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.
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.
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.
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.
England, LA13 0PS
Attraction Type: Abbey
Location: 1½ miles N of Barrow-in-Furness off A590
Website: Furness Abbey
Phone: 01229 8263420
English Heritage - see also: English Heritage memberships (official website)
OS: SD 218717
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