The Fountains site owes its originality and striking beauty to the fact that a humanized landscape of exceptional value was constituted around the largest medieval ruins of the United Kingdom, to serve as testimony to Cistercian expansion in England. Essential to the ruins of the abbey are the small Fountains Hall Castle, the landscaping, the gardens, and the canal created by John Aislabie in the 18th century, the plantations and vistas of the 19th century, and Studley Royal Church.
Fountains Abbey was founded in 1132 by 13 monks of St Mary's of York, who were searching for an ideal of life in closer keeping with St Benedict's teachings. In 1133, Fountains was recognized as a daughter house of Clairvaux. From the start the abbey benefited from large donations. In the 13th century its land wealth grew to enormous proportions.
When the monastic community was broken up after 1530, Fountains was the richest abbey in the kingdom. These four centuries of prosperity are reflected in the utter magnitude of the ruins of the buildings, which constituted the largest monastic complex in Great Britain. Its construction lasted from the 12th to the 16th century, but the abbey was abolished by Henry VIII.
The nave of the abbey church, with its characteristic structure combining Burgundian-type elevation is close to the pristine ideal of Cistercian austerity. The rich array of monastic buildings grouped together to the south also testifies to the deep-seated changes occurring in a community which rapidly grew away from the pristine ideal owing to its land wealth and its spiritual influence.
Around the cloister, to the east, can be seen the remains of the Chapter House, perpendicular to the gallery, separated from the transept by a vestry. To the south there is a refectory, also running perpendicular to the gallery, flanked by a calefactory and a kitchen. To the west there is an immense storeroom, still standing and the lay brothers' refectory. The monks' dormitory, originally located on the upper floor of the east wing, is no longer there.
All sorts of annex buildings were added in the vicinity of the cluster of regular and characteristic structures making up the Cistercian abbey: the lay brothers' infirmary, a long corridor leading to various quarters, prison, mortuary chamber, the monks' infirmary with separate kitchen, storeroom and chapel. Near the main complex can also be seen the ruins of the abbey's mill, bakery and malt house.
St Mary's Church in Studley Royal, 1 km north of Fountains Abbey, is typical of the neo-Gothic style of the Victorian age. The Anglican Church, built between 1871 and 1878 for the Marquis and Marchioness of Ripon, was the religious masterpiece of architect William Burges. It has a highly decorated interior characteristic of Victorian Anglo-Catholic religious sentiments.
The marquis, who had succeeded to the estate in 1859, was a successful politician and Viceroy of India in 1880-84. A deeply religious man, he disliked Renaissance architecture and looked back with nostalgia to what he saw as the more humanitarian caring Middle Ages.
John Aislabie inherited the Studley's estate in 1693. A socially and politically ambitious man, he first became the Tory Member of Parliament for Ripon in 1695 and in 1718 became Chancellor of the Exchequer. Aislabie returned to Yorkshire and devoted himself to the creation of the garden he had begun in 1718. After his death in 1742, his son William extended his scheme by purchasing the remains of the abbey. He also extended the landscaped area in the picturesque romantic style, contrasting with the formality of his father's work. Between them, the two created what is arguably England's most important 18th-century water garden. It escaped major reshaping and the garden and park passed to the Vyner family, descendants of the Aislabies. In 1966 the estate was purchased by West Riding County Council and was acquired by the National Trust in 1983.