On 16 August 1946 ‘The Times’ newspaper contained the following paragraph: ‘Negotiations are in progress for the sale of Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire, to the Roman Catholic Church.
‘It is understood that it is proposed to restore a part for use as a Benedictine Monastery.’
The following day, ‘The Yorkshire Post’ was rather more forthcoming. Under the headline ‘FOUNTAINS ABBEY TO BE SOLD’ and the subhead ‘A War Memorial to Roman Catholics’ the paper reported that the Abbey was to be sold ‘to a group of leading Roman Catholics’, and said that it was to ‘become an international memorial to all Roman Catholics who were killed in the two World Wars.’
‘The Roman Catholic Group,’ it noted, ‘is buying the Abbey, Fountains Hall and about 60 acres of land bounded by the original Abbey walls, from Commander Clare Vyner, who has owned the property for more than 20 years.’ Clare Vyner had bought the Studley Royal Estate, which includes the Abbey ruins, on the death of his cousin, the Second Marquess of Ripon, in 1923.
The idea of a restored Abbey was inspired by a friend of the Vyners, the artist Simon Elwes, uncle of the television presenter Polly Elwes. A Catholic, he had been a society portrait painter before the Second World War, when he was appointed as an official War Artist.
In 1945, towards the end of the war, Elwes had a stroke, which paralysed his right side – including the hand with which he painted.
He thought he was going to die but slowly recovered, though without regaining the use of his right side.
During his recovery he three times dreamed of the ruins of Fountains, which he had visited in 1933.
He imagined that the Abbey was restored and that a monk spoke to him, repeatedly saying ‘It was built for God; it must be returned to God.’ Convinced it was his mission to see the Abbey restored, Elwes enthused many of his Catholic acquaintances with the notion.
On 17 August 1946 ‘The Times’ reported that ‘The executive committee... includes the Duke of Norfolk, Lord Pakenham, Lt Col the Hon Miles Fitzalan-Howard, Miss Barbara Ward, Mr Simon Elwes, the Marchioness of Lothian and Major John Poole.’ The novelist Evelyn Waugh was a supporter.
It says that ‘The “Chapel of the Nine Altars” would have altars dedicated to the nine nations concerned, including the United States, where great interest is being taken in the project.
‘It is intended that monks of the Benedictine order would be installed, who would pray for the souls of those killed, irrespective of nationality or creed... In addition, Fountains Hall, a perfect example of Elizabethan architecture, would be established as a guest house where international retreats could be held.’
The ‘Yorkshire Post’ noted that ‘It is understood that the price is a six-figure sum and Mgr H J Poskett, Bishop of Leeds, said today that he had given his diocesan sanction to the scheme. “I think”,’ he added optimistically, ‘ “that all the money needed has already been raised or promised”.’
Plans for the restoration were drawn up by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, designer of Liverpool Anglican Cathedral and grandson of Sir George Gilbert Scott who had restored Ripon Cathedral almost a century before.
Benedictines, not Cistercians, who were the original builders of Fountains, were chosen to restore and inhabit the Abbey, because part of the deal with Clare Vyner was that public access should be retained to the site – not something that would not have fitted with the retired and isolated life favoured by Cistercians.
Understandably, the proposal resulted in very strongly-divided opinions.
In a letter to ‘The Times’ the historian George Kitson Clark, a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, wrote ‘Surely much melancholy experience teaches you that you cannot recover the past in this way, and that the result is always to destroy and never to restore... If the Roman Catholic community in this country wish to found a Benedictine Monastery in memory of their dead, let them choose another place... But may I beg of them to think twice before disturbing such a thing of unmatched beauty as Fountains Abbey is at present.’
The cartoonist Osbert Lancaster wrote that ‘If it is intended that the restoration is to be as archeologically exact as possible, then experience encourages us to expect that the final result will prove as wearisome and spiritless as a scale model in a showcase.’
The artist Muirhead Bone concurred: ‘I am convinced it is a mistake,’ he wrote.
On the opposite side was R B Tasker, a Leeds dentist, who wrote to the ‘Yorkshire Post’ to say, ‘It is reasonable to supposed that the restoration of the Abbey will be carried out with the same care and devotion and pride of craftsmanship as were given to the original building... the restoration of an abbey, long in ruins and lifeless, to its full purpose should be, even to those of us who have no allegiance to the Church of Rome, an inspiration and a thing of joy.’
The opponents were well-organised; a 10,000-signature petition against the proposals, collected by the Protestant Alliance (founded in the 1840s by the Seventh Earl of Shaftsbury) was handed it to Downing Street.
The matter rumbled on until March 1947; the last appearance of the scheme is a letter to ‘The Times’ from the Duke of Norfolk, saying, ‘In view of the economic crisis we have thought it right to withdraw our application to the Ministry of Works for sanction to undertake any work of restoration.’
So the plans came to nothing; there have been successful reconstructions of a few ruined abbeys, notably at Pluscarden in Moray, and at Iona Abbey, but the scale envisaged at Fountains was much greater.
In 1873 Sir George Gilbert Scott had produced plans for rebuilding Kirkstall Abbey near Leeds as a clergy college, but they, too, had foundered.
We may, perhaps, be thankful that neither the Fountains nor the Kirkstall scheme was carried out.