A country of kings and queens, knights and castles, the UK is well-known for its incredibly rich and long history. It has massive mansions, pretty villages, impressive bridges and iconic cathedrals. But there’s also another characteristic type of British buildings: the medieval abbeys in the UK.
Numerous medieval abbey ruins dot the British Isle, from England and Wales all the way north to Scotland. They’re an essential part of British history as religion long played a pivotal role here, especially in the very eventful Middle Ages.
There are still countless abbeys that are in continuous use. But in this post, we’ll focus on those that have fallen into ruin over time. These are the most beautiful medieval abbey ruins in the UK.
Whitby Abbey, England
Founded as a monastery as early as 657, Whitby Abbey has been attracting visitors for almost 1,500 years. It’s without question one of the greatest medieval abbeys in the UK. In fact, it’s the most popular abbey ruin in England.
Nowadays, the site is home to the remains of a 13th-century Benedictine abbey. The abbey was disestablished in the 16th century during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII. These dramatic ruins are among the most impressive in the country, inspiring writers such as Bram Stoker. Additionally, Whitby Abbey’s location on the North Yorkshire coast is as photogenic as it gets.
Battle Abbey, England
Battle Abbey is a partially ruined Benedictine abbey in East Sussex. It stands on the very site where the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. This was perhaps the most important battle in the history of England, and it was decided right here. William the Conqueror founded this abbey on the actual spot where King Harold died during the battle.
Visitors can now walk on the former battlefield, learn about
how it changed the future of England, and explore the ruins of this huge
Kirkstall Abbey, England
To the northwest of the city center of Leeds, West Yorkshire,
the spectacular Kirkstall Abbey sits on the north bank of the River Aire.
Founded in 1152, it was confiscated during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the
Monasteries (just like Whitby Abbey above and other English abbeys below).
Kirkstall Abbey is actually a Cistercian monastery containing various buildings and sections. It has a towering Cistercian church, a presbytery, a cloister and library, an infirmary and a dormitory. In the 1700s, these picturesque ruins became a favored subject among Romantic painters, such as Turner, Girtin and Cotman. One of the absolute greatest medieval abbeys in the UK, it’s been open to the public since 1895.
Rievaulx Abbey, England
The Rievaulx Abbey lies in North Yorkshire Moors National Park, one of the ten national parks in England. It was one of the most influential Cistercian monasteries in England. It consisted of no fewer than 70 buildings when Henry VII seized it in 1538.
In its heyday, it had “everywhere peace, everywhere serenity,” according to St. Aelred, the abbey’s second abbot. Nowadays, this atmosphere of reflection and contemplation still attracts visitors who can explore these towering ruins.
Fountains Abbey, England
The massive Fountains Abbey is among the best preserved and most expansive Cistercian monastery ruins in England. Situated in North Yorkshire, it was one of the wealthiest abbeys in the UK. Henry VIII seized it during his Dissolution of the Monasteries. That happened in 1539, 407 years after the abbey’s founding.
The remaining buildings include a cloister, a huge abbey
church, a kitchen, industrial and agricultural buildings, and one of the
largest abbot’s houses in England.
Tintern Abbey, Wales
Tintern Abbey lies in the southeastern corner of Wales, near the border with England. It’s one of the country’s top tourist attractions. Walter de Clare founded the abbey in 1131. It became one of the greatest abbeys in this part of the UK. Like many others, it fell victim to Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century.
The imposing ruins of Tintern Abbey have drawn in poets, writers and artists since the 18th century. Modern scholars and scientists have taken an interest in the abbey’s architectural features and cultural significance.
Melrose Abbey, Scotland
Arguably the greatest medieval abbey ruins in Scotland, the Melrose Abbey is a partially ruined Cistercian monastery. It lies in the Scottish Borders, established in 1136 upon request from King David I of Scotland. Many Scottish kings and noblemen are buried here.
Melrose Abbey is famous for its numerous decorations and carved details. They include everything from dragons and gargoyles to saints and plants. Robert the Bruce wanted his heart buried here, and a small casket holding a human heart was found in 1921. It was reburied and archeologists uncovered it again in 1996.