New Research Suggests Byland Abbey In Yorkshire Was Grandest In The North

By Caroline Lewis | 03 June 2008
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Illustration of a medieval abbey

A reconstruction of Byland Abbey in its heyday. © English Heritage

One wonders how much thanks the monks of Byland Abbey gave to Norman warlord Roger de Mowbray when he granted them some land on an insect infested swamp on which to found their home in 1177.

However, the Cistercian monks – members of an order that became known for its skill in working the land – established a fine abbey at the site near Thirsk, North Yorkshire. It even became known as one of the three shining lights of the north.

Now, new research carried out by English Heritage suggests that Byland Abbey may have been even more spectacular than previously thought.

The monks drained the land and built the largest monastic church in 12th century England, a triumph of European Cistercian architecture. And now it seems that the abbey itself may have been on a grander scale than thought – eclipsing the other 'shining light' abbeys of Rievaulx and Fountains.

English Heritage archaeologists, armed with GPS equipment, are currently undertaking a six week survey of the fields around what is now a ruin, plotting humps and bumps in the ground that have puzzled historians.

The studies have found evidence that major buildings stood on part of the 110-acre site that has until now been presumed to have been underwater.

Photo of two men with surveying equipment in front of the ruins of an abbey

English Heritage investigators Al Oswald and Andrew Burn taking GPS plots at Byland Abbey. © English Heritage

Lakes, fish ponds and bogs were believed to have surrounded the abbey – perched on a virtual island of firm ground built up by the monks. It seems that actually, much of this area was built upon with monastic structures linked together by causeways. Some of these land bridges were mistakenly thought to have been dams.

"It is not just that we are finding evidence of buildings where we thought there was water, but that these were major structures, laid out in a geometrical pattern," explained Al Oswald, English Heritage Senior Archaeologist.

"We know Byland's monks were gifted engineers and toiled for 30 years to drain the land, but if anything we may have underestimated their skills," he continued. "Using rudimentary equipment, muscle and not a little faith, they drained a much larger area than we had thought."

The monks were certainly intrepid, judging by their story. They originally set out from Furness Abbey, on the north-west coast of England, enduring numerous misfortunes in their quest to establish a new home. After being chased out of one place by Scottish raiders, they set down at Old Byland, about five miles north of the present site. But their church bells could be heard at Rievaulx, causing much confusion over prayer time – so they moved on again.

Map showing the abbey at the centre of fields and ponds

Map of Byland based on the previous theory that the Abbey was surrounded on most sides by water. However, the latest research indicates that much of this area, particlarly to the north west, was actually built up. © English Heritage

Before they even moved into their final home, Byland Abbey, they spent three decades preparing it. A hardy bunch indeed, the reward for their hard toil seems to have been their very own monastic village.

"The abbey must have resembled a small town in its scale, making it one of the great feats of monastic engineering," said Al Oswald.

The English Heritage survey is part of continuing research on the historic environment of North Yorkshire by the Can Do Partnership. Further research will include a full study of literature, maps and illustrations, resulting in material for a rewritten guidebook for Byland Abbey.

“It’s dangerous to think that the definitive history has been written about any historic site," added John Lax, English Heritage Visitor Operations Manager.

"This latest research work at Byland is revealing the full scale of the monks’ achievement in building this magnificent place, which even after 850 years stands firm on the ground they laboured to reclaim.”

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