The Ruined Abbeys of England


“O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the wood / How often has my spirit turned to thee” So proclaimed William Wordsworth in his 1798 explorative poem Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey. The tone throughout is one of ecstatic joy, found in the knowledge imparted by revelling in the beauty of nature. With that in mind, the title is very telling.

The charmingly dilapidated apses and walls at Tintern Abbey just outside of Bristol, form the ancient walls of one of England’s most photographed sites. Here, when the early Devonshire mist lingers close to the ground and rays of morning light filter through the cracked gothic window pieces and archways of the ruined abbey, it is easy to see why one of the country’s most Romantic poets returned here so often for inspiration.

Nestled in a green valley on the banks of the River Wye that flows into the Severn Estuary, Tintern Abbey is one of England’s finest sceptres of its religious past. The grey-brick structure was once a Cistercian Monastery that flourished in the middle ages under the patronage of Welsh noblemen from Gwent and Neath in the South Wales valleys. Dating from the 12th century, the abbey is a prime example of England’s lost architecture that suffered with the sweeping religious reforms of Henry VII in the middle of the 16th century.

From 1536 to 1540 King Henry moved to dissolve the monasteries across England, as an act of religious defiance to the papacy in Rome, and in order to raise money from the sale of expensive materials that could be salvaged from the roofs and windows of the structures. Today, the English countryside is littered with some 800 sites, remnants of the religious metamorphosis England underwent at the hands of one of the most ruthless of Tudor monarchs. For visitors to England, a trip to one of these offers a unique window into the history of the country, and like the medieval castles that punctuate the countryside in most counties, the Monastery ruins are mysteriously ethereal in their ability to bring the past to life.

The crowning ruin of the north is often hailed as Bolton Abbey. Shrouded in 30,000 acres of countryside, in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, this Augustinian Abbey of the 12th century is now a symbol at the centre of England’s Romantic artistic tradition. The magnificent, high romantic ‘Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire’ painting by J. M. W. Turner is now on display in the London Tate gallery, and, dating from 1809, went a long way to contributing to the symbolic role of England’s ruined monasteries in the reactionary artistic movements on the late 18th and 19th centuries. Today the grounds of Bolton Abbey are open to the public, and walks in the surrounding grounds are an excellent way to explore the Yorkshire Dales in one of their most magnificent settings.

At another peaceful site in north Yorkshire, the awesome architectural skeleton of the Rievaulx Abbey is an amazing reminder of the former wealth and power of England’s monastic institutions. This high rectangular building of gothic arches and hexagonal spires was once the country’s richest abbey, and at the time of dissolution in 1538 had expanded to include a complex of 72 different buildings. Underneath the roofless structure, the light that filters down through the empty window holes to the grass-covered floor below, gives the monastery a mysterious feel that is at once eerie and inspiring.

The oldest of the lot is Waverly Abbey in Surrey, which was the first Cistercian Abbey in England. It was founded in 1128, and today is a series of ruins that were almost entirely dismantled by Henry VIII during the dissolution. Amidst the ruins, the under croft of the old refectory is a delicate arched structure built in the gothic style of medieval monastic England. It’s great to take a walk through he ruins, under the low arches of the lay monastery, and out into the banks of the River Wey, where today, the elegant Georgian Waverly Manor is another – much later – architectural gem of Surrey County.

With over 800 sites of ruined monasteries, England is littered with sites of interest just like these. In the 19th century, artists and painters of the Romantic tradition found solace and inspiration in the presence of these exquisite last vestiges of an England past, where the dead religious values of a lost cultural tradition were something of a parallel to their own contemporary strife between art and science. But, whether or not one derives artistic inspiration at these sites, one thing is for sure; they are undeniably beautiful in their dilapidation, and worthy of attention from any visitor to rural England.