The History of Kirkstall Abbey
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 The History of Kirkstall Abbey

 

A brief history of Kirkstall Abbey and the monks who established the community.  


The Foundation of Kirkstall Abbey
In 1147 a wealthy nobleman called Henry de Lacy fell ill. He vowed that on his recovery he would establish a monastery and dedicate it to St Mary. His health restored, Henry donated land for the foundation of a monastery in a village called Barnoldswick, near the border between Lancashire and Yorkshire.

Monks travelled from Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire to establish the new abbey in Barnoldswick, but they were not successful. The monks were unable to grow crops, bandits stole their belongings, and the villagers disrupted their way of life. Eventually, the monks pulled down the local church in an effort to keep the villagers away. The Abbot of the new monastic community, Alexander, began the search for a new home.


The Monks Move to Kirkstall
According to the foundation story of Kirkstall Abbey, while travelling on business in Airedale Abbot Alexander ‘passed through a certain valley, then wooded and shadowy'. The monks asked their patron Henry de Lacy for help to acquire this land and it became the site of Kirkstall Abbey.

In the Middle Ages, Kirkstall lacked resources, but possessed 'timber and stone and a pleasant valley with the water of a river which flowed down its centre’. In 1152 the monks began building their new abbey there. The Cistercians were noted for their enthusiasm for physical work, and they ‘felled the woods and broke up their fallow ground’, and ‘brought the niggard soil to grow rich’.

The monks flourished in their new surroundings and attracted many new recruits. Abbot Alexander managed the community well and it was popular in the local area. Many local noblemen gave gifts of land and money. Within 30 years, by 1182, the greatest of the buildings still standing today had been built, such as the church and chapterhouse.

Learn about monastic life at Kirkstall Abbey or discover more about the  the abbey buildings and guesthouse (opens new link).

(Text courtesy of Richard Thomason from the International Medieval Congress.)


Click to expandKirkstall Abbey through the Middle Ages



The monks of Kirkstall were neither the richest nor the poorest of monastic communities. They did not have the same influence as some ancient Benedictine Abbeys, like Westminster, or as much money as some Cistercians, like Fountains Abbey.

But Kirkstall had a strong local community supporting it and for most of the time enjoyed good relations with the king, local lords, and the Church.


Debt and disease 

The monks did have some difficulties. In the late 1200s, the abbey fell into debt when disease struck its flocks of sheep, whose wool the monks relied upon for income. Fortunately, the founder Henry de Lacy’s descendant (also called Henry!) made a favourable financial deal with the monks, who recovered from debt by 1304.
 

The Abbey acquires land

Kirkstall Abbey was the largest owner of land in and around medieval Leeds. Over the centuries, the monks acquired many estates in areas such as Chapel Allerton, Headingley, Roundhay, and Seacroft. 

Originally, the monks were given most of their land as charitable gifts, which they added to by buying or exchanging. By the fifteenth century, documents reveal that the monks leased land across Leeds. 

Kirkstall Abbey was an important institution, respected by the local people for religious and economic reasons.

Click to expandThe closure of the Abbey



Kirkstall Abbey remained prosperous until the early sixteenth century. In 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, making King Henry VIII Head of the Church of England.

Henry chose to abolish all religious houses in England because of their connection to the Catholic Church and their allegiance to the Pope. These events later became known as the ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’.

On 22 November 1539 the king’s agents entered the abbey’s chapterhouse, where, in the presence of all the monks, Abbot John Ripley signed the deed of surrender. The community had been formally dissolved.

The monks went their separate ways, and Abbot John received the abbey gatehouse to turn into his private home. This building later became Abbey House Museum, and some of its medieval features can still be seen. 

Click to expandOwned by the city of Leeds



With the monks gone the abbey grounds were sold. In the late 1800s the abbey buildings were put on sale and bought by Colonel North, a noted dealer in gunpowder who came from Leeds.

North donated the grounds to the Leeds Corporation (now Leeds City Council) in 1890, so that the citizens of Leeds would always be able to visit the abbey ruins freely.

Click to expandFind out more



For more information about what it was like to visit a Cistercian abbey in the Middle Ages download or view our illustrated online guides:

'Kirkstall Abbey in the Middle Ages' (PDF, 4MB)

'Visiting Kirkstall Abbey Guesthouse' - poster showing the layout of the guesthouse and revealing how visitors would have experienced their stay in abbey  (6MB)