King Henry VIII broke from the Catholic church after Pope Clement VII refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1527. This cataclysmic break was finalised in 1534, and what followed was an internal attack on some 800 of Britain’s monasteries, abbeys, nunneries and friaries.
The sweeping and devastating programme of closures, organised by the king’s right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell, left hundreds of spectacular monasteries and abbeys empty and exposed to the elements. What remains in Britain is a landscape of ruins in various states of disrepair, many of which make for scenic reminders of the country’s fascinating historic past.
Here’s our pick of 10 of the most striking you can visit today.
1. Jervaulx Abbey
Founded in 1156, Jervaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire was a Cistercian abbey that spawned from the nearby abbey at Byland. The Cistercian Order of the early 12th century was based on the austerity taught by St Benedict, and Cistercian monks often established monasteries in far-flung areas where they could dedicate their lives to prayer and meditation in peace.
In 1537 however, like many of the country’s religious houses, Jervaulx Abbey was plundered during Henry VIII‘s dissolution of the monasteries. The last Abbott of Jervaulx, Adam Sedbar, made the ill-fated decision to join the Pilgrimage of Grace, a large-scale Catholic uprising in protest of Henry VIII’s religious reforms. The failure of this enterprise not only led to the widespread closure of further monasteries, but also saw Abbott Sedbar executed for treason. It is still possible to see the spot in the Tower of London where he carved his name in his cell wall.
2. Lindisfarne Priory
An important Christian site in Northumberland, Lindisfarne Priory was a Benedictine monastery built in the 7th century which even today remains a place of pilgrimage. Its location on what is known as the Holy Island adds to the mysticism and sheer serenity of Lindisfarne Priory, particularly as this picturesque island is only accessible from the mainland twice daily during low tide. The first monastery to be built at Lindisfarne was founded by St Aidan in 635 AD. It was a thriving Benedictine monastery and became the burial place of Saint Cuthbert, who had lived there for a time.
The monks returned to the Holy Island in the 11th century, however, and for a time Lindisfarne Priory once again flourished. Yet in 1536, the priory was disbanded by Henry VIII in the dissolution of the monasteries, after which it was used as a naval storehouse. Today, the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory form a hauntingly beautiful site on the isolated Holy Island. Ornately decorated and magnificently engineered, the dramatic remains of the priory are well preserved, offering a good insight into how this vast building looked in its heyday.
3. Llanthony Priory
9 miles north of the town of Abergavenny in south-east Wales is Llanthony Priory, a partly-ruined 900-year-old Augustinian priory. Sitting in the beautifully secluded Vale of Ewyas in the Black Mountains, Llanthony Priory is part of the Brecon Beacons National Park and provides a peaceful visit and exploration of Wales’ monastic past. The first Llanthony Priory was built by nobleman William de Lacy in the early 12th century. While out hunting in around 1100, he reportedly took shelter in the ruined Celtic chapel of St David, and was so ‘overcome by devotion’ that he dedicated his life to solitary prayer and study.
By 1504 there were just a handful of canons left at Llanthony, and like every monastic house in England, Wales, and Ireland between 1536 and 1541, the priory was closed in 1538 by Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The site was sold for £160, the remaining canons were pensioned at £8 each, and in subsequent centuries the priory fell into ruin.
4. Netley Abbey
With almost all of the walls of 13th-century building still standing, Netley Abbey near Southampton is the most complete surviving abbey built by the Cistercian monks in the south of England. Today, the ruins represent its 800-year evolution, since the abbey was transformed from a monastic to a mansion house, and finally, a romantic ruin. It was founded in 1239 as a house for Cistercian monks. King Henry III took an interest in the abbey from the mid-1240s, at which point the fruits of royal patronage were demonstrated by the construction of a large church in the fashionable French-influenced Gothic style which was pioneered by Henry III’s masons with Westminster Abbey.
Following the dissolution of the monasteries, the Abbot and his seven monks were forced to surrender their house to the king in the summer of 1536. In around 1700, the decision was made to demolish the unfashionable house. The demolition ground to a halt, however, and it was instead left to decay instead, later becoming a very fashionable ruin which attracted the attention of artists, dramatists, and poets such as Jane Austen.
5. Rievaulx Abbey
Rievaulx Abbey was a Cistercian abbey in Rievaulx near Helmsley in the North York Moors, England. One of England’s great abbeys, Rievaulx was seized during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538. The wider site has since been awarded Scheduled Ancient Monument status and the striking ruins of the main abbey continue to be a popular tourist destination, owned and managed by English Heritage. The abbey’s records also provide one of the earliest insights into queer relationships during the medieval period.
In 1538, Henry VIII dissolved Rievaulx to inherit their wealth which at the time consisted of 72 buildings and had an income of £351 a year. The building was left uninhabitable: stripped of lead and the land given to one of Henry’s advisers. The Duncombe family who later owned Rievaulx beautified the grounds with a terrace garden and 2 Grecian temples. The abbey eventually came under the protection of English Heritage.
6. St Mary’s Abbey
St Mary’s Abbey is a picturesque ruined Benedictine abbey in York, located in York Museum Gardens. Once the richest abbey in the north of England, it now tells the story of York’s influential ecclesiastical past, and its degradation through Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The ruins that survive today were begun in 1270 and finished by 1294, and were meant to mirror the grandeur and eminence of York Minster. Between 40 and 60 monks would have lived in the Abbey, plus up to 50 young pupils of a school and a host of servants. Prayer took place eight times a day, starting at 2 am.
In the 1530s, Henry VIII began the dissolution of the monasteries in response to his break with the Catholic church. St Mary’s Abbey was dismantled, with much of its ornate structure destroyed and many of its records burnt. The Abbey handed over £2,085 – the modern-day equivalent of around £900,000 – and 50 of its monks to the Crown. Today, York’s Museum Gardens, once encompassing the entire abbey complex, provide respite from York’s bustling streets, and also contain Ancient Roman ruins and the Yorkshire Museum should you desire a wide array of attractions.
7. Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey is a picturesque cliff-top ruin of the 13th-century church of a Benedictine abbey. It overlooks the North Sea on the East Cliff above Whitby, North Yorkshire, and was once a centre of the medieval Northumbrian kingdom. An Anglo-Saxon monastery was first founded here by Northumbria’s King Oswy in 657 AD, and became one of the most important religious centres in the Anglo-Saxon world. In 664 it was the setting for the Synod of Whitby, a landmark in the history of the Church in England (hosted by St Hild, a pioneering abbess), where King Oswy ruled that his kingdom would follow Roman rather than Celtic practices – establishing the Roman method of calculating Easter still in use today.
Over time, Whitby Abbey has suffered from a series of destructive elements, having been ravaged by invaders and dissolved by Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries. After the abbey’s suppression in 1539, the Chomley family bought the abbey’s buildings and the core of its estates, occupying them until the 18th century. After this time, the abbey’s walls became weakened by erosion from the elements. Today, it is a picturesque and haunting site.
8. Fountains Abbey
Fountains Abbey was founded in 1132 after the exile of 13 monks from Benedictine St Mary’s Abbey in York, who through their desire for reform had enacted a dispute and subsequent riot. Fountains Abbey played an important part in the development of the area, providing jobs to locals and assisting in raising its status. Both the abbey and its surrounding area thrived as a result, and grew to become an important centre of religion.
Like many in the country, Fountains Abbey suffered during the 14th century as a result of economic hardship and the Black Death, and it began to slowly deteriorate. Following restoration work in the 15th century however, the abbey was once again flourishing. It was royal intervention that finally ended the life of Fountains Abbey, when in 1539 it was closed under the orders of King Henry VIII. Today, Fountains Abbey is owned by the National Trust and is the largest set of monastic ruins in England, attaining UNESCO World Heritage status in 1986.
9. Glastonbury Abbey
Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset is one of the most important historic abbeys in Britain and has been the focal point of myth, legend, and important historical events for almost 2,000 years. Although the original stone church of Glastonbury Abbey was constructed by Saxon King Ine of Wessex in around 712, the site has a history said to trace back to the 1st century. It is believed that construction of the old church took place in 63 AD, and that Jesus was brought here by his great uncle, Joseph of Arimathea. The legend of King Arthur is also associated with Glastonbury Abbey, as in the 12th century it was believed that the tomb of the folkloric king and his wife Guinevere was found there.
Sadly much of this Glastonbury Abbey was destroyed in a great fire in 1184, and a new Great Church was constructed and consecrated in 1213. Glastonbury Abbey would continue to thrive for a few more centuries, only to finally be dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1539. During this time the last abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whiting, was hung, drawn and quartered atop Glastonbury Tor for his refusal to relinquish the abbey and his sustained allegiance to the Catholic Church.
10. Byland Abbey
The ruins of the 12th-century Byland Abbey in North Yorkshire rank among the most picturesque historic sites in Britain, with its turbulent history a fascinating look into medieval England. Though suffering damage in the Scottish Wars of Independence and the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, Byland was once one of northern England’s strongest monastic centres.
Despite periods of prosperity, the story did not improve for the oft-troubled Abbey during the Tudor period, with uprisings such as the Pilgrimage of Grace causing great upheaval in the area. In 1537, the Abbott of Jervaulx (Jervaulx was a ‘daughter’ house to Byland) was executed for treason, and the following year Byland voluntarily surrendered to the Crown, with its monks receiving a pension in exchange. The Abbey was stripped of lead, glass, timber and anything else of value and left a shell. Today, Byland Abbey is managed by English Heritage and consists of an atmospheric ruin, which remains a fantastic example of early gothic architecture. In its heyday, it inspired the creation of the famous York Minster rose window.