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The Cistercians in Yorkshire title graphic

The foundation of Kirkstall: from Barnoldswick to Kirkstall


The first foundation

Alexander, first abbot of Kirkstall
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Alexander, 1st abbot of fountains

The community of Kirkstall had its origins in 1147. This was the ‘Golden Year’ of the Cistercian Order in Europe and the highpoint of its expansion in Britain. It was also a time of uncertainty and unrest in England because of the civil war of Stephen’s reign (1135-54). Henry de Lacy, baron of Pontefract, set the wheels in motion for the foundation of Kirkstall. Henry was one of the leading landholders in the North and the most significant in the West Riding of Yorkshire.(1) The Foundation History of Kirkstall describes one occasion when Henry fell gravely ill and promised that should he recover, he would found a religious house. After he regained his strength Henry kept his promise and gave land in Barnoldswick, near Skipton, to Fountains Abbey, for them to establish a daughter-house. In May 1147 Alexander (left), prior of Fountains, was sent to Barnoldswick to lead a community of twelve monks and ten lay-brothers, all from Fountains. At that time the house was known as the Mount of St Mary. Fountains maintained strong ties with its daughter-house and throughout Kirkstall’s history provided a number of abbots for the community.(2)

The arrival of the White Monks at Barnoldswick had a dramatic impact on the local population. There was already a parish church at Barnoldswick where the locals used to gather on Sundays and feast days. Their presence here interfered with the monks’ desire to live in solitude, so the abbot, ‘with some want of consideration’, tore down their church. Not surprisingly his actions provoked an outrage amongst the inhabitants. As the chronicler of the house explains, ‘no small controversy arose concerning such an unusual and highhanded proceeding’(3) and the community found itself facing charges in court. At the pope’s intervention the case was decided in the monks’ favour, since it was reasoned a pious act for a church to fall and an abbey to rise. Whilst peace was ostensibly restored, the natives undoubtedly regretted the day that the Cistercians had arrived in their neighbourhood.

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