Historic Abbeys in Yorkshire -14 pretty ruins to visit

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Yorkshire seems to conjure up images of rolling countryside, farmland and picturesque villages with stone cottages. Many people might be surprised that it has an abundance of ruined abbeys to visit too!

When I lived in Yorkshire I was always been attracted to the romantic nature of these ruins and would visit whenever we found out about new ones to discover. They are great places to take kids with plenty of fresh air and space to run around, and dogs are almost always welcome too.

You can see our Scottish Border Abbeys trip here where our dog loved exploring!

The ruined abbeys in Yorkshire were dissolved in the reformation period when Henry VIII created the Church of England. It was a tumultuous time for any monastery, abbey or place of faith really and the result was ruined abbeys, many of which were never rebuilt or reused.

While this post cites 14 abbeys in Yorkshire for you to visit, I’m likely to have missed a few. If I have, do let me know in the comments and I’ll try and make sure next time we visit I add it to my itinerary and update this post!

Whitby Abbey in Yorkshire overlooking the sea
Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire is a stunner!

Best value for access to these sites

Many of the abbeys and monastery ruins on this page are either looked after by English Heritage or National Trust – I highly recommend joining these organisations as a way of helping preserve these historic sites. I have also discussed about whether joining the National Trust is worth it here.

While not all have an entry fee, if you are a member you’ll also get free entry if there is a charge and often free parking too.

See more info on joining here – English Heritage | National Trust

Why are there so many Abbeys in Yorkshire?

Abbeys, monasteries and priories formed an important part of life in medieval England. They provided a place for villagers to worship and stability as a centre for the village or town. There was a lot of power and influence to be held from there and as such they grew.

How many abbeys are in Yorkshire?

I’ve included 14 abbeys here around North, West and South Yorkshire. There are many more that were completely destroyed after the suppression or dissolution of the monasteries in Tudor times.

Some of the names of the monastic houses you’ll see in this article are:
Benedictine – a roman catholic order that followed the orders of St Benedictine
Cistercian – these were a branch that broke off from the Benedictine house. They lived a much more austere and strict life.
Augustinian – an order of monks that follow Saint Augustine. You may hear of friars who are often from this order.
Premonstratensian – an order from France.
Carthusians – an order that lived solitary lives

Abbeys in North Yorkshire

North Yorkshire has the vast majority of ruined abbeys to visit in Yorkshire. We have abbeys in the Yorkshire Dales, abbeys on the coast overlooking the sea and abbeys in the North York Moors. You’re spoilt for choice really!

St Mary’s Abbey, York

Situated in the city of York, not far from the imposing York Minster, is the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey. This was one of the richest of the Benedictine monasteries in England. You can still see the abbey walls here and they were used to protect the abbey in this city where much fighting took place!

A perfect year round activity for those visiting York. The York Museum Gardens that the abbey is situated in are free admission.

If you fancy a bit of armchair travelling you can wander around some of the ruins on Google Streetview above.

Whitby Abbey overlooking the seaside town
Ruins of Whitby Abbey overlooking the seaside town

Whitby Abbey

Probably one of the most popular abbeys in England, Whitby Abbey is a stunning example of gothic architecture and its position overlooking the town of Whitby and the sea is unique!

The Abbey has inspired so many of the years from writers to painters, the most famous of which is Bram Stoker who wrote Dracula and visited in the late 1890s.

Whitby is a gorgeous town to visit, high on my favourite places in Yorkshire and there’s so much to do here. If you’re feeling energetic you could walk up the 199 steps to get to get Abbey and see some amazing views while you’re counting!

It’s an English Heritage site and there is an entrance charge for non members – see more details here.

Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire
The impressive Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey, Near Helmsley

This was the first Cistercian Abbey to be founded in northern England in 1132. It was a powerful and a large site and housed a great number of monks at the height of the monastery’s history.

The dissolution saw the end to this era and the abbey fell to ruin. It was however a very popular site for romantics of the 18th and 19th centuries to come and visit and paint

Today you can learn all about the history of the site and one of its famous Abbots – Aelred – in the visitors centre.

You could also combine it with a trip to the market town of Helmsley which is really pretty and also has a castle ruin too to explore. You can walk from Helmsley and it’s a great way to see the surrounding countryside.

Rievaulx Abbey is an English Heritage site with charges for non members – see here

Fountains Abbey overlooking water
Fountain Abbey, North Yorkshire

Fountains Abbey, Near Ripon

While we have a tonne of historic sites on this page, the Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden is also UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Abbey was founded in 1132 by some Benedictine Monks who had broken away from St Mary’s in York (above) and who wanted to live a more simple and devout life.

The grounds around the abbey were owned and transformed into a wonderful landscaped water garden by John Aislabie who inherited the estate. He later bought the Abbey ruins and it was incorporated into the garden design.

The site is owned and run by the National Trust and there’s a charge to enter and for parking – members go free. English Heritage members can also visit for free.

One legend states that Friar Tuck (of the Robin Hood tale) was once a Monk at Fountains Abbey.

Kirkham Priory, near Malton

Close to Rievaulx Abbey and not far from the city of York as well is the ruins of Kirkham Priory. It was home to Augustinian Canons.

There isn’t a lot left of Kirkham Priory but you can see the old gatehouse which dates to around 1300 and shows the coats of arms of some wealthy local families. This shows that the monks could call upon wealthy supporters.

It’s not far from York so would make a great day trip from there or just another to add on to your day exploring some of the historic sites in the area – there are so many!

This is an English Heritage site and has an entrance charge for non members – see here.

Jervaulx Abbey, Yorkshire Dales near Ripon

Jervaulx Abbey is situated in the Yorkshire Dales and is a privately owned Cistercian abbey. As such it’s actually an abbey ruin where you can get married!

They have tearooms for something to eat while visiting and exploring the grounds or you can take a picnic to eat at the abbey.

It’s open from dawn until dusk and the owners have an honesty box for people to contribute to its upkeep. See more about the site here.

Bolton Abbey, near Skipton

On the edge of the Yorkshire Dales is Bolton Abbey, home to Augustinian monks since 1154.

After the dissolutions the nave of the abbey was secured by Prior Moone who negotiated with Oliver Cromwell to keep it. To this day it’s part of the Prior Church and services are still run there.

The Bolton Estate has a lot to offer for a day out with he abbey, an old hunting tower ruin, waterfalls, woodlands and plenty of places to walk.

Admission is charged through the car parks and covers up to 7 people so it can be a relatively inexpensive day out – see here.

Mount Grace Priory ruins in Yorkshire
The ruins of Mount Grace Priory show a difference in architecture to other sites

Mount Grace Priory, near Northallerton

A little different to many of the other abbeys and priories on this page – Mount Grace Priory was home to Carthusian monks. It’s also newer than the other sites, being founded in 1398 and the architecture is certainly a little different.

Carthusian monks lived solitary lives and they stayed in their own individual ‘cell’. You can learn more about their daily lives in some of the reconstructed areas of the priory.

It, of course, suffered the same fate of the others when the reformation happened in the 1530s but afterwards it was remodelled and used by wealthy owners as a home. The house and gardens are an attraction in themselves and are a good example of William Morris decorative style from the arts and crafts movement.

It is an English Heritage site which is free to members and have a charge for non members. Dogs are not allowed. More info here.

Byland Abbey, North York Moors

On the southern end of the North York Moors lies Byland Abbey. This is a huge site as it was one of the largest Cistercian monasteries of the time. There isn’t too much left nowadays but you can still see the scale of the site.

A museum is due to be opening in early 2022 and also some guided tours being run by volunteers on weekends.

It’s owned by English Heritage but Byland abbey is free entry to all.

Easby Abbey, near Richmond

Easby is a well preserved Premonstratensian Abbey that was founded in 1152, one of the best examples we have of that order.

It runs by the River Swale snd you could combine a visit to the Abbey with a walk along to Richmond Castle which is another excellent historic site nearby.

It’s an English Heritage site but has no entrance fee – see here for detials.

Abbeys in West Yorkshire

West Yorkshire’s abbey is very close to the city of Leeds and a great day out if you want to escape the busyness of there!

Kirkstall Abbey in Leeds, Yorkshire
An oasis of calm in an otherwise very busy city!

Kirkstall Abbey

On the outskirts of the city of Leeds, and just 3 miles from the centre, is Kirkstall Abbey, a Cistercian abbey that’s quite well preserved.

The Abbey ruins are complemented by a visitors centre where you can learn about the history.

You have woodlands to explore, the River Aire to walk by and gardens to spend time in. Each month there’s also a market that is in the grounds of the abbey as well.

It’s owned by the Leeds Council and is free to visit and enjoy – see more details here.

Abbeys in South Yorkshire

Don’t forget South Yorkshire when looking for abbeys to visit in Yorkshire – I am biased about this under visited gem since I lived there for nearly 20 years!!

Roche Abbey ruins in South Yorkshire
Set in some beautiful grounds, Roche Abbey in South Yorkshire

Roche abbey, near Rotherham

A Cistercian abbey like that of Riveaulx and Byland Abbeys further North, Roche Abbey is a much smaller site but one that probably was more typical of the size that these monasteries were. It was founded in 1147 and dissolved in 1538.

The ruins that are left are set in a landscaped countryside which was designed by the renowned ‘Capability’ Brown in 1770.

It’s a wonderful site far from the industrial heartlands of South Yorkshire and well worth a visit if you can.

Roche Abbey is owned by English Heritage so free for members or an admission charge for non members.

Beuchief Abbey, Sheffield

Beauchief Abbey is one of a few of these sites that were actually rebuilt and that is still in use as a place of worship today.

It was founded in 1176 and home to Premonstratensian canons and there are still some parts of the original abbey that can be seen. It’s in a really pretty area of Sheffield and it’s a wonderful place to walk and enjoy the green spaces.

As it’s a working place of worship, if you want to visit you’re encouraged to go after the weekly Sunday service where someone might be able to show you around or alternatively they take part in Heritage Open Days every September.

Located on the west side of Sheffield – my tip is to combine with a walk in Ecclesall woods which is very close by, or explore Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet for more local history.

Monk Bretton Priory, near Barnsley

Finally we have this hidden gem near Barnsley in South Yorkshire. Monk Bretton Priory was founded in 1154 and had an eventful beginning. There was quite a lot of fighting between the house here and one in Pontefract to which it was attached. It lasted over 100 years before this priory broke away and became a benedictine house.

After it was dissolved in 1538 much of the site was destroyed and used in local buildings. There’s a few ruins left and also a well marked out ground plan.

This is owned by English Heritage but is free for all to enter and visit – see here for more info.

You might also like our post about the abbey at Bury St Edmunds

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Kirsty Bartholomew

Kirsty has been getting lost around the world for over 30 years and writing about it for 10 of those. She loves to help people explore her favourite places in Scotland, England and beyond. She cannot stay away from historical sites.

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