In 1135 twelve monks left Furness Abbey to found a daughter house. Their leader was Abbot Gerald and their destination was Calder Abbey. Sadly their neighbours, the Scots, proved rather rowdy. Three years later Abbot Gerald and his little band returned to Furness. Gerald had no intention of stopping being an abbot so he and his followers were refused admittance.
Impoverished and homeless the monks set off for York believing that they might gain some help from Thurstan, Archbishop of York. Footsore and weary the little band arrived in Thirsk – some twenty miles short of their destination. In Thirsk they met Lady Gundreda de Mowbray who took a shine to the monastic posse. She suggested that the monks go to Hood at the foot of Sutton Bank. Her uncle, she explained, had a jolly nice cave that they could use. His name was Robert d’Alney and he had been a monk at Whitby but had left to become a hermit. Clearly she’d forgotten that hermits like their own company. In any event Gerald and his monks joined Robert on the understanding that as soon as Gundreda’s son was of age that he would endow a monastery for them.
Gerald took the opportunity to travel to Savigny where the monks from Furness Abbey originated. He negotiated the new abbey’s independence from Furness. The abbey which he would build would not be a daughter house. It would be independent. Gerald, parchment of independence in hand hurried home – where he promptly died.
Robert d’Alney clearly wasn’t cut out to be a hermit because having shared his cave with the monks not only did he throw in his lot with them he became their next abbot. He would remain in charge for the next fifty-four years.
Robert’s great-nephew, Roger de Mowbray, now come into his inheritance, gave the monks land at Old Byland. Unfortunately the new monastery was too close to the abbey at Rievaulx. This in itself wouldn’t have been a problem. The difficulty lay in the fact that the monks kept slightly different hours. The bells of one abbey interrupted the services of the other. The monks of Old Byland who’d only been there a year moved once more in 1147 to more land provided by Roger de Mowbray.
By 1150 Byland had a reputation equal to that of Rievaulx and Fountains. It was at this point that the abbot of Furness Abbey tried to reassert the authority of Furness over Byland- presumably the abbot had his eye on reflected glory and lots of loot. By this time the Savignac monks had merged with the Cistercians. The case was sent to Aelred of Rievaulx for judgement. Aelred ruled that his neighbours were independent. It probably helped that Abbot Aelred was friends with the abbot of Byland at that time.
If internal political wrangles weren’t bad enough the monks of Byland (they moved the name with them) also had to drain marshes and cope with those rowdy Scots. In 1322 the rather disastrous King Edward II spent the night at Byland Abbey. His army was firmly trounced by the Scots and he fled to York on hearing the news, leaving the monks to face the victors of the battle who were intent on a spot of pillage.
History darkened Bylands door once more in 1536 when Cromwell sent his commissioners to survey all the monasteries. Byland had an income of £295. In addition to the abbot there were twenty-five choir monks. According to Page, “The abbey received, it is not known why, Letters Patent dated 30 January 1537, to continue, but it surrendered 30 Henry VIII, when pensions were granted to the abbot (£50) and twenty-three monks; one other, John Harryson, received no money pension quia habet vicariam de Byland.” The ink well thought to have been used at the signing of the surrender can be seen in the museum attached to the abbey ruins.
Today the ruins, in the care of English Heritage, are set in a tranquil vale on the edge of Sutton Bank. The church, which follows the basic Cistercian floor plan is cross shape. It’s majesty lies on its West Front with the ruins of what was once a glorious rose window. By the time the monks of Byland built their church the Cistercians were moving away from the austerity of their early years. It must have been a magnificent building with its symmetric green and white tiles. Tiles from Byland Abbey are on display in the British Museum as well as being found in situ. Click on the image of the circular pattern of tiles to the right to open up a photograph of the British Museum tiles in a new page.
The size of the church reflects the two groups of monks that populated Cistercian monasteries. The choir monks were literate and spent most of their time in prayer and reflection. They used the east end of the church. Unlike the Benedictines who used tenant farmers and servants the Cistercians used a second tier of monks. Lay brothers took monastic vows but their role was that of labour. For them there were simplified services at the beginning and the end of the day. They learned their prayers and they were not permitted to learn to read or write. The lay brothers used the west part of the church.
The two groups of monks remained separate not only in their worship but also in their quarters. Cistercian monasteries follow a different pattern to Benedictine establishments. The huge cloister was at the heart of the monastery. The choir monks had their quarters to the east. This range of buildings included a first floor dormitory with a staircase leading into the south transept of the church facilitating the night services. The south range of the cloister housed the kitchens and the refectory whilst the west range was home to the lay brothers. Like the choir monks they had their own reredorter (monastic toilet block).
Harrison, Stuart A. Byland Abbey. London: English Heritage
‘Houses of Cistercian monks: Byland’, in A History of the County of York: Volume 3, ed. William Page (London, 1974), pp. 131-134 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/vol3/pp131-134 [accessed 22 July 2015].