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Fountains Abbey: Location

Fountains Abbey: History
Trials and Tribulations
Strength and Stability
End of Monastic Life

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The new community: hardships at Skelldale


He [Thurstan] granted to them by the grace of God a place of habitation
in the estate of the blessed Peter, a place uninhabited for all
the centuries back, thick set with thorns, lying between the
slopes of mountains and among rocks jutting out on both sides;
fit, rather, it seemed, to be the lair of wild beasts than the home
of human beings. Its name was Skelldale.
[‘Foundation history of Fountains’ (Narratio)]

The Rule of St Benedict
© British Library
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The Rule of St Benedict

At Christmas 1132, more than two months after their departure from St Mary’s, the monks left Thurstan’s residence to embark on their new life as a community. The archbishop granted them a site at Skelldale, near his manor at Ripon, as well as land at Sutton, some two miles north-west of Ripon. The monks were unanimous in their decision to appoint Richard, the former prior of St Mary’s, as their first abbot. This was not, however, to be a smooth transition. Whilst the community had a site, a leader, and the solitude that it had sought, it lacked buildings and also provisions, save the bread received from Thurstan and water afforded by a nearby stream. To make matters worse, this was winter and the site was cold, barren and unwelcoming.

The elm tree
The elm still lives unhurt with its green leaves and thick foliage to make a later generation believe from what a humble state sprang the foundations of our mother abbey, that is the church of Fountains.
[‘Foundation history of Fountains’ (Narratio), p. 166.]

The poignant account of their hardships in the foundation history (Narratio), paints a bleak image of the way of life at Skelldale. This describes how the community’s only shelter was an elm tree that stood in the middle of the valley. The monks slept beneath its branches, covering themselves with straw and anything else at hand, to keep out the bitter cold. Life was hard in this desolate and inhospitable spot, but the monks did not complain. They lived according to the Rule of St Benedict, rising during the night to celebrate the office of Vigils, and working hard during the day gathering wood to build a chapel, plaiting mats and cultivating a garden. It was in this way that the new community passed the winter of 1133.

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