Out on the tiles in North Yorkshire

YORKSHIRE IS RICH in the ruins of abbeys and other religious institutions, which were all dissolved (closed down) by Henry VIII in the 16th century and left to decay. The better known of Yorkshire’s ruined abbeys include those at Fountains, Rievaulx, and Whitby. In the North Yorkshire district of Ryedale, there are the extensive ruins of a former Cistercian abbey, founded in 1137 and called Byland Abbey. Having visited ancient but still intact and well-preserved Cistercian monasteries in various places in France, I have a reasonable idea of what these places look like. What I particularly liked about the ruins at Byland was that although much of the old stonework has been taken away and incorporated in other buildings, sufficient remains not only of the abbey church but also of the many buildings (e.g., the refectory, the cloisters, the chapter house, and the abbot’s house) that made up the monastic settlement. Having seen the monasteries in France I was able in my mind’s eye to create an image of how Byland might have looked in its heyday.

Apart from its great beauty as a ruined church, the abbey’s vast former church has something that I cannot recall ever having seen at other ruined abbeys I have visited. Exposed to the open air and risking being trod upon by visitors are many quite large expanses of mediaeval floor tiling. Many of the fired clay tiles still bear their coloured glazes. There are patches of tiling where they are laid out in circular geometric patterns. It was surprising to see such a great number of these tiles because even in many of the still intact British churches and cathedrals, such ancient flooring is quite rarely preserved to such an extent as in the ruined Byland Abbey.

I was told that when the abbeys were dissolved by Henry VIII, their roofs were removed, and this ensured that the buildings became unusable and fell into decay. The west end of Byland’s huge church contains the remains of a masonry circle that was once the frame for an enormous rose window, believed to be a prototype for the rose window that still can be seen at York Minster. While the Minster is a sight not to be missed, so is Byland Abbey. The latter might not have such a spectacular location as the ruins at Whitby and Rievaulx, it is, in my opinion, a far more interesting place to explore.

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