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Byland Abbey: Location

Byland Abbey: History
Later Middle Ages

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The building phases

Good wine should be strong, like the building of a Cistercian monastery.
[Alexander of Nequam, twelfth-century Augustinian canon of Cirencester]

The abbey church at Byland
© Cistercians in Yorkshire Project
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The abbey church at Byland

The magnificent abbey church at Byland was completed c. 1190. This was not, however, the original design, for the community began a smaller and much less complex design in the 1150s, but abandoned this in the 1160s to start afresh. The result was a spectacular and innovative building, which was impressive for its size, scale and the quality of masonry used. It has been described as the most ambitious Cistercian church in Europe at this time. The east end of the church was the first part to be built, which meant that when the community arrived in 1177, the presbytery and monks’ choir could be used for the celebration of the Divine Office. Thereafter the nave and west end were finished and the entire church was complete c. 1190.(5) The construction of a building of this magnitude and magnificence required outside labour, and there is reference to a certain Godwin, who was the master mason at this time (cementarius).(6)

It is interesting to ask why the community began to build a rather modest church at Byland and then, some ten years later, abandoned this for a much more elaborate and grand design. There are various possible reasons for this change in direction. Firstly, the monks may initially have favoured speed over innovation, or perhaps the arrival of a new master mason with fresh ideas wrought a change in plan. The most likely explanation is seemingly related to the death of Aelred of Rievaulx in 1167, and it is perhaps not merely a coincidence that this occurred about the time when this new and grandiose construction was begun. Aelred would have been responsible for visiting Byland to oversee construction work here, and to make sure that the building was in accordance with Cistercian ideals. It is hard to believe that Aelred would have authorised a construction as elaborate and ambitious as the twelfth-century church at Byland proved to be, yet his successor, Silvan, would have been much more sympathetic to these plans. It is thus possible that Aelred’s death offered an opportunity to embark on a much more elaborate and magnificent building programme, which was sanctioned by the new visitor, Silvan, who shared Roger of Byland’s enthusiasm for French architecture. Ultimately, as the exact dates of the construction and completion of the church are not known, these can only be hypotheses.

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