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.)