The sons of the abbey's tenant farmers having reached the age of 15 years could obtain admittance to the abbey school where they were received as novices and taught reading, writing, psalmody and the rules and customs of the house. This centre of education was situated in the western alley of the cloister. There were usually about six of these learner monks at any one time in the monastery, and the novice master – a quire monk, taught them. Rules for Novices were less strict than those for monks, especially as regards diet and recreation: they played a variety of board games such as nine men’s morris.
After a probationary period the novice was sent for and reminded by the prior, of “the hard and difficult things in our way of life”. If he was able to convince the prior of his willingness to accept all aspects of the Rule, he left the room with his novice master to write out his profession, or, if he was illiterate, he would ask another to write it out for him, subscribing with a cross – the origin of making a mark. After taking his vows he was clothed with the monk’s habit and became a full member of the community. Suitable candidates were received into the Order and took solemn vows.
Effects of Dissolution and Destruction
The monks were dismissed and given £4 out of which they had to buy new clothes for they were not allowed to wear their habits. Abbot Roger Pele, the last abbot, was made vicar of Dalton Parish Church. Three sick and old monks who had lived in the Infirmary were turned out with £3 each.
Workers both skilled and unskilled (about 140) were paid their wages and dismissed.
Most of the poor people, (including eight widows), who had been fed daily, received nothing, while 13 poor patients from the hospital, were given 13 shillings and four pence (67p.) and sent away to depend on charity.
The novices were sent home.
“Old men in the days of Elizabeth could remember what life in Furness was like in their childhood days. Robert Wayles told how he used to visit a relative, who worked as a yeoman in the abbey kitchen. He saw tenants arriving with twenty or thirty horses, to take away their weekly barrels of beer, sixty in all, each containing ten gallons and with each barrel went a dozen loaves. He also saw thirty or forty carts, called corops, which carried dung away, to manure the tenants’ fields at Newbarns and Hawcoat. Robert used to visit his father-in-law’s smithy at Kirkby. He remembered how clott iron; called livery iron was brought to be melted down for the tenants’ ploughs. Every tenant who had a plough was allowed to send two persons to dine one day a week from Martinmas until Pentecost. Children and labourers had permission to go to the Abbey for meat and drink. One witness had been in the Abbey School which contained both a grammar and song school. The tenants were allowed to send their children to this school, and to have their dinner or supper each day in the hall”. (Victoria County History).
All this came to an end at the Dissolution.
Before the Great Raid most of the parishes in the area had paid sums of money towards the building of St. Peter’s in Rome (Peter’s pence) but twenty years on this was not the case. Dalton could send £8 and only £2 after 1322. Aldingham sent £53.6.8d before the Great Raid and only £10 after 1322. Pennington sent £5.6.8d and only £ 2.6.8 d after the raid. The Scots had destroyed crops as well as homes and famine and disease spread throughout the land.
14th century effigies (sculptures), may represent members of the Lancaster family, Barons of Kendal, benefactors, who from the 13th century had the right to be buried in the abbey.
“Outstretched Together are exprest,
He and My Lady Fair,
With hands uplifted on the breast,
In attitude of prayer;
Long-visaged, clad in armour, He-
With ruffled Arm and Bodice She.”
English Heritage was founded in 1982 replacing Historic Building and Monuments Commission (previously Ministry of Works). "We aim not only to ensure the preservation of our historic environment for the future, but also to encourage people to appreciate and enjoy this heritage today".
(From English Heritage publicity material). Furness Abbey is one of the many historic sites cared for and maintained by English Heritage.
N.B. The English Heritage website does not always show correct opening times.
If you intend to visit, it is best to call the Abbey Museum first on 01229/823420
Today's visitors enter the abbey ruins through the Visitor Centre, but medieval man would have had to pass through a series of gates and courts to reach the church and cloister area.
19th - 20th century
1857 A grand dinner for 300 guests was held in a giant marquee at the abbey to celebrate the opening of the Ulverston and Lancaster Railway.
1910 A conference was held at the abbey for The United Association of Bakers and Confectioners.
1923 Lord Richard Cavendish placed the ruins in the guardianship of the state.
1927 Celebrations of the 800th anniversary of Furness Abbey. Mass was celebrated in the Amphitheatre field within the precinct wall for the first time since the Reformation. (See picture gallery Guided Tours).The Anglican Church also held a service. Unfortunately there are no photographs of this event.
1958, 1961, 1966, 1988, Mystery Plays at the abbey. (See picture gallery).
1976 From this year an annual Ecumenical service takes place on Whit Sunday.
1982 The foundation of English Heritage who from this date became responsible for the preservation of Furness Abbey as a national monument.
1990 Festival of Furness Abbey August 20 - September 8 Visit to Furness Abbey of the West Cumbria Newman Circle. Mass was celebrated by 82 year old Benedictine monk, the Very Rev. Dom Hugh Menken, the Cathedral Prior of Worcester. Five Barrovians, two Lancastrians and 12 members of the West Cumbria Newman circle from Whitehaven made up the congregation for this mass, the first, in the Infirmary Chapel, since the Reformation.
(See picture gallery under Guided Tours/Masses)
1992 Mass was celebrated by Bishop Brewer in the abbey church for the first time since the Reformation.
1992 The "Launch" of Friends of Furness Abbey. A Festival of Flowers and Music took place at Urswick Church with Barrow Flower Club arranging flowers and Chetwynde School Choir providing the music. (See Gallery Medieval Monasticism/Urswick). The flower club also arranged flowers at the abbey, and Vickers Band played for the audience. There were also guided tours for the mayor, Councillor Joyce Fleet and party. An exhibition of the abbey’s history was displayed in the Education Room.
1993 Christmas Carols at the Abbey accompanied by the Salvation Army Band.
1994 An English Heritage Free Family Open Day. A guided tour of Furness Abbey by Alice Leach followed by a cream tea at The Abbey House Hotel, in the presence of the Mayor, Councillor Hazel Edwards.
1996 Craft fair organised by Friends of Furness Abbey with guided tours.
1996, 1997, 1998 Exhibitions of falconry - English Heritage events.
1996 medieval musicians. Onwards-English Heritage Open Days.
2009 Mass at the abbey (See picture gallery under Guided Tours/Masses)
A native of Avranches, he took his name from the French town. Elected the first Abbot of Furness, he was also the first Savigniac Abbot. He was described as pious, learned and eloquent.
Excavations and Restoration
The first excavations of Furness Abbey took place in the 1840s when the Furness Railway was being constructed. Under the direction of Thomas Alcock Beck, some clearing of the church was done in 1840 when this historian was researching for his book "Annales Furnesienses". Writing about the rubble inside the west tower, Beck described it as follows “The workmen employed by the late Lord George Cavendish state that the rubbish in this tower accumulated by the fall of the superstructure which filled up the interior to the window sill, was rendered so compact by its fall, so tenacious by the rains, and composed of such strongly cemented materials, as to require blasting with gunpowder into manageable pieces for its removal".
In the 1880s some of the buildings in the cloister area were excavated and the walls cleared of ivy. W. B. Kendall, antiquarian, supervised this work, encouraged by Lord Frederick Cavendish. In the early 20th century there occurred the first comprehensive excavations and archaeological assessment of the whole site. The director was Sir William St. John Hope, antiquarian, archaeologist and historian. He was assisted by Harold Brakspear and Jesse Turner, the official guide to the abbey. A major programme of restoration began in 1923 following the placement of the ruins in the guardianship of the then Office of Works. The man in charge was Sir Charles Peers, Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments. Underpinning of the whole transept, the arcade, parts of the east walls of the Chapter House and east range were carried out. The latrine block was excavated as well as the water channels.
The Chapter House was dealt with in 1925-26, the South Transept and North Aisle in 1926, the North Transept from 1927 – 31, the east range and latrine block in 1930, the infirmary chapel in 1931 and the crossing arch in 1932. The major engineering work was accompanied with a general tidying up of the abbey grounds.
(See Picture Gallery/Restoration.)
Unfortunately the presbytery area of the church was not underpinned in this major reconstruction and from 2009 till 2010 another major reconstruction work has been necessary. Movements and cracks in the wall of the church have appeared. English Heritage has called in HSP (Historic Property Restoration) to install a metal framework to shore up and hold walls which are in danger of collapsing. Eventually a concrete foundation will replace the original one made of oak.
During excavations led by Oxford Archaeology North to investigate the seriousness of the problem, the undisturbed grave of an abbot was uncovered inside a lead coffin in the presbytery. This prestige space was normally for benefactors and lay people while abbots were generally buried in the Chapter House. Initial examination of the skeleton which is currently in the care of Oxford Archaeology North indicated that the abbot was middle aged, obese and probably diabetic.
The identity of the skeleton is unknown and any identification at this stage would be speculative.
The grave which could date to as early as the 1150s also included a decorated crozier and a gemstone ring. The head of the crozier is made of gilded copper and decorated with gilded silver medallions showing the Archangel Michael defeating a dragon. The crozier’s crook or end is decorated with a serpent’s head. An abbot or bishop usually held a crozier with his left hand, leaving the right hand free to bestow blessings. A small section of the painted wooden staff survives as do remains of the cloth which would have prevented the abbot from touching the crozier with his bare hands. The ring is gilded silver and set with a gemstone of a white rock crystal or white sapphire. It is possible that a hollow behind the gemstone contains a relic.
Source: Kevin Booth, Senior Curator at English Heritage.
Research is ongoing