Not easily accessible by road even today, the isolated and peaceful environment of Shap Abbey was perfect for the solitude sought by the Order of Premonstratensian monks (known as "White Canons") in the late 12th century.
Shap Abbey, known for its 15th-century West Tower, was the last abbey to be dissolved under Henry VIII (in 1540).
History of Shap Abbey
Shap Abbey was founded by a group of Premonstratensian Canons, who settled in the area in 1190. The Premonstratensian Order began in northern France and was essentially a middle way between the strict and isolated Order of the Cistercians and the more community oriented Augustinians.
About a decade later, the group of about 12 canons moved to Shap, which was then known as Hepp. "Hepp" (from "heap") changed to "Shap" over the next 100 years. Already the monastic community is fairly wealthy, thanks to donations from wealthy families including the Cliffords and Vieuxponts.
Built in 1199, Shap Abbey was the last Abbey to be founded in England. The monks set up temporary wooden buildings next to the River Lowther and begin building their church and living quarters. The stone abbey church was built in the 13th century and lengthened two centuries later.
Richard Redman was the abbot of Shap for some 50 years until his death in 1505 but, as the leading English Premonstratensian of the time, he also held successive posts as Bishop of St Asaph, Exeter, and Ely. It was under Abbot Redman that the great west tower was built.
Shap Abbey has the distinction of being the last monastic house to surrender to King Henry's Dissolution, in 1540. Demolition began immediately, with the lead removed from the roofs and the window glass removed and melted down. The Canons accepted pensions from the Crown and took up positions as parish priests.
Most of Shap Abbey's stone was pilfered for other uses, including Shap Market Hall and Lowther Castle (which especially used the stone carvings) as well as the house and farm buildings that stand next to the abbey today.
In 1545, Shap Abbey's land was granted to local landowner Sir Thomas Wharton, and it was later passed it to the Lowther family. In 1948, the Lowther Estate beqeathed the abbey ruins to the guardianship of the state. Today the ruins are managed by English Heritage and the Lake District National Park Authority.
What to See at Shap Abbey
During the early years, the Premonstratensian building style was based on the Cistercian tradition of austerity and simplicity; the original abbey church bears witness to these ideals.
The ground plan traced out by the foundation walls show that the 13th century church was a modest structure. No more than 200ft (60.6m) long, it consisted of a six bay nave, a north aisle, a couple of chapels in the transepts, and a plain narrow chancel. An English Heritage sign with a labeled floor plan helps you find everything.
Look for the circles marked in the pavement of the nave; they mark the stations taken up by the canons after a procession around the buildings on Sundays.
The west tower is the dominant feature of the site today and is, ironically, the only part to be built after the relaxation of the rules governing the simplistic lines of monastic church building. Shap Abbey is instantly recognisable from this massive Perpendicular tower erected at the west end of the nave, which stands as a memorial to one of the great builders and reformers of the late 15th century. The masons who constructed this tower also worked on Furness Abbey.
From the abbey, a short path leads over fields to the small 16th century Keld Chapel, now in the care of the National Trust.
Quick Facts on Shap Abbey
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|Coordinates:||54.530368° N, 2.699879° W|
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Map of Shap Abbey
Below is a location map and aerial view of Shap Abbey. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.