It would have been impossible not to be influenced in some way by the magnificent remains of Furness Abbey, a 15 minute walk from my childhood home. So, during my teenage years, I often visited the ruins of what was once the second richest Cistercian monastery in the country. I’d go with friends or on my own, finding peace and quiet within the weathered sandstone walls. I’d go in any weather, any time of year, even any time of day, sometimes climbing over the iron railings and wandering around the stairwells and hidden corners late at night, spurred on by the incredible atmosphere of the towering remains in moonlight or starlight. Lying low when car headlamps scythed through the fog filling the vale of the Deadly Nightshade, casting dancing shadows as the lights shone through tree branches overhanging the road.
Now, over 30 years later, I have attempted to interpret the history of the Abbey in a series of pieces of music, helped by my brother Richard, who is normally found plying his trade of guitarist with jazz outfit Absolute Proof around Furness and South Lakeland.
St Robert of Molesme founded the Cistercians in 1098. He and a handful of monks left their Benedictine abbey for the secluded area of Citeaux, where they began an austere monastic life. From Citeaux other monasteries were founded. In around the year 1112, St Bernard of Clairvaux entered Citeaux, and became the spokesman for this reform movement, encouraging recruits throughout Europe with his forceful personality and holiness. By 1151 there were over 300 monasteries, with more than 11000 Cistercian monks and nuns.
From the beginning, the Cistercians stressed a literal observance of the Rule of St Benedict, withdrawal from feudal entanglements and responsibility, and a return to the simplicity and austerity of the early desert monks.
They succeeded by uniting their monasteries through a constitution, called the Charter of Charity, that set forth a uniform type of life, checks and balances in monastic government, centralised authority under the abbot of Citeaux, and an annual meeting of all the abbots in a general chapter.
Bekanesgill is the Viking word for valley of the deadly nightshade. The Savigniac monks who founded the abbey in 1127 chose the spot for its solitude, the ample supply of building material, and the excellent water supply, even though they had to abandon the usual orientation of the church, so that it lies almost north east to south west, rather than east – west.
In 1147, like other Savigniac houses, the brotherhood was absorbed into the larger Cistercian Order. The Furness monks initially protested at the decision, until the intervention of the abbot of Savigny. Cistercians wear white habits with a black scapular, and during the Middle Ages they were called the White Monks.
The abbey was rich in possessions, with land that included most of the Furness peninsula, with its forests to the north and rich agricultural lands to the south. During the mid 12th century, Furness Abbey was subjected to raids from the north, as Border Raiders operated in the disputed territory between England and Scotland.
The later history of the Abbey was largely peaceful, with the monks submitting themselves to Work and Devotion, though border disputes did flare up in the early 14th century.
The Reformation signalled the demise of the abbey, and in 1535, as a prelude to its Dissolution, the abbey was valued at £805 0s 5d. On the 9th April 1537, the brethren of Furness gave up their monastery and its possessions to the King.
Sleeve notes taken from New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopaedia (release B6.05) 1993 and from Furness Abbey by JC Dickinson (English Heritage) 1993
1) Bekanesgill (6’40)
2) Cistercian Order (8’40)
3) White Monks (8’45)
4) Border Raiders (5’31)
5) Work and Devotion (7’09)
6) Dissolution (10’34)
7) Bekanesgill reprise (1'50)