Medieval Ruins in Britain and France

Discover the poetic and picturesque medieval ruins of France and Britain.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Smarthistory, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Learn about the history and the architecture of the time.

Rievaulx Abbey, founded 1132

Rievaulx was once a magnificent abbey (monastery) belonging to the Cistercian order, which advocated that monks lead a very austere life. Rievaulx was one of the most powerful monasteries in Britain, with a community of more than 650 under its famous abbot, Aelred.

Aerial View of Rievaulx AbbeyOriginal Source: RIEVAULX ABBEY

Like all monasteries in England, Rievaulx was dissolved by King Henry VIII between 1536 and 1541. Henry resented the power and wealth of the monasteries. Rievaulx was sold, the buildings dismantled, and its valuable building materials given to the King.

Just to the right are remains of the nave (main aisle) of the Abbey church, while the three-story sanctuary in front of us survived more intact. Built to create a splendid setting for Aelred’s tomb, it gives us a sense of the original magnificence of Rievaulx.

This part of the church—the sanctuary—was used primarily by the monks. Unlike most churches, Rievaulx was not built on an east-west axis (with the sanctuary at the east end). Instead it is on a north-south axis due to the site.

Fountains Abbey, near Rippon, England

Fountains Abbey, UNESCO World Heritage Site, near Ripon, North Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom, Europe (2009-09-26) by James EmmersonGetty Images

With gifts of money and land from wealthy families who wanted the monks to pray on their behalf, Fountains Abbey became one of the richest abbeys in Britain.

After 1539, when the monastery was closed, little changed until the mid-18th Century when the Aislabie family bought the Abbey, and in 1983 the National Trust took over the site.

We are standing in the cloister at Fountains Abbey, a large square, open space, once surrounded by a covered walkway. On all four sides were buildings important to the life of the monks here. We’re looking toward what remains of the church.

If we turn to the right, we see three arches leading into a space that served as the monastery’s chapter house—a meeting space for the monastic community. The arches spring from compound piers that resemble bundles of columns.

If we turn again, we see a large archway that served as the entryway to the refectory, where the monks dined, and the doorway in the right corner led to the kitchen.

Fountains Abbey Cellarium (2010-04-16) by Duncan WalkerGetty Images

Here is the cellarium (from the Latin cella, "pantry")—a vast, roofed 300-foot storage room for food, ale and wine—all under the supervision of the cellarer, who was appointed by the abbot (the head of the abbey).

Church, Fountains Abbey

If we look west, we see the doorway to the church. We are standing in the nave - the large, central space of the church (with one aisle on either side).

Likely this was a spare space, since the monastery was part of the Cistercian order which rejected decoration in churches. The nave is the oldest part of the church, and we can see that from the use of round arches.

We are looking to the east end, where the altar once stood. We can see the transition to pointed (Gothic) arches (round arches are characteristic of the earlier, Romanesque, style). The large arch at the end once held a window.

Tintern Abbey by Moonlight (ca. 1789) by John "Warwick" SmithThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tintern Abbey, 12th -16th centuries

Like most abbeys it had a church (right), a cloister (center), a chapter house (not visible), storage facilities (left) and residences for the monks.

The Cloisters, Tintern Abbey (1854) by Roger FentonNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The Cistercian principles were obedience, poverty, chastity, silence, prayer, and work. The Abbey was dissolved in 1536 by King Henry VIII and forgotten until the late 18th century.

Typical of Gothic architecture, we see a large window to allow in as much light as possible (light was seen as symbolic of the divine), and the wide central aisle (the nave) rises higher than the aisle on either side).

Windows in Gothic churches are characterized by the use of stained glass windows, and tracery (the stonework that supports the glass inside). The tracery at Tintern is complex, and typical of what’s known as the decorated Gothic style.

Goodrich CastleOriginal Source: Goodrich Castle

Goodrich Castle, 12-13th century

Goodrich Castle is an extraordinary example of English military architecture. It combined living spaces with extensive defences—including a ditch around two sides, a drawbridge and portcullises (iron gates that could be raised or lowered).

The castle has a square plan with massive towers at three corners and a gatehouse on the fourth. We are standing on the semi-circular barbican in front of the gatehouse—a fortified outpost that provided extra defense by increasing the number of barriers an enemy would have to cross.

Modern visitors are enjoying the view from the gatehouse. To the far left we see a tower with a square base and a cylindrical tower. It was clearly unwise to approach this castle unless you were a welcome visitor!

Chinon Castle, Loire Valley, 10th-13th centuries

There was a chapel, a tennis court, a reception hall, and royal apartments in what’s known as the Middle Castle—but little of this survives.

The lovely curved Clock Tower serves as the gateway to the Middle Castle. The castle occupies a high point overlooking the Vienne River (a tributary of the Loire River), which allowed it see potential enemies approaching.

Loches Castle, 9th-15th centuries

The castle is actually a complex of buildings that includes a keep (a large fortified tower), royal apartments, gardens, and a church—all located on hilltop and surrounded by a wall.

Like Chinon, the castle was held by the English King Henry II, who strengthened its fortifications. It later passed to French monarchs, and became a favorite residence.

The tall, rectangular keep (today empty) was originally entered through a drawbridge. It had three floors and its walls are nearly 9 feet thick with tiny windows. Other buildings were built later around this main tower, strengthening its defensive role.

Château de Montségur, 13th-18th century

We are in a spectacular location looking at the ruins of a fortress in the south-west of France, near the Pyrenees mountains on the border between France and Spain.

A castle that was built on this site in the early 1200s belonged to the Cathars, who rejected the Roman Catholic church, and insisted they were the only true Christians. The ruins we see today date to centuries later, likely reusing the original stones.

The Catholic church was intent on stamping out Catharism and for nine months the castle was under siege by the French royal forces. Eventually the Cathars surrendered, but those who held fast to their beliefs (about 200 people) were burned to death.

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