From Wilderness to Pleasure Garden

This exhibition was created as part of the Skell Valley Project: Digging Deep in the Archives using the archives of the Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Collection held at our Leeds office. More information on the Digging Deep in the Archives project can be found here. A huge thank you to our wonderful team of Digging Deep in the Archive Volunteers who make exhibitions like this possible!

The monks first arrive in the wilderness, 1132

In the winter of 1132, Thurston, the Archbishop of York, led 13 monks who had broken away from the rule of St Mary’s in York to a “place uninhabited from the earliest ages, overgrown with thorns, among the slopes of the hills and the crages of rock towering here and there, more suitable as lairs for wild beasts than the uses of men.”

It was characteristic of the early Cistercian foundations that they chose wild and desolate places in which to begin their simple and peaceful life. It is told that the monks lived under an elm tree when they first arrived at the site which was called “Fountains” because of the number of local natural water springs.

Dissolution of Fountains Abbey, 1540

In 1540 Henry VIII and his minister, Thomas Cromwell, closed the last twelve monasteries to complete the Dissolution of the Monasteries. They had spent four years closing over 800 Catholic monasteries in England, Wales and Ireland, demolishing the bulidings, taking their income and selling of their land.

Thomas Cromwell sent commissioners to value the goods of each monastery so he would know what would be taken into the King’s ownership. An inventory was written up, in the form of a huge roll, listing the plate, vestments, furniture, livestock and crops at the abbey. The total worth was given as £719 which was the equivalent of around £303,000 in today’s money. The abbey lands were also sold and archives show how vast swathes of woodland surrounding the abbey were recorded and then sold off.

The abbey was first bought by Sir Richard Gresham, a London merchant and financier for £1,000. His heirs then sold the estate to Sir Stephen Proctor in 1598 for £4,500. It was Sir Stephen Proctor who built Fountains Hall using some of the stone taken from the ruined abbey. The landscape from that time can be seen on a wonderful map from 1600 which shows the earliest known illustration of the Fountains Abbey.

The creation of the pleasure gardens, 17th and 18th centuries

The sale of the abbey and surrounding lands meant that over the next 200 years the landscape could be dramatically changed by subsequent owners; the river Skell was tamed to create the water gardens; the site was adorned with grottos, temples and statues; the ruined abbey became a dramatic garden feature and the Unesco World Heritage site we see today started to take shape. The slides below explain some of the significant changes made by the Aislabie family in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.