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The Cistercians in Yorkshire title graphic

Fluctuating fortunes: new recruits


View of the abbey church at Byland from the east
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Byland Abbey

From Rievaulx and Fountains the Cistercians spread their seeds throughout the country, and overseas, even as far afield as Norway, where a colony from Fountains founded the abbey of Lyse in 1146. Expansion in the North mirrored developments in England: the Order blossomed throughout the first half of the twelfth century, but by c. 1150 the main period of growth was completed. 1147, the ‘Golden Year’ of the Order, was also a significant year for the Yorkshire houses: three of the eight abbeys were founded (Kirkstall, Roche and Sawley), and the absorption of the Savigniac Congregation brought Byland, and later Jervaulx, within the Northern Cistercian family. It was also the year that one of their members, Henry Murdac, was appointed to the see of York.

During this period of growth the monks had a considerable impact on the Yorkshire people, whom they attracted as donors and recruits; indeed, the number of local recruits was sustained until the Dissolution in the sixteenth century. The Cistercians’ incorporation of lay-brothers, professed members of the community engaged as a labour force, opened the monastic life to those hitherto excluded, accommodating a wider spectrum of locals.

To the revered father and lord Ernald, abbot of Rievaulx, from his devoted William, the least of Christ’s servants, who prays that when the Prince of pastors appears he may obtain the crown of glory which will not wither. .....

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The Yorkshire monks also had a close relationship with men from neighbouring religious orders, notably, the Augustinian canon, William of Newburgh. It was at the request of Abbot Roger of Byland, that William wrote his commentary on the Song of Songs, and at Abbot Ernald of Rievaulx’s behest that he wrote his History of English Affairs.

The Cistercians’ impact on their neighbours was not always favourable. The Kirkstall monks, who first settled at Barnoldswick, pulled down the parish church where the locals gathered every Sunday; when the monks of Meaux moved to their site the inhabitants were dispersed and their village became the abbey’s home grange. Whilst the natives were sometimes spared eviction by their reception as lay-brothers, instances such as these played into the hands of the Cistercians’ critics who accused them of destruction and depopulation, of razing villages and turning out parishioners – as one rather acerbic contemporary noted, "they make a solitude that they may be solitaries".(2)

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