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Fountains Abbey: Location

Fountains Abbey: History
Trials and Tribulations
Strength and Stability
End of Monastic Life

Fountains Abbey: Buildings
Chapter House
Warming House
Day Room
Lay Brothers' Range
Abbots House
Outer Court

Fountains Abbey: Lands

Fountains Abbey: People

Cistercian Life






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Foundation: a Cistercian identity


Like wax accepts the impress of the seal, so they received
the form of the Cistercian way of life
. (32)
[‘Foundation history of Fountains’ (Narratio)]

St Bernard of Clairvaux
© Walters Art Museum
<click to enlarge>
Representation of St Bernard

Having endured the winter of 1133 at Skelldale, the community sought affiliation with the Cistercian Order, in order to receive the guidance and support of the Cistercian family, instead of functioning in isolation. The monks decided to subject themselves to Clairvaux Abbey, in Burgundy. They sent a letter to the abbey’s charismatic leader, Bernard, explaining their departure from St Mary’s, their present situation and hopes for the future. They hoped that Clairvaux would be their mother and Bernard their father, who would advise and support them in all matters. Bernard responded with a positive and encouraging letter, fully approving of their decisions and commending their way of life.(33) In 1135 the community was formally welcomed within the Cistercian family.

You have grown hot again with the fire of God, grown strong from weakness, bloomed afresh in holiness. This is the finger of God working subtly a wholesome change, not turning bad men into good, but good men into better.
[from Bernard of Clairvaux’s letter to Abbot Richard of Fountains.]

Membership of the Cistercian Order
As members of the Cistercian family, the Fountains community now had an identity and a sense of belonging to this large and highly-renowned movement which, it was claimed, offered the surest path to salvation. This would have surely boosted the community’s flagging morale. Incorporation within the Order also brought security of sorts and, more importantly, the support of the Cistercian family. On a more practical level, the monks were now expected to follow Cistercian customs to the letter, for the Order was greatly concerned to uphold unity and uniformity of practice. This meant that every aspect of daily life was highly regulated, from the clothes that the monks wore to the food and drink that was served, the celebration of the Divine Office and, not least of all, the layout and design of their buildings. Bernard sent one of his monks, Geoffrey of Ainai, to instruct the Skelldale community on all manners of Cistercian life. Geoffrey was an experienced instructor who had visited a number of monasteries that had subjected themselves to Clairvaux, to teach them Cistercian customs. The account of his visit to Fountains shows how precisely the Order sought to implement unity and uniformity of practice across Europe. Geoffrey was allegedly extremely impressed by the piety and devotion of this Yorkshire community, and under his guidance, the monks learnt how to celebrate the Canonical Hours and to construct their buildings in accordance with Cistercian practice. An exciting discovery was made at Fountains during the excavations of 1979-80, when these early wooden buildings were recovered beneath the site of the present south transept.(34) Hugh of Kirkstall, the author of the foundation history of Fountains, had not at this point entered the Cistercian life, but nonetheless knew of Geoffrey whom he describes as aged, devout and ‘strenuous in matters human and divine.’(35)

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