Furness Abbey
Furness Abbey
In 1124 Stephen, Count of Boulogne and later to become King of England (or not, depending on your allegiance to Queen Matilda!) founded an abbey for monks of the Order of Savigny at Tulketh, near Preston. Just three years later Stephen moved his abbey to Furness, further north. In 1147 the affiliation changed as the Savigniac Order merged with the Cistercians, and from this date Furness was a Cistercian house.

The original monastic buildings were probably of wood; temporary structures in use while substantial stone ones were built. But the wooden buildings must have been in use for some time, as the first order of business was not to build dwellings, but the abbey church. The earliest stone structure remaining is the south wall of the church, dated 1127-1147. Certainly the church was not finished when the Scots raided Furness in 1138 and destroyed it, chasing off the monks. They returned in 1141, rebuilt the church, and erected more permanent stone buildings to create one of the great medieval English abbeys.

From simple beginnings Furness grew and prospered. Over the next several centuries the abbey received endowments and accumulated properties until by the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries it was the second wealthiest monastery in England, after Fountains Abbey. The monks built a harbour on Walney Island for shipping iron and wool, and founded a castle on Piel Island to guard the harbour. They also built a castle at Dalton to serve as a court house and administrative centre. So you can see that Furness was not simply a quiet place for monks to live, work, and pray, but the centre of a bustling commercial, legal, and administrative empire.

Abbey church archway
Abbey church archway
But there was more to Furness than simply filling the abbey coffers. The monks established a grammar school and built a hospital for 13 poor men. By the time of the Dissolution the hospital also looked after 8 poor widows. They erected outlying granges at Beaumont and Hawkshead. Some of the Hawkshead grange still stands and is in the care of English Heritage. The number of monks at Furness does not seem to fluctuated much; there were 23 in 1381, 33 in 1534, and 39 in 1537.

Like so many other great monastic foundations Furness suffered at the hands of Henry VIII's commisioners, and the end came on 9 April 1537. The abbey was destroyed, and building stone removed, but enough remains to give us a clear idea of just how rich and powerful Furness was in its heyday. After the Dissolution Furness was sold into private hands. The abbots house was used as a dwelling by the High Sheriff of Cumberland. The abbey estate was annexed to the Duchy of Lancaster in 1540, and the house leased to tenants.

Abbey water supply
Abbey water supply
In the 17th century Sir Thomas Preston built a house, known as Abbey House, or Manor House, where the museum and car park now stand. Furness became a popular destination for Victorian tourists due to its scenic location, and this tourism boomed after the Furness Railway Station opened. The Abbey House was then rebuilt as a railway hotel.

There are substantial remains of numerous outbuildings, including stables, a guesthouse, workshops, barns, and storehouses, in addition to the great abbey church, which still stands to its full height in places. The church, like the rest of the buildings at Furness, was built of local red sandstone, which seems to glow with colour. It is not the hardest-wearing stone, however, and the effects of weathering are obvious. Much of the church is 12th century, but the east end was extended and rebuilt in the 15th century. There is a very good piscina and sedilia in the presbytery, and substantial remains of a late 15th century bell tower, built partly inside the church due to space constraints.

View from the precinct wall
View from the precinct wall
There is a long dormitory where the monks slept, and beneath it the chapter house. There is a separate abbot's house, made from an old infirmary, and a later infirmary with its own chapel and kitchen. One interesting feature is that so much of the original water and drainage system has survived relatively intact. The site was enclosed by a precinct wall, both for privacy and security. Much of the wall remains, especially on the east side of the site.

Visiting Furness Abbey
I seldom mention on-site museums in these articles - usually because there's not much to say about them! But in the case of Furness Abbey I must make an exception. I thought the museum, located in the visitor centre where you enter the site, was exceptional. There was such a wealth of detail and excellent displays of historic artefacts found on the site that I really felt I gained some insight into the history and development of Furness.