ELHAS News - June 2017

Meeting Report June 2017

For the final meeting before the summer break we were delighted to welcome Kat Baxter, Archaeology Curator for Leeds Museums and Galleries, who gave us a fascinating presentation about Kirkstall Abbey. As well as her role as curator, Kat is also an associate researcher at Leeds University, where she has a special interest in pre- history, monasteries and human remains.

Kat began her lecture by explaining the history of the abbey and the order of the Cistercian monks who lived there. The Cistercian monks were a breakaway order from the Benedictines who felt that the Benedictine rule was not being properly observed. They desired to return to a more simple way of life and follow the Benedictine rule more closely. The first Cistercian Abbey founded in England was Rievaulx in 1132, Kirkstall was founded 20 years later although it was not the original site chosen for the fourth abbey. Originally, this was to be at Barnoldswick but the site ran into problems and the move to the Aire Valley was made. The land for the abbey was made available by Henry De lacy who had made a deathbed promise to found a Cistercian abbey.

Kat described the abbey as one of the best preserved in the country and one which retains most of its 12th century height. Showing illustrations of the various parts of the abbey, such as the infirmary and the refectory, she explained the daily lives of the choir monks and lay brothers who lived and worked there. She also described how the abbey became wealthy, eventually owning Granges (areas of land to use for farming) in many surrounding areas. She told us however that it was not all plain sailing and the abbey was disbanded a couple of times due to mounting debts. Kat also surprised us by telling us that when the abbey was dissolved it was noted that there had been some examples of misconduct throughout its lifetime, including the occasion in the 1360's when the Abbot and several lay brothers beat up a debtor. After the dissolution, the abbey was stripped of all useful materials such as the lead from the roof and many of the stones which were taken for use in other building works. Leeds Bridge is one building which benefitted from Kirkstall Abbey stones. Various excavations of the ruin were undertaken including one by Ralph Thoresby in 1713, when he unearthed a tiled tomb cover. Sadly this no longer survives. The abbey was slowly decaying when Colonel North bought it in 1899 and gave it to the City of Leeds. This resulted in more excavations during the latter part of the 20th century. In fact Kat said that the guest house which was excavated in the 1970's and 80's, is one of the best excavated in the country.

Nowadays much is being done to conserve the abbey with some areas having been rebuilt. This not only shows how it would have looked when intact but also makes the remains more stable. Currently, new interpretation panels and show cases are being prepared for the visitor centre, and abbey staff are working with Historic England to improve security for the site. During the question and answer session after the talk comments were made on how lucky we are to have such an historical site on our doorstep, and many people recalled exciting visits there as children.

The next meeting on Monday 25th September 2017 will be an illustrated talk Dr Patrick Bourne Curator at Leeds Museum entitled "Lost Buildings of Leeds".

Photos: Courtesy of Leeds Museums & Galleries
Photos: Kirkstall Abbey and Guest House excavations