Beneath these trees in the days of the Saxon king Ethelbald a company of monks took shelter. They had left their own monastery of St. Mary's at York, and, with the archbishop's permission and sanction, had retired to this desolate spot, desiring to imitate the sanctity and severe discipline of the Cistercians of the Abbey of Rieval. They had no house to shelter them, nor any certain provisions; but in the depth of the valley there was a great elm tree, amongst the branches of which they twisted straw, and thus formed a roof to dwell beneath. But when the winter rain and wind came on, they left the elm shelter for that afforded by seven stately yew trees of extraordinary size that grew on the south side of the valley. These trees were then in their prime, and the monks dwelt under their shadow. They had the stream to quench their thirst, and from time to time the archbishop sent them bread.
When spring came in its beauty, and the delicate yellow blossoms opened on the yews, the monks cleared a spot of ground for a garden, and built a wooden chapel. Their story was rumoured abroad, and many joined them either for instruction or as brethren of the fraternity; but this increase of numbers increased their privations. They had often no food but the leaves of trees and wild herbs, but they bore want and suffering patiently. One day when their provisions consisted of only two loaves and a half, a stranger passing; by begged for a morsel of bread.
"Give him a loaf," said the abbot; "the Lord will provide."
And He did; for almost immediately afterwards a cart appeared bringing a present of food from Sir Eustace Fitz John, the lord of the neighbouring castle of Knaresborough.
Meantime the monks' garden prospered, and fields were given them in addition to the enclosures of the waste that they had cultivated. At length, according to the testimony of one of these devout ascetics, they had "bread and cheese, butter and ale, and a garden full of pot herbs and fruit." After that period of moderate prosperity their privations soon ended.
Hugh, Dean of York, left them his fortune, and they commenced at once to build an abbey. Nothing succeeds, we know, like success. Gifts from all quarters then poured in on them; the abbey grew and became rich in land, cattle, plate, and vestments, and they gave to their monastery the name of "Fountains," no doubt from the springs that rose everywhere in the valley. The building progressed and became admirable under Murdac, the third abbot, who was a personal friend of St. Bernard, the founder of the order that the poor monks had embraced at such a cost. Abbot John began the choir in 1203. It was finished in 1220 . John of Kent added the transeptal aisle, at the east end, called the Nine Altars. He built also the southern part of the great cloister, the infirmary, and the hospitium. Abbot Huby raised the great tower.
Fountains became in time the richest of the Yorkshire monasteries. The last abbot was a wise, learned, and rich man, and seeing that resistance was vain, and the dissolution of the monasteries inevitable, he resigned the abbey to the king. At this period the lands belonging to Fountains extended from the foot of Pennygent to the boundaries of St Wilfrid of Ripon, an uninterrupted space of more than thirty miles.
The approach to Fountains Abbey is through the park of Studley Royal, the seat of the Marquis of Ripon; for the celebrated ruins are situated on Lord Ripon's grounds. The park of Studley Royal is about two miles from Ripon.
The road to Fountains turns down a magnificent beechen avenue to the margin of the little river Skell, which is here dammed up into a lake of about twelve acres in size, close to the lodge and entrance gates. The road is indicated by black hands painted on boards.
The visitor to Fountains Abbey must then cross the Skell by a very old and picturesque bridge, dating from the thirteenth century, close by the abbey mill. The gate - house is then immediately in front of him. It is now only a fragment. On the left is the great church with its lofty tower and long range of cloisters, extending from its south side to the Skell.
The valley rises steeply above ledges of rocks, and on a knoll between the bridge and the mill stands the last of the great yew trees that sheltered the poor monks of St. Mary's. The yews are still remembered as the "Seven Sisters," though only one now remains. It was of great size, with a twisted trunk, now fast decaying. It is probably many centuries old, but still bears silent testimony to the two years of terrible privation passed by the poor monks of St. Mary beneath its solemn shade.
Time has spared many traces of the former beauty and extent of Fountains Abbey, and the ruins have been carefully preserved by their owners since the end of the last century.
The church is 358 feet long; the tower at the north end of the transept is 166 feet high. There was a central tower, but it has long since disappeared. In addition to the church there is the chapter house, over which was the library and the scriptorium, or writing room - a most important apartment when all books were MSS., and needed frequent re-copying. There remain also the refectory, on one side of which is the reading gallery where the Scriptures were read to the monks during dinner; the cloisters, 300 feet long; the dormitory over them, the kitchen, with its two great fire - places, and the cloister garden, about 120 feet square, and planted with shrubs and evergreens. The cloisters are divided by columns and arches, and extend across the rivulet, which is arched over to support them. Near the south end is a large circular stone basin. These solemn cloisters are lighted by lancet windows, which are so overshadowed by oaks, beeches, and firs, that they furnish only a gloomy and dim light. Besides these large ruins there are found amongst the trees and shrubs many fragments of the great abbey.
On the bank of the Skell is Robin Hood's Well, so named, probably, on account of the struggle between the gallant outlaw and the "Curtail Friar of Fountains" whose renown for strength and courage had reached the ears of the outlaws of Sherwood, and, according to the ballad,
The champion of Fountain Dale and Robin had a most severe struggle, that ended in the friar throwing the outlaw into the Skell, where he was obliged to sound the mot for his fifty yeomen. The friar called out an equal number of ban-dogs. but Little John's arrows fell fast and thick among them till the friar called for a truce. In memory of Robin's discomfiture his bow and arrows were left at the abbey, and were long preserved there. Beyond this well is a fine view of the ruins.