by the Burdons, who open the abbey buildings to the public. A watermill has survived.

Meaux Abbey

Meaux was founded near Beverley in 1151. Hull was built on land purchased by King Edward I from the abbey.

The abbey did not survive its closure - it was demolished and the stones were used for building defences in the new city.

The earthworks are still visible and the site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument with protected status.

Roche Abbey

The southernmost of the Yorkshire abbeys was built near Maltby, and Robin Hood was reputed to have attended Mass there.

It was nearly lost to history when the famous landscape architect Capability Brown demolished buildings and turfed over the ruins during the 19th century at the behest of the Earl of Scarborough, who owned the nearby Sandbeck Park estate. Roche was literally buried under the Earl's parkland.

In the 1920s the site was excavated, the ruins uncovered again and English Heritage took over their care.