At one time there were around seventy abbeys and other monastic foundations in Yorkshire, reflecting the great wealth of the county. Almost all of them were destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, leaving the romantic ruins that visitors enjoy today. Here are just a few of the great abbeys in Yorkshire.
1. Fountains Abbey
Close to the city of Ripon, Fountains Abbey is perhaps the best known of Yorkshire’s historic abbeys. It is steeped in history, to the extent that it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once the wealthiest monastic foundation in Europe, it later became a grand estate with landscaped gardens. Now it is a popular spot for days out: exploring the ruins, walking through the grounds, and picnicking.
Read more: Walking into the Past at Fountains Abbey.
2. Whitby Abbey
Another very famous site is the romantic Whitby Abbey. Most visitors to Whitby will at some point climb the 199 steps to this Gothic ruin on a hill overlooking the town.
The abbey is full of history and legends, starting with the 7th century St Hilda. Not only did she host the important Synod of Whitby in 664, but she is also reputed to have turned snakes into stone, so creating the ammonite fossils for which the area is renowned.
More recently, the abbey inspired Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, part of which was set here. You may spot tourists hunting for Dracula’s grave in the churchyard although – unsurprisingly – it is nowhere to be found!
3. Mount Grace Priory
Mount Grace Priory is one of my favourites. Behind a Jacobean Manor House (itself worth visiting for its Arts and Crafts furnishings) you will find the most extensive remains of a Carthusian foundation in England. As you walk around this fascinating site, with its spectacular setting among the hills, you get a real sense of monastic life in the Middle Ages.
Read more about Mount Grace Priory.
4. Rievaulx Abbey
Rievaulx Abbey is close to Helmsley, on the edge of the North York Moors. Founded in 1130, it was one of the first Cistercian abbeys in England. The buildings are remarkably complete, allowing you to walk in the footsteps of the medieval inhabitants.
A terraced walk overlooking the abbey was built in the 18th century. The terrace also features two Grecian-style temples.
5. Bolton Priory
Bolton Priory has a particularly atmospheric location, set beside a river in the Yorkshire Dales. An Augustinian foundation, it was established in 1155, and its activities included sheep farming and lead mining. Today’s visitors can enjoy the ruins and walks around the nearby woodland. They can also visit the priory church, which is still in use.
Read more: Enjoying The Ruins Of Bolton Priory.
6. Byland Abbey
Byland Abbey is in the beautiful Howardian Hills, just south of the North York Moors National Park. Apart from its setting, Byland is remarkable for its architecture, which influenced the design of later monasteries across England. Look out, too, for the intricate tiled floors.
7. Jervaulx Abbey
Jervaulx Abbey, in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, is unusual in that it is privately owned. However, visitors are encouraged, and can enjoy the peaceful grounds and surroundings. There is also a tearoom, and a camp and caravan site.
Read more about Visiting Jervaulx Abbey.
Yorkshire Abbeys And English Heritage
Several of the abbeys in Yorkshire are managed by English Heritage, and entrance is free to English Heritage members. Fountains Abbey is under the care of the National Trust, but English Heritage members can visit free of charge.
Other Abbeys In Yorkshire
Elsewhere in Yorkshire you will find the tranquil riverside Kirkham Priory, and St Mary’s Abbey in the Museum Gardens in York. And there are many other ruined abbeys and monasteries for you to discover.
Then there are the ones that are still in use. Visitors are welcome at Ampleforth Abbey (not far from Rievaulx), which was founded in 1802 and is still a working monastery. And the minsters of Beverley and Howden, once medieval monastic foundations, are now thriving parish churches.