…..They sit, they walk
Among the Ruins, but no idle talk
Is heard: to grave demeanor all are bound;
And from one voice a Hymn with tuneful sound
Hallows once more the long deserted Quire
And thrills the old sepulchral earth, around.
“At Furness Abbey” by William Wordsworth, 1845
The natural red sandstone of Furness reveals itself most dramatically in the ruin of the Abbey of St. Mary. Furness Abbey is one of the most impressive architectural and historical monuments to be seen in Cumbria. The ruins in Beckansgill, the Vale of Nightshade, are a place of peace and seclusion; a surprise and a delight to the modern day visitor.
In the year 1123 Stephen, Count of Boulonge and Morton and later King of England (1135-54), gave a parcel of land at Tulketh near Preston to the monks of Savigny in France. Four years later, Tulketh was abandoned and the monks moved to the remote site of Furness. In 1147, the Savignac Order was commanded to merge with Cistercian Order and the Abbey of St. Mary came under the rule of the mother abbey in Citeaux. Under the Cistercian Order, the Abbey of St. Mary steadily expanded, increasing in wealth and prosperity.
In the early part of the fourteenth century, Furness experienced two great raids by the Scots. The latter in 1332 was led by Robert the Bruce. The Abbot offered accommodation and bribes to the Scots in return for immunity for Abbey lands and dependents The Scots took the ransom money and the hospitality, but still sacked and rillaged the surrounding countryside and villages. One effect the raids had on the Furness area was the building of Dalton and Piel Castles and the crenellation of a number of buildings such as the church at Great Urswick.
The Abbey possessed most of the Furness peninsula with its forests and rich agricultural lands; a total of 55,000 acres were under its rule. Its situation, surrounded by Morcambe Bay and the Lakeland mountains, meant that the Abbey remained isolated. The development of the harbour at Piel Island did much to improve access and trade. Piel Castle, ruins of which can be seen, was built by the monks as a fortified warehouse for the storage of grain and wool. It was also used by the Order as a smuggling den in order to evade the high trade tariffs imposed by the King.
Furness Abbey had various holdings in Ireland and on the Isle of Man. On Man the Abbots were given the right to nominate their own bishops for their “daughter “ house. “Daughter” houses were monasteries and convents set up as missionary bases, receiving help and guidance from “mother” house. Furness Abbey was a “daughter” house of Citeaux and in turn created its own “daughter” houses. The first was Calder, Cumberland in 1135, the second at Swineshead, Lincolnshire in 1148, then at Rushen on the Isle of Man and two Irish Monasteries at Iniscoury and Abindon.
During the reign of Henry II (1154-1189) Conishead Priory was established by the Augustinians who were at times involved in disputes with Furness Abbey, The main dispute was over Ulverston and in 1230, the Cacons of Conishead won the right to administer the village of Ulverston and Pennington while the Abbey was given Dalton and Urswick. The current Priory building has no connectoin with the old priory but is a fine example of Gothic Revival architecture and is open to the public.
In 1412, the first permanent record books of the Abbey were started. The abbot, William Dalton, had all the charters and inventories written up to what is now known as the “Coucher Books”. These books are masterpieces of illumination and show what fine artists medieval scribes were. One of the scribes to work on the Croucher Books was Brother John Stell who included himself in one the illuminated letters. This “I” can be seen on display in the Abbey museum.
Not all of the Abbots were good pious men. Abbot Alexander Bankes was taken to court in 1516 by William Case on behalf of the people of Sellergarth, a small farming hamlet near the Abbey. Case charged that…. “the said Abbot with more than 22 monks … on the 16th December … turned out the said plaintiffs, to the plaintiffs utter undoing”. The abbot razed the hamlet and turned it into arable land for sheep. This destroying of a town was not infrequent as wool was a very valuable and marketable commodity. Sellergarth was never re-built.
The last Abbot, Roger Pele, was unable to keep control in the stormy days leading up the suppression of the monasteries. In 1536 a fraction of the monks encouraged the local people to rise up in protest against Henry VIII’s closing of some of the smaller monasteries, causing Abbot Roger to flee. On April 9th, 1537, the remaining brethren were forced to give up their monastery and its possessions to the King. The last Abbot was given the position of rector at Dalton, the few monks remaining were pensioned off and the Abbey was stripped of all treasure. The lead was stripped from the roof; stones from the Abbey can be seen in a number of old buildings in the area.
The loss of the Abbey brought real hardship to the region. It was the largest employer in the area providing religious and educational instruction along with law and order. Charity was freely dispensed. After the suppression of the monasteries, no such aid was forthcoming from the new state church and many people suffered.
The site of the Abbey and some of its lands were granted to Thomas Cromwell and later passed through several hands until it came to the Cavendish family (the Dukes of Devonshire). Finally in 1923 Lord Richard Cavendish placed the ruins under the guardianship of the Officer of Works (later the Department of the Environment) for preservation as national monument. It is now under the care of English Heritage.