A few words from the author.
Before you begin reading this narrative of Furness Abbey you should be aware that this is not a definitive history; advances in technology, archaeology, aerial photography, the discovery of previously unseen charters, documents etc, may yet yield further information on the abbey and if this occurs, the data will be added to my Book. I have included everything I know, acquired over a period of thirty years. Above all I have tried to “people the abbey”. I hope this helps children with their projects on the abbey, students with their research, and is of interest to all lovers of Furness Abbey – their Heritage.
The story of any medieval European Abbey and Furness Abbey is no exception, can be traced back to the Abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy. It was there, circa, 529 that St. Benedict wrote the 73 Chapters of the Rule which has been followed by most European nuns and monks to the present day. Large parts of the Rule assume the character of a collage of quotations from the Bible. St. Benedict tells his monks that there is nothing at all they should prefer to Christ (Chapter 27). Followers of the Benedictine Rule, in their quest to reach the supreme spiritual heights of Roman Catholic Christianity, are required to take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and stability, and to live in communities, under the leadership of an abbot or abbess. Their lives should reflect St. Benedict's edict: Laborare est Orare – to labour is to pray.
The rise and decline of the chief Monastic Orders followed a cycle of three Rs - Rags to Riches to Reformation, as history kept repeating itself. The Benedictine Order had been founded in poverty but by the tenth century had become exceedingly rich. Great wealth caused a tendency towards laxity and a gradual watering down of the Rule. Reformation came about with the foundation in 910 of the Abbey at Cluny in Burgundy.
This part of France became the centre of monastic life, and Cluny stood for the restoration of Benedictine monasticism. The Order of Cluny exercised an immense influence on the intellectual, political, artistic, and above all, the religious life of the west. From the magnificent Abbey at Cluny, the Cluniac Empire radiated, and in Europe, and other parts of the world 1600 abbeys were established with a total of 10,000 monks. "Wherever the wind blows, Cluny has riches" was a popular saying of the time. Pope Urban II described Cluny as "the light of the world".
But a century later the rot had set in as monasteries became increasingly rich. The excessive fortunes of Cluny with its great emphasis on pomp, ceremony and liturgy, and the neglect of manual labour were factors which contributed towards its decline.
A series of Reformed Religious Orders were established in the 11th and 12th centuries, the most powerful being the Cistercian Order which was to play a most important role in the story of Furness Abbey.
In 1098 Abbot Robert left the Benedictine Abbey at Molesmes near Troyes in Burgundy, to form a new abbey at Citeaux, 14 miles from Dijon.
For nearly 200 years the Cistercian Order held great power in Europe exerting immense influence in all matters relating to church and state. Its fame was largely due to the charisma and example of Bernard of Fontaine, who was to be known to posterity as St. Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux (1112 -1154). And, to Abbot Stephen Harding, an outstanding Englishman, who wrote the Charter of Charity, the Order's Constitution.