Byland Abbey was home to 200 monks and lay brothers. The massive ruins of the abbey testify to the fact of it being one of three great monasteries of the north. The abbey was first located as a Savigny order at Furness, and it wasn’t until 43 years later, in 1177, and many moves that they settled at Byland and were absorbed into the Cistercian order. From Furness they moved to Calder in Cumbria, then to several places in Yorkshire, finally settling at Byland.
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The abbey was built from scratch, with the lay brothers first coming to the site to build the west range, then the monastic buildings, except for the church. It was built in 1190 after the arrival of the monks. The church qualified as the largest Cistercian one in Britain at the time of its completion. When Henry VIII dissolved and pillaged the monasteries, Byland was stripped of its roofs, furnishings, and timber leaving behind the stone ruins.
The church was constructed in a cross (cruciform) shape. It length is 330 feet and 140 feet wide across the transepts. The upper walls were galleried, and there was much brightly coloured painted decoration. A central tower and arcades no longer exist. In the aisle walls are columns and capitals with various carved details. The west front of the church had a great rose window. There were three doorways in this front.
The nave had six bays for the lay brothers’ choir and tiered stalls. This area in later years became an open space. Another two bays were set aside for elderly monks. The monks’ choir stalls were located in the three eastern bays of the nave. Both the north and south transepts had chapels. Another five chapels were located against the east wall. The high altar was three bays long. In the south transept are original 13th century floor tiles. These were laid in geometric patterns. Also in the south transept is a piscina. Steps led from the transept to the monks’ dormitory.
The cloister is below the church level and measures 145 feet square. All four sides had covered alleys supported on open arcades. Windows were added in the 15th century. The north alley was the location of the monks’ private study rooms. The east cloister range was where the monks’ dormitory was located.
The chapter house was where the monks met for business. Its roof was stone vaulted. In the floor is a tomb slab. Arched recesses also held tombs. The parlour is next to the chapter house. Benches were along the side walls. This was the one place where the monks were allowed to converse. A passage led to the monks’ latrine. A dayroom provided a place for a workshop and was divided into seven bays. In the 15th century the area served as an infirmary. The original one no longer exists.
South of the east range was the abbot’s lodging. It was built as a medieval hall. One wing was a buttery and pantry. A vaulted undercroft was built c1190 and was a private solar for the abbot.
The south side of the cloister court had a number of buildings including a dining hall, kitchen, and warming house. The kitchen underwent remodelling in the late 14th century. The refectory was built over a vaulted undercroft.
The west cloister range held the accommodations for the lay brothers. This section of the buildings was completed c1165. Besides sleeping quarters there was a kitchen, day room, parlour, and storage room. A storehouse and a latrine were nearby.
In the outer court of the abbey were guesthouses, a mill, a forge, a granary, a bakehouse, a brewhouse, and a dovecot. A museum with interpretation panels and archaeological finds adds to the experience.
Byland Abbey is located at Wass, 2 miles south of the A170 between Thirsk and Helmsley.
Tel. 0 1347 868 614
Open: April-end June and Sep, Wed-Sun, 10am-6pm; July and Aug, daily, 10am-6pm; Oct, daily, 10am-5pm; Nov-end March, weekends, 10am-4pm; closed 24-26, 28, 31 Dec and 1 Jan
English Heritage property; parking at Byland Inn (owned by English Heritage, tel. 0147 868 204) across the road; picnic area
Byland Abbey Inn
Nearby are Newburgh Priory and St Michael’s Church at Coxwold
Photos and text © by Barbara Ballard