History of Byland Abbey

Byland Abbey was described in the 12th century as one of the shining lights of northern monasticism. Its beginnings were unpromising – it was only after 43 years and numerous moves that the community of Byland found a permanent home. Yet the abbey rose to be one of the largest of the Cistercian order in Britain. The remains of the buildings, particularly the great church with its magnificent west front, are important in the development of northern monastic architecture in the second half of the 12th century.

View of the abbey ruins under a dusting of snow
View of the abbey ruins, looking north-west

The origins of Byland

The foundation of Byland Abbey was by no means straightforward. The community began its existence in 1128, when a group of Savigniac monks founded a monastery at Furness, Cumberland.

The Savigniacs, founded at Savigny in Normandy in 1112–15, were one of several monastic orders established in the 11th and 12th centuries.[1] Like the Cistercians, they sought to return to a stricter interpretation of the 6th-century Rule of St Benedict. Furness was the first Savigniac monastery to be founded in England.[2]

In 1134 Furness had become well enough established and had attracted sufficient recruits to found a daughter house. The new abbot, Gerold, set out with 12 monks and a number of lay brothers to found a new abbey at Calder, further up the Cumberland coast.

The abbey was short-lived, as it was sacked in 1138 by a Scots army advancing through Cumberland and Lancashire. Faced with this disaster, the monks returned to Furness. The abbot of Furness denied them admission, however, because Gerold would not renounce his rank of abbot.

Rievaulx Abbey
Rievaulx Abbey, which lay close to the site of Old Byland Abbey

Travels of the Byland Monks

For the next 40 years the monks moved from one unsuitable site to another, until they eventually established a permanent home at Byland.

Initially they headed for York to enlist the help of Archbishop Thurstan (1114–40), although it is not clear if they ever reached the city.[3] Eventually they sought the help of Gundreda de Gournay, mother of Baron Roger de Mowbray (d. 1188), who held extensive lands in Yorkshire and Normandy. Gundreda sent the monks to Hood, in the North Riding of Yorkshire, where a former monk of Whitby, Robert de Alneto, was living as a hermit.

While the monks were at Hood, the abbot of Furness attempted to claim jurisdiction over them. In 1142 Abbot Gerold travelled to Normandy and appealed to the General Chapter of abbots at Savigny, winning his community’s freedom from Furness.

On his return journey, however, Gerold fell ill and died at York. He was succeeded by Roger, who had been master of the novices. Roger built up the abbey estates, and in 1143 the community moved to Old Byland, near the Cistercian Rievaulx Abbey, which was better suited to their growing numbers.

But yet again, the monks did not stay put for long. The site proved to be too close to Rievaulx, and after only four years the monks moved west to Oldstead (Stocking), on wasteland also granted by Roger de Mowbray, where they built a small stone church and a cloister. The monks remained at Stocking for the next 30 years.

Aerial view of Byland Abbey. In the foreground are the remains of the west range, one of the earliest surviving parts of the abbey
Aerial view of Byland Abbey. In the foreground are the remains of the west range, one of the earliest surviving parts of the abbey

Adoption of the Cistercian Rule

In 1147 the abbot of Savigny offered his whole order to Bernard, abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux, France. Bernard accepted, and the entire Savigniac order was merged with the Cistercians.

While they were at Old Byland, a small group of Savigniac monks had been struggling to found an abbey at Fors in Wensleydale. It was agreed that Byland should adopt this as a daughter house. The plans were confirmed again after the monks adopted the Cistercian rule. In 1150, Abbot Roger sent out a colony of monks to Fors. The community moved to Jervaulx in 1156 and began to thrive, building a stone monastery and a great church.

The community at Stocking, meanwhile, was apparently prosperous enough for the abbot of Furness to once again revive his claims to jurisdiction over it in 1150. The abbot of the refounded Calder also laid claim to it.

The dispute dragged on until 1155, when it was finally settled in Abbot Roger’s favour by a convocation of Cistercian abbots headed by Abbot Aelred of Rievaulx. The community was placed under the direct protection of Savigny. It was possibly at this time that Abbot Roger had his charters confirmed by the archbishop of York as an additional safeguard.

View of the abbey church looking towards the west front, one of the last parts of the abbey to be completed
View of the abbey church looking towards the west front, one of the last parts of the abbey to be completed

From Marsh to Monastery

Meanwhile the Stocking monks acquired the site at Byland which was to become their permanent home. The site was mostly marshland, but the monks felt it would be a better location for their monastery. Drainage and construction work most probably began in the late 1150s and the buildings were sufficiently complete by 1177 to be occupied. The building of the great church must have occupied at least another 15 years.

The new monastery was overseen by Abbot Roger, a capable administrator who successfully built up the economy of the abbey. Grants came from various benefactors, but principally from Roger de Mowbray, who was regarded as Byland’s founder.

The Mowbrays continued to be the main patrons of the abbey into the 14th century. In the 15th century the monks of Byland believed that a monument in their chapter house was the tomb of Roger de Mowbray, although de Mowbray had died and was buried in the Holy Land in 1188.

A considerable estate was assembled, and the abbey’s main income seems to have come from sheep farming and wool sales. Its main holdings spread beyond Ampleforth and Thorpe to the east, and westwards to Sutton-under-Whitestonecliffe and Marderby. Further afield there were granges (farms) at Asby, Warcop and Bleatarn in Cumberland.[4] Byland also had iron mines at Bentley Grange in the West Riding of Yorkshire, urban properties and fisheries.

Abbot Roger continued to expand its estates and economy until he retired in 1196, having ruled the house for 54 years. The next abbot, Phillip, wrote the Historia Fundationis in 1197, drawing on the memories of Abbot Roger and other aged monks of the community to record the early history of the abbey.

Reconstruction of Byland Abbey as it may have appeared at the end of the 15th century
Reconstruction of Byland Abbey as it may have appeared at the end of the 15th century © Historic England (illustration by Simon Hayfield)

Byland in the 14th Century

Byland suffered a series of setbacks in the 14th century. In 1322 the English army of Edward II (r.1308–27) made an unsuccessful advance into Scotland. After burning the Cistercian abbey of Melrose it retreated back into England, followed by a Scots army led by Robert the Bruce.

While the English were encamped at Shaws Moor, near Byland Abbey, the Scots attacked without warning. They then attacked Rievaulx, where Edward II was staying. Edward fled to York, and the victorious Scots army ravaged the whole region, pillaging Byland, Rievaulx and several other religious houses.

Byland was also suffering from a decline in numbers of lay brothers – who carried out much of the manual work of the monastery – by the early 14th century. The Black Death in 1348–9 diminished their numbers further. By 1391 Byland had been reduced to just 11 monks and three lay brothers. Deprived of their principal workforce, the monks reorganised their economy, leasing lands to tenants in return for cash and employing more servants to replace the lay brothers.

Gradually the abbey’s economy revived, but there was never again sufficient income to support the large number of monks of its pioneering years. Numbers seem to have built up to about 25 monks, and by 1538 Byland’s income was about £240 per year.

Remains of the tiled floor in the presbytery, next to the re-erected arcading
Remains of the tiled floor in the presbytery, next to the re-erected arcading

Suppression of Byland Abbey

Byland was closed in 1538 as part of the Suppression of the Monasteries. In order to obtain a divorce from Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII (r.1509–47) declared himself head of the Church in England in 1533. This Act of Supremacy was followed by a valuation of all church property, and then an Act of Parliament in 1535 to close all monasteries with an income of less than £200.

The closure of the smaller monasteries proved very unpopular in the north, provoking the uprising known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. Henry VIII used this as an excuse to close the remaining, larger monasteries, and on 30 November 1538 Abbot John Ledes (or Alanbridge) and 25 monks duly signed Byland’s deed of surrender. Ledes received a pension of £50 per year and the monks lesser pensions of between £5 and £6.

The abbey was gutted of all valuable items. The plate was valued and shipped to London, while the buildings were stripped of lead, glass and timber. Byland and its estates were then granted to Sir William Pickering (d. 1542) in 1540.

Engraving of the north transept, nave and west end of the abbey church by Thomas Atkinson, in about 1801
Engraving of the north transept, nave and west end of the abbey church by Thomas Atkinson, in about 1801

Later History

The Byland estate later passed through various hands, although for many years it was owned by the Stapyltons of Myton Hall in Swalesdale. In 1819 Martin Stapylton excavated parts of the ruined church and the chapter house, searching for the grave of Roger de Mowbray.[5]

Stapylton removed many tons of carved stone to Myton Hall where it was used to decorate the gardens. He also took the high altar slab to Myton Hall, together with a small alabaster image of the Trinity, both of which are now at nearby Ampleforth Abbey. Much stone was also taken for building local cottages. This process continued into the 1890s and probably later.

In 1893 Byland was sold to the Newburgh estate, which still owns the site. By this time, what was left of the crossing tower, church and monastic buildings had either been slighted when the abbey was suppressed, or had collapsed subsequently through neglect.

Byland Abbey shortly before the site was cleared and excavated in 1921
Byland Abbey shortly before the site was cleared and excavated in 1921

Antiquarian interest and excavations

Byland was not fully excavated until 1921. In the late 19th century, pressure from the Yorkshire Archaeological Society led to repairs to the west front of the church, overseen by the architect Charles Hodgson Fowler (1840–1910).

The society was keen to excavate the site and started a public subscription to that end, with the eminent Lancaster architect Edmund Sharpe as director. Before work could start, however, Sharpe died, and the scheme was abandoned.

Byland was transferred to state guardianship in 1920, and in 1921 the Office of Works began to excavate and clear the site of debris. The standing walls were consolidated and repaired and the plan of the abbey was revealed. In the 1950s, a small site museum was built to exhibit many of the elaborate carved stones that had been discovered in the 1920s excavations.




About the author

Stuart Harrison MA FSA specialises in the history and archaeology of monasticism in northern England. He is the author of the English Heritage guidebook to Byland Abbey.


1. M Suydam, ‘Origins of the Savigniac order: Savigny’s role within twelfth-century monastic reform’, Revue Benedictine, 86 (1976), 94–108. 
2. S Harrison, J Wood and R Newman, Furness Abbey (English Heritage guidebook, London, 1998). 
3. The story is told in the Historia Fundationis, written in 1197: J Burton (ed), The Foundation History of the Abbeys of Byland and Jervaulx (York, 2006).
4. J Burton, ‘Charters of Byland Abbey relating to the grange of Bleatarn’, Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmoreland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 79 (1979), 29–50. 
5. R Gilyard-Beer, ‘Byland Abbey and the grave of Roger de Mowbray’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 55 (1983), 61–6.