The UK: a country of kings and queens, knights and castles. It is certainly one country that is well known for its ruins and rich history. It has plenty of historical houses, stunning villages and impressive bridges (such as Swarkestone Bridge – I just love it for some reason) and iconic cathedrals.
But there’s also another characteristic type of British buildings: the medieval abbeys in the UK.
When I was younger I always seemed to explore castles with my family, and it seems that we were actually missing out. It wasn’t until recently, in the last couple of years, that I’ve started to explore abbeys in the UK. In 2019, I explored Valle Crucis Abbey with my father – that was an incredible spot, and one that we came across quite unexpectedly.
I’m also sharing a lot of photos about Haughmond Abbey over on my Instagram (if you would like to see them you can head on over to my Instagram page here. So since I’ve been sharing a load of abbey photos, I thought it would be perfect to write a post about the 5 most beautiful abbeys in the UK!
There are numerous medieval abbey ruins that are dotted around the British Isle, from England and Wales all the way north to Scotland. They’re an essential part of British history as religion played a pivotal role, 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
Whitby Abbey is one of the finest scenes Whitby has to offer. 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.
What you see now is the shell of the 13th century of the Benedictine abbey and it is one of the largest and most impressive ecclesiastical ruin in the country.
It’s a shame that we are unable to see this in all its glory though, as on the 14 December 1539 Henry VIII ordered Whitby Abbey to close. The dissolution of the monasteries had reduced the old way of life to dust. The result of a whimsical monarch demanding everything go his way. Meaning that incredible places like this were just left to rot and ruin.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, these dramatic ruins were used as inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and can still leave the explorer with a sense of wonder when they walk around the site.
An incredible spot really and not just for the ruins either, but also for the pretty seaside town of Whitby from this natural vantage point!
Rievaulx Abbey, England
The Rievaulx Abbey lies in North Yorkshire Moors National Park, one of the ten national parks in England.
These impressive ruins will certainly make an impression. Being one of England’s most influential Cistercian monasteries, Rievaulx Abbey sits in a tranquil valley on the North York Moors.
There is a certain type of calm about this place, not just in the modern world, but even St Aelred said of Rievaulx that there was ‘everywhere peace, everywhere serenity‘, and this reflective atmosphere still attracts many visitors today.
This was once one of the wealthiest abbeys in England, but (unsurprisingly) it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538 and is now owned and maintained by the English Heritage.
This is certainly one for your future, if you haven’t already been. You can explore the high ruins to imagine life in the monastery, or step beyond the walls to enjoy views of the abbey in its solitary wooded setting!
Valle Crucis Abbey, Wales
Valle Crucis was truly Welsh from the moment it was founded in 1201 by Prince Madog ap Gruffydd and the ‘white monks’ of the Cistercian order. Its Latin name (Valley of the Cross) refers to the nearby ninth-century Pillar of Eliseg, erected for the glory of a Welsh chieftain.
This majestic medieval abbey was legendary for its lavish feasts – a fact which I really enjoy (got to love a party)! It did actually begin in austerity but was later celebrated by poets for its lavish hospitality – meals served in silver vessels and ale ‘flowing like a river’.
In Wales only Tintern Abbey was richer when it was dissolved by royal decree in 1537.
This is probably one of my favourite abbeys that I’ve discovered (although admittedly I haven’t explored very many). But this was such a hidden gem, and there was so much to see, that it was just perfect.
You can get lost in the history here, you can imagine exactly what it would have looked like and that it what makes it so incredible!
Melrose Abbey, Scotland
Probably one of the most famous ruin in Scotland, this abbey was founded by David I in 1136 for the Cistercian Order, and it was largely destroyed by Richard II’s English army in 1385. The surviving remains of the church are of the early 15th century, and are of an elegance unsurpassed in Scotland.
It was built in the Gothic style in the form of a St. John’s cross. But that’s not the only interesting thing about this abbey!
In 1921, an amazing discovery was made below the Chapter House of Melrose Abbey. Held inside a lead container was believed to be the embalmed heart of Robert the Bruce. Confirmed in records of his death, the rest of his body is buried at Dunfermline Abbey.
Alexander II and other Scottish kings and nobles are buried at Melrose.
Byland Abbey, England
This was founded as a Savignac abbey in 1135, Byland Abbey was absorbed into the Cistercian order in 1147.
In the late 14th century it was actually described as “one of the three shining lights of the north”, but this wasn’t always the case for Byland Abbey.
When it was first founded, and during its early life it was marked by disputes with other abbeys and the whole abbey community actually had to move five times before they decided to settle and stay at Byland.
This is an incredible abbey though, that is now in the care of the English Heritage and has some impressive features including the lower half of a huge rose window and a stone lectern which is the only one of its kind in Britain.
So there we have it, the top 5 most beautiful medieval abbeys in the UK!
Have you visited any of these or if not will you be planning a trip to them when travel returns to normal? Five wasn’t a big enough number to mention all the amazing abbeys out there, so if I missed one of your favourites, let me know in the comments 😀