Kirkstall Abbey & Abbey House Museum in Leeds
Founded by medieval monks, shut down by Henry VIII; repeatedly painted by Britain’s most famous artist, and now one of the most intact examples of a medieval Cistercian Abbey in the United Kingdom - the alluring landscapes of Kirkstall Abbey and its interactive Victorian museum are overflowing with historical intrigue.
A Brief History to One of Britain’s Beloved Abbeys
When Cistercian monks stumbled across Kirkstall in 1152, they probably couldn’t believe their luck - with its convenient riverside location, and acres of surrounding greenery a (picture) perfect spot to build an Abbey.
By 1182, the monks had assembled a sanctuary befitting of its beautiful surroundings; which remarkably, is still largely intact today! But that’s not to say Kirkstall Abbey and its holy inhabitants weren’t without their trials and tribulations.
After a sustained period of peace and prosperity throughout the 13th century, the turn of the 14th century brought with it the Great Famine, the Black Death, and all manner of sombre sounding epidemics!
Nonetheless, the monks persevered, living off the fruitful lands by the River Aire; which provided everything needed to pursue a simple, monastic way of life. Until Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell brought this peaceful existence to a juddering halt with their Dissolution of the Monasteries. Subsequently, Kirkstall Abbey was surrendered to Henry in 1539, later passing to Thomas Cranmer in 1542. Cranmer’s tenure would however only last 14 years, after Mary Tudor decided to burn him at the stake.
A period of calm descended for the next 250 years, bringing very little in the way of plagues, religious disputes, and burnings at the stake; so this brief history continues at the turn of the 19th century, when Britain’s most famous artist first graced Kirkstall Abbey.
Just as medieval monks had done 650 years prior, Joseph Mallord William Turner would become instantly infatuated with the majestic River Aire and rolling greens of Kirkstall. Thanks to said monks, Britain’s beloved painter also had the dramatic architectural ruins, to further embellish his landscapes.
Throughout his illustrious career, Turner would return to Leeds on numerous occasions, consistently painting the Abbey between the years 1797, and his last visit to Yorkshire in 1824. But, such was the beauty of the landscape, Turner’s wasn’t the only easel to be inspired by Kirkstall! Fellow Romantics Thomas Girtin, Thomas Smith of Derby (a major influence on Turner) and John Sell Cotman, would also be propelled to pick up a brush after acquainting themselves with the sweeping Yorkshire countryside.
Today, the Grade I listed Kirkstall Abbey remains as an oasis of tranquillity on the outskirts of Leeds. Although inevitably, modernity has caught up with the once hallowed sanctuary - but not necessarily for the worst! Now, the medieval ruins are accompanied by a Visitor Centre - complete with interactive exhibits, which aid in telling the story of Kirkstall Abbey and its former inhabitants.
Discover Victorian Britain in the Abbey House Museum
After familiarising yourself with the medieval monks and their once divine dwelling, more discovery awaits across the road in the Abbey House Museum - where visitors are invited to step back in time to 1850s Leeds.
Divided into three recreated Victorian streets, the ground floor is where you’ll find Stephen Harding Gate - the 19th century equivalent of a modern high street, where you are free to indulge in some old fashioned retail therapy. After a spot of shopping, adults can also replenish with a pint in Hark to Rover - an authentic Victorian boozer!
But while Victorian children may have been very much at home in the pub, kids today can instead follow the street up to Harewood Square, where genuine 19th century doll houses and toys await in the Childhood Galleries. Be sure to have your pennies at the ready too, for the amazing collection of working slot machines.
Victorian Britain wasn’t all pubs and play, however. Which you’ll soon discover with a visit to the poorer residential district of Abbey Fold. Here, you can examine a more macabre side of life (and death) in Leeds during the 1850s, as you stroll around the chilly premises of the undertakers.
Markets, Festivals and Seasonal Celebrations
Nearly 900 years after the Abbey first provided a home to Cistercian monks, Kirkstall still forms an integral part of Leeds’ cultural identity. This is perhaps best embodied in the eclectic array of events which make their home in the picturesque grounds throughout the year.
Not to be missed are the Kirkstall Festival, the monthly Kirkstall Markets, Leeds Day of the Dead Fiesta and other seasonal events like Kirkstall’s Christmas offerings; accompanied further by live music and theatrical performances, which are an enduring feature of this Yorkshire institution!