Celebrating 850 years of Kirkstall Abbey



The Medieval Section of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society marked the 850th anniversary of the founding of the Cistercian abbey at Kirkstall with a programme of four public lectures. Appropriately the day was arranged as a joint venture with Leeds City Council and was held in the Leeds Art Gallery on 18th May, 2002. This free event was well attended and many people expressed their appreciation and interest during the informal question and answer sessions at the end of each lecture, as well as to the YAS and section officers at our information and display table.

Paul Barnwell presided over the day’s proceedings in his inimical way, making all welcome and carefully levelling his remarks to suit the wide range of interest and expertise of his audience. Furthermore, all the speakers highlighted the influence and importance of this Leeds site and institution to the architectural, agricultural, commercial, amenity and leisure history of both the region and Britain, and for that matter the rest of western Europe.

The first lecture was given by Stuart Harrison and was entitled The Architecture of Austerity. The Romanesque Buildings of Kirkstall Abbey. It was based on his long association with the site and his current work on The Cistercians in Yorkshire Project being carried out at the University of Sheffield. He briefly reviewed the well known details of the founding of the abbey. These included the bequest by Henry de Lacy of the ill fated site at Barnoldswick to the band of Cistercian monks led by Abbott Alexander, followed by their move to the obviously more viable site at Kirkstall. He informed us that Kirkstall was the most complete Cistercian church of its date in Britain. Local pride was further boosted by the information that although the Leeds located church was similar in plan to Burgundian examples such as Fontenoy, it had a more lofty construction and contained more advanced and higher status features. Among these were an architecturally enriched presbytery with rib vaulting which extended to the aisles and contrasted with the lower status and more simple groin and barrel vaulting found elsewhere in the abbey. Furthermore, each of the pillars in the aisles has a different capital, whilst those surviving in the vestibule of the chapter house reveal a remarkable configuration of a central core with eight encircling shafts.

In the fifteenth century the addition of a somewhat over weighty tower reflected the changing aspirations of the abbey’s inhabitants, whilst the alterations made to the east window mirrored the changing fashion and status of the site itself. Originally it contained a remarkable twelfth century rose window, whose interlaced design can be reconstructed from fragments of tracery found during the many excavations of the abbey grounds. This was replaced in the fifteenth century by the present perpendicular window. However, as Bryan Sitch was to inform us, within a century of the dissolution of the abbey in 1539, the church became part of a thoroughfare to Leeds. Travellers passed through the west door up the centre of the nave and out through the opened up east window itself.

The second lecture was given by Stuart Wrathmell and was entitled Beyond the Cloister. The Archaeology of the Abbey Precincts. It sprang from the knowledge and experience he gained during his supervision of excavations at Kirkstall and his post as divisional manager of the West Yorkshire Archaeological Service. This talk highlighted the sophistication of the wide range of support services that had been developed by the abbey’s inhabitants. These industrial and domestic amenities and enterprises were mainly located in the abbey precinct area which is bordered by the present Morris Lane and the River Aire. There was a water supply system which included a mill pond located on the present car park. This was supplied with water from streams and springs in Horsforth and Hawksworth and in its turn fed two mills. A complex system of stone lined conduits, header tanks and lead piping also served the kitchens and flushing latrines used by the important visiting dignitaries accommodated in the medieval manor house now known as the Guest House. Recent excavations on this particular part of the abbey have revealed halls, chambers, kitchens, a brewery and bake house as well as stables and accompanying smithy. Incidentally, the less important wayfarers were housed outside the Vesper Gate entrance to the precinct. Nevertheless, the enterprising Cistercians were not averse to removing the central hearth in the medieval hall whenever they needed a bell foundry. It was obviously convenient to use the existing roof beams to lift the completed bell onto some form of transport.

Modern excavations and the clearance and conservation work carried out in the 1890s by two hundred local labourers under the expert supervision of the architect J.T. Micklethwaite have unearthed artefacts and structures which provide evidence of many more of the secular activities being carried out in the abbey precincts. They have confirmed the documentary evidence of an industrial forge, the administration of its many agricultural granges and its trading links with the rest of Europe.

After the lunch break Steven Moorehouse, a leading expert in the understanding and interpretation of the landscape of Yorkshire, delivered his talk entitled A Changing Economy. The Extent and Development of Kirkstall Abbey’s Estates. He placed the abbey at the centre of a large industrial and agricultural enterprise and explored the documentary evidence that highlighted the forceful and hard bargaining techniques employed by the monks to acquire suitable land and trading opportunities. In effect it was not inconceivable that some of their strategies bore a close resemblance to those of present day entrepreneurs. The Cistercian monks could well be called the Robert Maxwells of the middle ages. They seem to have conveniently by passed the tenets of the Benedictine rule.

The extent of Kirkstall’s agricultural enterprises can still be traced on the Jeffrey maps and those of the first edition of The Ordinance Survey. The grange estates in the immediate vicinity of the abbey included Breary Grange (Adel and Eccup), Dean Grange (Horsforth), New/Moor/Bar Grange (Headingley), Roundhay Grange (Shadwell) and Allerton Grange (Chapel Allerton). Sheep were also kept, and up to two hundred could be housed in purpose built structures in places such as Redcote (Armley), Whitecote (Bramley), Pudsey, Austhorpe and Seacroft. It is not surprising that cote in a place name refers to shepherding activities. Further afield granges were established throughout Yorkshire and Lancashire including Bessacar (Doncaster) and Accrington. All these acquisitions placed Kirkstall Abbey at the focus of a network of roads, which can still be traced on even current road maps. More evidence is waiting to be investigated and the speaker expressed a wish to look under the Meanwood Beck crossing of Monkbridge Road to see if he could confirm its medieval status.

The final talk was given by Bryan Sitch, Curator of Archaeology for Leeds Museums and Art Galleries. Appropriately it was entitled Picture This. Three Hundred Years of Kirkstall Abbey Images, as it reviewed the rich collection of images of the abbey owned by the City of Leeds and other art collections throughout the world. These include views by Thomas Girton (1775-1802), John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) and Joseph Malllord William Turner (1775-1851). The slides of these images chart how the work of time and man had taken their toll of the masonry of the abbey, but they also reveal its prominent position in the Romantic Movement. The complete tower tends to dominate those views captured before its partial collapse in January, 1779 whilst later artists use the damaged tower to emphasise the picturesque qualities of the ruins. The early Victorian photographs in their turn show the interest in the abbey and its use as a leisure and learning venue for mostly well connected and well heeled visitors.

However, in 1890 Colonel J.T. North, a wealthy Leeds industrialist generously donated the abbey and its grounds to the city and all its Victorian inhabitants. This gave the opportunity for the clearance and conservation of the site and its use for the leisure and pleasure of all citizens. A policy still being pursued, as witnessed by its use as the setting for cultural activities such as the annual production of Shakespeare plays, the popular classical and pop concerts and the annual Kirkstall festival. In effect the landscape of John Nash entitled Millworkers gives a telling image of the relationship between the ruined ancient abbey, the encroaching workers terraced houses and the possibility of using the wooded grounds for the benefit of all.

All four of our speakers are acknowledged authorities on their particular subjects and were well able to widen their audience’s understanding and knowledge of this particular Cistercian abbey. A fruitful outcome for this joint venture between the YAS and the City of Leeds which also sort to encourage the conservation and use of such an accessible heritage site.

Maureen Scholey