The fifth daughter abbey of Fountains, Kirkstall was founded in 1152 by Abbot Alexander. The original colonising monks had first settled at Barnoldswick (a gift of land by Henry de Lacy) in 1147, but the site and native populace had proved to be inhospitable. After arriving, the monks had removed the inhabitants of the site and, when they proved to be a nuisance by returning to worship at their church, the monks pulled down the village church. There can be little surprise, therefore, that the villagers complained bitterly to the archbishop and ultimately to the papacy, who both being Cistercian, did nothing to compensate the village.

The current site by the river Aire was also in the gift of Henry de Lacy and was described at the time as being "remote from the habitation of man", somewhat inappropriate today. At the end of the Abbeys working life it encompassed 800 acres.

So in 1152 abbot Alexander moved his community to the new site and began construction of the basilica and by 1159 the eastern parts of the church were complete and ready for use. It is a popular myth that monks raised their great abbeys with their own hands, however the earliest Cistercian chapters states "No abbot shall be sent to a new place without at least twelve monks ... and without the prior construction of such places as an oratory, a refectory, a dormitory, a guest house, and a gatekeepers cell, so that the monks may immediately serve God and live in religious discipline" These buildings were often timber and not replaced with stone until the monastery was judged to be viable.

In the year 1207 a monk named Serlo narrated his story to Hugh de Kirkstall .....
"In the year of the Incarnation of the Lord 1147, a certain man of noble rank, Henry, by name de Lacy, in the territory of York undertook the construction of a monastery of the Cistercian order.

He accordingly assigned a spot, and erected a monastery; and there is sent to him a convent of monks under Abbot Alexander. This Alexander was one of our [of Fountains] first fathers, own brother of the Lord Richard, second Abbot of Fountains, who, as has been related, at Clairvaux rested in peace.

Among these brethren, I, Serlo, was sent forth, a man now decrepit, as you see, and worn out with old age. The place of our habitation at first was called Bernolfwic (also Barnolfswet), which we called by a changed name--The Mount of St. Mary. We remained there for several years, suffering many discomforts of cold and hunger, partly because of the inclemency of the air and the ceaseless trouble of rain, partly because, the kingdom being in a turmoil, many a time our possessions were wasted by brigands. The site of our habitation therefore displeased us, and the abbey was reduced to a grange.

And through the advice of our patron we migrated to another place, which is now called Kirkstall. In the 15th year of the Foundation of the Monastery of Fountains, on May 19th, we were sent out under the Abbot Alexander, twelve monks and ten lay brethren."

In 1177 Henry de Lacy died and the the church was recorded as complete and by 1182 Abbot Alexander died and all "the buildings of Kirkstall where erected of stone and wood, that is the church and dormitory of the monks, and of the lay brethren, and either refectory, the cloister, and the chapter house, and other offices necessary within the abbey, and all of these covered with tile". Sadly the few that remain are faint and timeworn

Over the next four hundred years the monks of Kirkstall Abbey maintained an almost continuous series of services. The monastic day was organised around eight offices known as the Opus Dei (the Work of God. )Rising at 2am they descended the night stairs for Vigils (the first of eight daily service). "Eight times a day let us give praise to our creator; that is at Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline".

The White Monks were skilled craftsmen, producing leather goods, pottery leadwork for plumbing, weaving and metalwork (Kirkstall Forge being a reminder of this). It has been said that the dissolution prevented what was rapidly becoming the first industrial revolution, so skilled where the Cistercian foundries.

Kirkstall was eventually surrendered on 22nd November 1539, abbot John Ripley and thirty one members of his community gathered in the chapter house and surrendered the abbey to Richard Leyton (one of Henry VIII's commissioners).

In the years after the dissolution the lead roofs, windows and furnishings were removed and to prevent the monks from returning, the main road into Leeds was diverted through the Nave and great East window. (The current base of the window was installed during the Victorian restorations).

The buildings were stripped but not demolished and eventually became overrun with vegetation. The chapter house and many of the other buildings came to be used as housing for livestock. The Basilica remained virtually intact until the tower collapsed in a storm in 1779, and in 1825, melting snow caused the collapse of the lay brothers dormitory floor and part of the dormitory itself.

Henry VIII gave the abbey and its grounds to his Archbishop Thomas Cramner, however when his daughter Queen Mary had Cramner executed in 1556, the property passed back to the crown. In 1584 Sir Robert Savile bought the estate and it remained in his family until 1671 when it passed into the estate of the Earl of Cardigan.

Following the sale of the Cardigan estates in 1889, the abbey and its immediate lands where purchased by Colonel John North who donated it immediately to the City of Leeds Corporation. On 14th September 1895, following extensive renovations and gardening, the abbey was opened to the public by The Lord Mayor of Leeds and the Bishop of Ripon.

As it remains today, Kirkstall abbey is the most complete example of early Cistercian design and building in the the country. In its completion it surpasses its mother house Fountains yet remains largely ignored as a tourist destination. The Museum of Leeds has done much to make the Abbey site an attractive prospect by converting the former Inner Gatehouse into a museum .

A bid has been made for National Lottery funding to convert the Lay Brothers Reredorter into a information centre and community space, providing refreshments and toilets for the abbeys visitors.

Kirkstall Abbey could become (with investment and care) one of the most important monastic remains of europe, making it possible for the schoolchildren of Leeds to access a major historical monument here in Leeds rather than haing to trael to Fountains, Rievaulx or Jervaulx to learn about monastic life in Yorkshire.

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