Furness Abbey

History of Furness Abbey

Founded almost 900 years ago, Furness Abbey was once the largest and wealthiest monastery in north-west England. A place of prayer, piety and pilgrimage, the abbey was also a major landowner, its abbot occupying an important place in the administration of the region.

Today, Furness has some of the finest monastic ruins in England. Its buildings are witnesses to the lives of the monks who worshipped and lived there between the 12th and early 16th centuries.

King Stephen, depicted in a 13th-century manuscript
King Stephen, depicted in a 13th-century manuscript
© The British Library Board (Royal MS 14 C VII fol 8v)

Foundation

The history of the abbey can be traced back to 1124, when a community of monks settled at Tulketh, near Preston. Their founder was Stephen, then the Count of Boulogne and Mortain and lord of Lancaster, and later King of England (1135–54). The austere, reforming monks came from Savigny, a monastery in Normandy, which at this time was establishing a series of ‘daughter’ houses. 

In 1127, the monks moved from Tulketh to the ‘vale of nightshade’ on the Furness peninsula, which was then part of Lancashire. This seemingly remote site was actually an ideal location for a monastery. It had a supply of fresh water and ready access to building materials in the form of timber and stone, and communication with the wider world was facilitated by the abbey’s proximity to the sea.

In 1147 all Savignac monasteries were absorbed into the larger Cistercian order. Peter of York, who was abbot of Furness at this time, tried to resist the merger but was forced to comply by Pope Eugenius III, who had been a Cistercian monk. Peter subsequently resigned and was replaced by Abbot Richard of Bayeux, ‘a man learned in theology’. Richard oversaw the rebuilding of the abbey’s church so that it conformed to strict Cistercian architectural ideals, which prohibited the use of most ornament.

The Abbey Thrives

Furness rapidly prospered, embedding itself in the religious, social, economic and political life of the north-west. The generosity of its early benefactors provided the basis for the abbey’s wealth for the rest of the Middle Ages.

The abbey’s spiritual vitality is suggested by its foundation of a series of daughter houses: Calder and Swineshead in England, Rushen on the Isle of Man and Abington, Corcomroe and Inch in Ireland.

Arguably, the most notable person associated with the abbey in the late 12th and early 13th centuries was the author Jocelyn of Furness. He wrote the biographies of several saints, and his Life of St Patrick is the earliest source for the legend that St Patrick cast snakes out of Ireland.

Three of the funerary effigies found in the church nave of Furness Abbey
Three of the funerary effigies found in the church nave of Furness Abbey. They are now in the abbey’s visitor centre

Consolidation in the 13th century

The abbey continued to enjoy royal favour. King John presented a cup worth £20 in 1205, later making a gift of timber for building works and wine for the abbot and monks.

Furness became a favoured place of burial for local elites who believed that the prayers of the monks would hasten the passage of their souls through the pains of Purgatory to eternal rest in Heaven. The wealthiest and most important benefactors were interred within the monastery’s church and some of their exquisitely carved funerary effigies survive. Several kings and bishops of the Isle of Man were also interred at Furness.

The abbey’s wealth funded the construction of many of the buildings around the cloister. Their scale gives an indication of the size of the community in the 13th century, which is likely to have included about 100 monks and twice as many lay brothers.

But the abbey’s history was not without controversy. In about 1246, Abbot Laurence Acclorne was allegedly murdered by three of his monks, who poisoned the chalice he used while celebrating High Mass. At around the same time there was a fatal affray in the abbey’s stable involving servants of a local noble and those of the abbot of Fountains Abbey.

Despite these events, Furness remained a prosperous and spiritually vibrant community. Papal taxation records from 1291 show that its manors and estates were taxed over £171 – a considerable sum at this time – and in 1296 Edward I held the abbey in such high regard that he asked the monks to pray for the soul of his recently deceased brother.

Piel Castle as it may have looked in the 14th century, when it was fortified to protect against Scottish raiders. The castle is located south of the abbey, on an island off the tip of the Furness peninsula
Piel Castle as it may have looked in the 14th century, when it was fortified to protect against Scottish raiders. The castle is located south of the abbey, on an island off the tip of the Furness peninsula
© Historic England (illustration by David Simon)

Warfare and plague

Warfare between England and Scotland in the early 14th century had a huge impact on the prosperity of the abbey. In 1316, an invading Scottish army caused devastation across north-west England, including the Furness peninsula. The Scots returned in 1322, but this time the abbot of Furness paid a ransom so that the soldiers spared his monastery and its estates. Because of this warfare, in 1327 the abbey was granted royal permission to fortify its manor on Piel Island, close to the entrance to the harbour at Barrow.

The recurrent conflict was accompanied by outbreaks of lawlessness in which the monks were both victims and perpetrators. Furness was also among the monasteries forced to contribute financially and materially to Edward III’s campaigns in France during the early stages of what would become the Hundred Years War (1337–1453).

The impact of the Black Death, which arrived in England in 1348, on the abbey is not recorded. But the ‘Great Pestilence’ as it was called is known to have taken a heavy toll on monastic communities and killed up to 50 per cent of the population.

A 15th-century statue of the Virgin Mary. An image of the Virgin – probably located in the church or gatehouse chapel – would have been the focus of pilgrimages made to Furness Abbey in the 14th and 15th centuries
A 15th-century statue of the Virgin Mary. An image of the Virgin – probably located in the church or gatehouse chapel – would have been the focus of pilgrimages made to Furness Abbey in the 14th and 15th centuries
© Michael Carter

Pilgrimage and Prosperity

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the high mortality rates of the time, people in the locality continued to entrust the Furness monks with their spiritual wellbeing. In the middle of the 14th century the abbey received several grants of land to pay for the burning of candles during the celebration of religious services in its church. Furness also became a focus of pilgrimage. Approximately 30 bishops issued indulgences providing spiritual privileges, such as a relaxation of penances, to people who visited the abbey to venerate an image of the Virgin Mary. This may have been located in the gatehouse chapel, which was rebuilt around this time, or perhaps in the north transept of the abbey church.

Veneration of the Virgin at Furness was nurtured by Abbot William Dalton. In 1407 he received permission from the General Chapter of the English Cistercians to celebrate a daily Mass in honour of the Virgin at the abbey’s high altar. In 1412 he ordered the completion of a two-volume cartulary containing records of gifts of land made to the abbey and of the privileges bestowed by the pope. Abbot Dalton is depicted kneeling before an image of the Virgin, and the volumes are also decorated with illuminated initials – many containing ‘portraits’ of the abbey’s benefactors or their coats of arms. 

Subsidence due to waterlogging meant that the east end of the abbey church had to be rebuilt at around this time. Its enormous scale bears testimony to the wealth and status of the monastery in the 15th century.

The remains of the west tower of Furness Abbey, which was built by Abbot Alexander Banke
The remains of the west tower of Furness Abbey, which was built by Abbot Alexander Banke

Abbot Alexander Banke

In 1497 a 30-year-old Furness monk called Alexander Banke was elected abbot. Marmaduke Huby, abbot of Fountains Abbey, who oversaw the election, praised him as ‘an excellent and remarkable young man … endowed with great gifts, experience, modesty and many noble virtues’. However, Banke never lived up to this high accolade and his more than 30-year rule of Furness was characterised by discord and dishonesty.

Banke bullied and intimidated the abbey’s tenants and neighbours and curried favour with local elites by granting pensions which his monastery could ill afford.

However, he made the mistake of double-crossing the Earl of Derby, the most powerful nobleman in the north-west. In 1514 the earl, accompanied by 2,000 armed retainers, attacked the abbey. Banke, who had fled to London with the abbey’s jewels, was deposed from office. 

But he was able to call upon friends in the very highest places, including Henry VIII and the pope. As a result, he was restored to the abbacy in 1516 and carried on very much as before.

Banke died in 1531. His lasting architectural legacy is the great bell tower at the west end of the church.

The signatures of the abbot, prior and monks of Furness on the deed surrendering the abbey to the king, 9 April 1537
The deed surrendering Furness Abbey to Henry VIII, signed by the abbot, prior and monks of Furness on 9 April 1537
© The National Archives (E322-91)

The Dissolution

Furness was soon to be caught up in the religious changes of the reign of Henry VIII (1509–47). The king’s quest for a male heir caused him to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Henry broke with Rome and in 1534 was declared head of the Church of England, ‘as far as the law of God allows’. The wealth of the church was assessed, and Furness was found to have an annual income of £805, making it the wealthiest monastery in the region and the second richest Cistercian abbey in England.

Henry’s religious reforms were far from universally popular. His dissolution of the ‘lesser monasteries’ (those with fewer than 12 monks or nuns and an income below £200 a year) in 1536 was a major reason for a rebellion in northern England called the Pilgrimage of Grace.

Several Furness monks provided enthusiastic support to the pilgrims, though Abbot Robert Pyle attempted to steer a middle course. The failure of the Pilgrimage led to the execution of its ringleaders. Fearing that he faced a similar fate, Abbot Pyle ‘voluntarily’ surrendered Furness to the Crown in the spring of 1537.

Commissioners were dispatched to Furness to oversee the dispersal of the monks and the destruction of the church and other buildings. This was accomplished with the use of ‘ropes and other engines’.

Furness Abbey in about 1880, in a painting by Alexander Francis Lydon
Furness Abbey in about 1880, in a painting by Alexander Francis Lydon
© Print Collector/Getty Images

Romantic Furness

Some of the abbey’s structures, possibly including the former abbot’s lodging, survived the Dissolution and were turned into a manor house. But by the late 18th century, this had fallen in status and was being used as a farmhouse. It was at around this time that the abbey’s red sandstone ruins started to attract the attention of antiquarians, authors and artists. These included Ann Radcliffe, the gothic novelist and romancer, who visualised in her mind’s eye an ethereal procession of white-clad monks.

William Wordsworth rhapsodised the abbey in verse and his Guide to the Lakes popularised the ruins as a tourist destination. This was further stimulated by the arrival of the railways in 1847. The manor house was substantially rebuilt and became the Furness Abbey Hotel to accommodate the visitors.

The crozier and ring found with the remains of a man who was buried some time between 1300 and the Dissolution in 1537. The gilded silver disc on the head of the crozier depicts St Michael the Archangel wrestling with a dragon
The crozier and ring found with the remains of a man who was buried in the church at Furness sometime between 1300 and the Dissolution in 1537. The gilded silver disc on the head of the crozier depicts St Michael the Archangel wrestling with a dragon

Excavation and Conservation

The mid 19th century also witnessed the partial excavation of the site under the direction of Thomas Beck and the publication of his Annales Furnesienses, which was founded on exhaustive archival research. Beck was a resident of Hawkshead, the site of one of the abbey’s estates. Disabled since childhood, he was unable to participate in the traditional pursuits of a country gentleman and instead used his leisure time to research the history of Furness Abbey. The fruits of his labour remain an indispensible resource for scholars to this day.

The abbey’s site was further cleared in the late 19th century and was systematically excavated by William St John Hope, a leading expert on monastic architecture. His detailed description of the ruins was published in the transactions of the county archaeological society.

In 1923, Lord Richard Cavendish placed the ruins in state care. Urgent work was needed to prevent the east end of the church from collapse due to subsidence caused by waterlogging – a problem which still blights the site today. Damage sustained during the Second World War led to demolition of most of the hotel in 1953, and its site is now occupied by the visitor centre and car park.

New discoveries about the abbey continue to be made. Recent excavation of the east end of the church revealed the skeleton of an abbot who was buried with the symbols of his office, a ring and a magnificent crozier.

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