Thursday, November 26, 2015

Furness Abbey: From Glory to Ghost-Haunted Ruins

By Nancy Bilyeau

This is the latest in a series devoted to the monastic ruins of England. My trilogy, The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry, is set in the 1530s and early 1540s; the main character is a young Dominican novice at a priory facing destruction.

The novels are thrillers, but the framework is a serious look at Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. I spent years researching the brutal ending of a way of life for 1,700 nuns, 3,200 monks and 1,800 friars, all expelled from their homes within a five-year period. The stone buildings themselves were confiscated by the king or given to his loyal courtiers. Many were stripped of value and demolished; some were left standing but crumbled over the centuries.  

"You love faded glory," said my husband, who knows me better than anyone in the world. He's right—I feel a strong pull toward grand old houses, pallid churches, neglected cemeteries, seldom-visited  landmarks. To me, few ruins are as poignant as those of an English abbey. 

Furness Abbey, in the county of Cumbria, has a long and fascinating history, its dissolution marked a pivotal moment in the king's attack on the monasteries, and it is ravishingly beautiful. Oh, and according to legend it houses several ghosts. :) 

                                Furness Abbey

King Stephen
The Founding: Stephen, grandson of William the Conqueror, count of Bologne and Mortain, and later King of England during a time of chaos, established Furness in 1127. In the founding document, Stephen wrote: "That in Furness an order of regular monks be by divine permission established; which gift and offering, I, by supreme authority, appoint to be for ever observed; and, that it may remain firm and inviolate forever, I subscribe this charter with my hand and confirm it with the sign of the holy cross."

The chosen location was a remote, narrow valley in the north of Lancashire near the coast; it was sometimes called "the vale of the deadly nightshade," because of an abundance of atropa belladonna, a beautiful plant with toxic berries. The abbey's buildings were all constructed with the vivid-colored local sandstone.
Cistercian habit

The Order: The Cistercians were founded in 1098 out of a desire to adhere more strictly to the Rules of St. Benedict. Its emphasis was on manual labor and self-sufficiency, with isolation being of great value. By 1154, there were 54 Cistercian monasteries in England, the largest were Fountains and Rievaulx abbeys in North Yorkshire ... and Furness. 

The Glory: In spite of the Cistercian emphasis on austerity and contemplation, Furness grew in wealth and local influence over the next few centuries. It controlled 55,000 acres of land; its holdings included iron mines, tanneries, fisheries and mills.  A close connection sprang up between the abbey and the Isle of Man, and more than one monk became Bishop of Man.

Robert the Bruce
Being so close to Scotland, Furness inevitably got caught up in border tensions. When Robert the Bruce invaded England in 1322, the abbot allowed the Scottish leader to stay overnight at Furness and paid him the enormous bribe of ten thousand pounds so that the abbey would not be harmed. It worked; the marauding army moved through abbey property without laying waste to it.

Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion, from a 1913 painting. Note
the prominence of monks in the fervor.
The Dissolution: Furness was one of the first of the kingdom's larger monasteries to fall. Its destruction is laced with irony. The Pilgrimage of Grace, a rebellion in the north of England, broke out because a great many people disagreed with the direction of the king's reforms. They wished, among other things, to preserve the monasteries that Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief minister, was busy closing down. 

Historians agree that the abbot of Furness in 1536, Roger Pyle, was a fearful, nervous man. When the rebellion boiled over, Pyle fled to the stronghold of the Earl of Derby, leaving his monks behind. In his absence, some of the monks contributed money to the rebels and pressured Furness tenants to do the same. 

Although the rebel army outnumbered the forces of Henry VIII, they were defeated. In the mop-up, Henry VIII's anger with the Northern monasteries flipped to rage. Abbots were hanged, monks rounded up. Two of the Furness monks were imprisoned and questioned. In 1537, the king's man, the Earl of Sussex, met with Abbot Roger Pyle, his mission being to find enough wrongdoing to justify closing the abbey. 

But there was a problem: Abbot Pyle had shown no disloyalty. The  Earl of Sussex came up with a solution that turned out to have profound consequences. He summoned the abbot to Wyland, a place where the severed heads of defiant abbots and monks were prominently posted, and then made a suggestion: The Furness abbot could surrender the abbey to the Crown and go willingly, along with the 28 innocent monks. That way, there would be no penalties or prosecutions. Abbot Pyle at once agreed, and he signed a document on April 9, 1537, effectively giving the abbey to Henry VIII. 

This tactic worked so well that it was to be the model of the future.  Frightened abbots were asked to surrender their homes to the king, and most of them agreed.

The Crumbling: In most cases, surrendered abbeys were demolished or converted into private homes. Perhaps because of its isolated location, this did not happen to Furness. The land reverted to the crown, and all precious objects were carted off and valuable lead stripped. But many of the original buildings stand today, although ravished, like sandstone skeletons. Visitors can enjoy the sight of the cloister court, church tower, infirmary, chapter house and other structures. 

A series of families have owned the abbey property, including the Dukes of Devonshire; it is now part of the estate of the Duke of Buccleuch, the largest private landowner in the U.K.

Since the Dissolution, many have fallen in love with Furness. The ruins fired the imagination of William Wordsworth, who wrote a poem dedicated to it in 1888: "See how her ivy clasps the sacred Ruin/Fall to prevent or beautify decay/And, on the moldered walls, how bright, how gay/The flowers in pearly dews their bloom renewing!"

The Spectres: There are stories of three ghosts haunting Furness. One is of a murdered monk climbing a staircase, almost as if he were being dragged up. The second is a White Lady, drifting around the ruins as she searches for the lover who left and never returned. The third, and eeriest, is a headless monk riding a horse under one of the grand sandstone arches--perhaps one of the monks who sided with the rebels during the Pilgrimage of Grace and was punished for it.

The Preservation: Furness is an English Heritage site, and efforts are being made to prevent further collapse. Archaeological digs last year revealed the grave of a medieval abbot who, according to a newspaper report, was "a well-fed, little exercised man in his forties who suffered from arthritis and Type 2 Diabetes."

To learn more on Furness and its history, go to  and