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Furness Abbey

In the civil parish of Barrow-in-Furness.
In the historic county of Lancashire.
Modern Authority of Cumbria.
1974 county of Cumbria.
Medieval County of Lancashire North of the Sands.

OS Map Grid Reference: SD215716
Latitude 54.13719° Longitude -3.19893°

Furness Abbey has been described as a Fortified Ecclesiastical site although is doubtful that it was such, and also as a Pele Tower although is doubtful that it was such.

There are major building remains.

This site is a scheduled monument protected by law.
This is a Grade 1 listed building protected by law*.


Furness Abbey is a rare example of a house of the Savignac order which was subsequently amalgamated with the Cistercian order. The Savignac order was one of the reformed orders which developed in France in the early 12th century as a reaction against the corruption and excesses which characterised established orders. The founding house at Savigny in France was established between 1109-12. Their order was based on the rule of St Benedict but included greater simplicity of life and seclusion from the secular world. The order of Savigny established 13 houses in England and Wales before being absorbed into the Cistercian order in 1147. Their monasteries were founded on lands so infertile or exposed that the communities were unable to survive. Several moved sites before eventually becoming Cistercian houses. Once absorbed into the Cistercian order Furness became one of the earliest Cistercian houses in the north of England. At the height of its prosperity in the early 16th century it was the second richest Cistercian monastery in England, a fact reflected in the magnificent upstanding remains. The main monastic buildings, including the abbey church, survive well and retain important architectural evidence of both Savignac and Cistercian orders and the changing wealth of the community. The monument is largely unencumbered by modern development and extensive remains survive throughout the former precinct, both as upstanding features and buried remains. This allows the development and workings of the whole precinct to be studied and provides a rare and important opportunity for detailed analysis of the monastic economy.
Furness Abbey is located in the Vale of Nightshade, between Barrow-in-Furness and Dalton, and lies on either side of Mill Beck. The monument includes the upstanding and buried remains of a monastery associated with the Savignac order dating 1127-47, and the considerably more extensive upstanding and buried remains of a monastery of the Cistercian order into which the Savignac brethren were absorbed in 1147. Well preserved standing remains demonstrate the usual layout of a Cistercian monastery but not the standard orientation. Traditionally, monastic buildings were laid out so that the church ran east-west and formed the north range of a four-sided complex known as the cloister. Domestic buildings such as the kitchens would then form the south range, buildings such as the parlour, chapterhouse and abbot's lodging would form the east range, and the lay-brothers' quarters would form the west range. At Furness, however, to enable the best use of the water supply provided by Mill Beck and springs, it was found necessary to abandon the usual orientation and align the church on what is virtually a north-east/south-west axis, thus the church formed what amounted to the north-east range. For convenience the buildings are described as if normally orientated east-west. It should also be noted that the nature of the valley in which the monastery was built dictated that the outer court lay to the north of the abbey instead of the west as is more usual. The earliest standing remains at Furness are those of the south wall of the nave which date to the original Savignac church of 1127-47. The abbey was rebuilt and extended on a grand scale from the latter half of the 12th century. The nave was rebuilt or completed and included a stone screen designed to separate the main body of the church from the western part which was for use of the lay brethren. The crossing, where the four arms of the church met, also belongs to the late 12th century. In the 15th century an attempt was made to add a central tower to the church but the project was abandoned after it was found that the piers could not support the added weight despite being reinforced. At the west end of the nave is the belfry tower built about 1500. Lack of space in the valley bottom led to the unusual step of constructing the tower partially inside the existing church thereby taking up the space of the westernmost bay of the nave. The tower has boldly projecting buttresses with fine niches, which have elaborately gabled canopies for bases of statues. The north transept is of the same date as the crossing but its windows are of the 15th century. It has an eastern aisle of three bays which retain their altar-platforms, bases of the altar partitions and two piscinae or stone basins for washing the Communion or Mass vessels. The transept arcade is of typical Cistercian simplicity and has above it the only triforium or arcaded wall passage remaining in the abbey. In the north-west corner of the transept is a vice or spiral staircase, and east of it is a large and fine doorway of about 1170 leading to the outer court. The presbytery, or part of the church lying east of the choir where the high altar is placed, belongs almost entirely to the middle or late 15th century, though blocked arches in the north and south walls belong to the earliest building. It contains the base of the high altar and a sedilia, or set of seats for the clergy, recognised as amongst the most magnificent in the country. The south transept belongs to the same period as the north and likewise had its eastern aisle remodelled in the 15th century, but more drastically by the conversion of its northern bay into a sacristy. A doorway leads from the nave into the cloister, the four-sided enclosure with a covered walk or alley along each side. This has lost its internal arcades and most of the buildings which enclosed it on the south and west. The cloister is rectangular, instead of the more usual square, because of the addition to it of space occupied by the earliest refectory or dining room. The north walk of the cloister, against the church, was used as a place of study, and retains its stone bench. On the east wall are a series of five round-headed arches which constitute one of the glories of the abbey. The first and third of these flank the entrance to the chapter house - the room in which the brethren met daily for monastic business - and lead to small, square, barrel-vaulted chambers used as book cupboards. The second of the arches leads through a vestibule into the chapter house which dates to the second quarter of the 13th century. It was a fine aisled room of four bays. The walls have twin lancet windows with elaborate medallions between their heads. The whole has a graceful simplicity typical of the best work of that period. Immediately south of the chapter house, through the fourth and fifth arches, are the parlour and slype or passageway. Further south again runs a vaulted undercroft of twelve bays, the largest of its kind in England. The dorter or dormitory ran over the whole of this range. To the east are the remains of the reredorter or latrines which stood over a stream. Further south are foundations of a small 15th century rectangular building having three latrines, also built over the stream and thought to have been a guest house. Little remains above ground of the south range of the cloister, though its foundations have been outlined in the turf. These include a warming house and no fewer than four refectories; the first running east-west, was replaced in the late 12th century by one built at right angles to the former. This in turn was superseded by a much larger structure in the mid 13th century that was itself replaced by a smaller building towards the end of the abbey's life when the number of brethren had declined. The west range of the cloister has also largely disappeared although, as with the south range, parts of the foundations are visible. It had two aisles of fifteen bays and was probably one of the first buildings constructed here by the Cistercians. The southern end of the ground floor contained the kitchen and refectory of the lay brothers and the first floor their dormitory. Further to the south was the lay brother's infirmary and reredorter, both now invisible above ground; these were connected with the church by a pentice or covered way along the west face of the west range. On the higher ground near the road stand the walls of a small rectangular building of uncertain function, dated c.1500. Beyond the southern range of the cloister is the foundation of the monks' infirmary built in the early 14th century. It consisted of a hall measuring 38m by 14m. A passage led from the north wall to the warming house. To the east of the infirmary is a buttery and chapel, both retaining their original vaults of a span of 7.6m. The chapel is lit by unusual triangular- headed windows and has a stone wall-bench and a fine piscina. East of the buttery, and connected by a passage, are the foundations of an octagonal kitchen with troughs, hearths and a chute for refuse. East of the kitchen, across the beck, are a complex set of ruins. The first building erected here was a mid 13th century infirmary. Much of its eastern wall remains and contains a large central fireplace, on either side of which are two bays each having twin lancet windows. This building was later adapted to form the abbot's house, the eastern end of which was built into the solid rock of the hillside, whilst the western end projected on massive piers. Later buildings were added on the north and south, the former having a well and sluice. The abbey drainage system was extensive and carefully planned; a little-damaged section of it runs under the eastern side of the infirmary, while from the abbot's house the course of the beck northwards can be followed for some 200m. To the north-west of the abbey lie the foundations of the late 12th century great gatehouse. Abbey Approach passes through what was originally an arched passage from the main door of the gatehouse to the outer court of the monastery. In the outer precinct were a variety of domestic buildings such as the almonry - that is the department of the monastery concerned with distribution of charity (alms) to the poor - stables and guest houses, of which only foundations of the latter are visible, together with the remains of a long narrow building of post-Reformation date. The monks' cemetery lay east of the church and several tombstones and coffins remain in their original position. The wall that separated the cemetery from the outer court runs from the cemetery gate to a position just in front of the north transept doorway, where a porch is originally thought to have stood. Further north, beyond the great gatehouse, is a large arch spanning the road, with a small arch adjoining it on the east. These are post-Reformation reconstructions using medieval fabric and stand on the site of the abbey's outer gate. Immediately to the east is the roofless late 13th/early 14th century 'chapel outside the gates'. In the south wall is the triple sedilia, credence or side table, and piscina. Within the precinct wall are other features associated with the abbey. Below the infirmary a small cottage incorporates the remains of a mill. A second mill, the New Mill, was constructed late 15th/early 16th century and was located adjacent to the precinct wall south-east of the abbey. The valley in which the abbey stands shows considerable evidence of quarrying for building material. South of the abbey are numerous low earthworks including an infilled mill-pond. The north wall of the 'chapel outside the gates' is part of the 12th century precinct wall. This wall is visible virtually in its entirety and runs around the valley enclosing the monastic precinct - an area of some 30 hectares. It survives in varying conditions ranging from its full height to foundations only. A small gateway of the 14th century gives entrance through the precinct wall to the south-west side of the monastery. Furness Abbey was founded in 1124 by Stephen, then Count of Boulogne and Mortain and later King of England. He gave a site at Tulketh, in Preston, to monks of the order of Savigny. Three years later Stephen transferred the brethren to Furness. In 1147 it was decided to amalgamate the order of Savigny with the Cistercian order. As Furness had been founded before the first Cistercian house in England - Waverley Abbey - there issued a difficult point of precedence between these two, the question finally being settled in the latter's favour. Despite being located in what was a disputed border region between England and Scotland, and suffering from the subsequent disorder of the 12th century, the abbey's realm of influence increased gradually through gift and purchase. By the opening of the 13th century important property had been acquired deep in the Lake District and also in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. The development of a harbour at Piel, just off the Furness coast, facilitated access to possessions in Ireland and the Isle of Man. Sheep farming was steadily developed and local deposits of iron systematically exploited. Within the abbey itself building on a large scale reflected the increasing number of brethren accommodated. Granges, such as one at Hawkshead, were set up from which outlying estates were managed. Legal privileges given to the abbey were steadily augmented so that Furness became unusually independent. However, border warfare erupted again in the early 14th century leading the abbot of Furness to pay ransom to Robert Bruce to prevent plunder. In 1536, as a prelude to its dissolution, a large number of local men were encouraged to rise in protest against the suppression of smaller monasteries by some of the Furness monks. The abbot, Roger Peel, being unable to cope with the turbulent times, fled, and the following year, under pressure from the king, the brethren of Furness gave up their monastery and possessions to the crown. In 1539 the site of the abbey and some of its lands were granted to the king's minister, Thomas Cromwell, but two years later they passed to a member of a leading local family, Sir Thomas Curwen, and from him to his son- in-law John Preston. In 1671 a new mansion was built within what had been the outer precinct for the then owner, Sir Thomas Preston. In the 18th century the abbey passed from the Prestons to the Lowthers and finally to the Cavendish family. The 17th century mansion, which had latterly degenerated into a mere farmhouse, took on a new lease of life when it was rebuilt as a hotel to serve the Furness Railway opened in 1847. In 1923 Lord Richard Cavendish placed the ruins in the guardianship of the Office of Works. The abbey and precinct wall are Grade I listed buildings. Several other buildings and features within the monument area are also listed. These are the ruins of the former chapel adjoining the gateway into the abbey grounds (the Capella extra portas and attached walls); the medieval gateway adjoining this chapel, the remains of the West Gate to the abbey, which are also all Grade I listed. Abbey House is Grade IIstar listed. The Abbey Tavern, South Lodge, Abbotswood, Nos 1 and 2 West Gate Cottages, the North Lodge (to Abbey House), West Lodge (to Abbey House) and Dunlop House are Grade II listed. Several features are excluded from the scheduling. These include all buildings within the area of the monument, including all the listed buildings noted above with the exception of the precinct wall, the abbey ruins and the 'Capella extra portas' and adjacent medieval gateway, which are included. (Scheduling Report)

Perriam and Robinson include the Abbey gates in their gazetteer of medieval fortifications. As with most monastic gatehouses the function of the Great Gate was not really defensive, in the sense of offering physical protection from attack, but a portal between the spiritual world of the Priory and the secular world. The precinct wall was too large to defend and would be easily pushed over or surmounted by anything like a determined assault by more than a few people.
Perriam and Robinson also write the medieval Abbey Guest House attached to the North Gate 'may have included a tower'. Nothing now remains of that building and the form and function of that 'tower' is unclear.
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This record last updated 26/07/2017 09:21:53

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