Archaeologists found evidence of a large medieval tannery at Fountains Abbey. It is one of the largest ruined Cistercian monasteries. 

The researchers, from the National Trust and the University of Bradford, used ground penetrating radar to identify the remains of the tannery – where hides of animals are treated to produce leather – at the 12th century abbey near Ripon in North Yorkshire.  

They found evidence of an industrial-scale tanning operation, which would have required hundreds of people. This would have been contrary to the peaceful religious activity near by.  

The’missing piece’ at the abbey has been described by the abbey as the largest tannery found at a British monastic site. 

Tanning was an integral part of the abbey economy. Animal hides would be de-haired, cured and used to make leather for clothing, belts or bedding. 

But tanning was a rather disgusting operation; hides were usually shipped to the tannery Already rotting and stiffened by dirt and blood before being soaked in human urine to remove hairs.  

The find is of particular significance because of its size – the researchers said it indicated an industrial scale operation requiring hundreds of people. The two buildings dedicated to tanning operations at Fountains Abbey are marked in red. The one on the left may have extended across the nearby River Skell

The find is of particular significance because of its size – the researchers said it indicated an industrial scale operation requiring hundreds of people. Red is used to indicate the two buildings that were dedicated to tanning at Fountains Abbey. The one on the left may have extended over the River Skell.


A tannery is where hides of animals are treated to produce leather. 

Water dissolves chemicals, enzymes, and dyes during the hide processing 

It combines a substance called tannin with the hide fibres, allowing the resulting leather to be dried, yet remain flexible. 

This process can be used to make footwear, clothing, belts and containers, weapons, transport devices, armour, and even arms. 

Source: Weaver Leather 

The fact that tanning operations were located so close to the abbey community has been a surprise to archaeologists.

National Trust archaeologist Mark Newman stated that a tannery of such size, which covers such a large portion of the site, indicates an industrial scale operation, meeting the demands for leather and other processed animal skins by the community of hundreds.

“Its size also reflects an aspect the productivity of the enormous herds that the abbey acquired, managed.

‘Also given the noise, activity, stench, and smell that emanated form a tannery we previously thought that it would be further away than the monks or their worship. 

“We see now that tanning was much closer to the idea of a tranquil, peaceful abbey community.

Fountains Abbey was constructed in 1132. However, researchers believe that the tannery was operating from the late 1150s to the early 1160s up until the 1530s.  

Today, Fountains Abbey is ‘an oasis of tranquillity’, Newman said, but in the 12th and 13th centuries, it was ‘as busy and industrialised a piece of landscape’ as anywhere else in Britain. 

Experts were always puzzled by the ‘bowling alley-shaped strip of land’ on the east side Fountains Abbey precinct, near the River Skell.

With help from Geoscan Research and Magnitude Surveys, the experts used ground penetrating radar, which uses radar pulses to image the subsurface, backed up with other geophysical survey methods. 

This ‘bowling alley-shaped’ strip was the location of two substantial stone buildings, each around 50 feet (16 metres) wide, with lined pits, tanks and other structures around them. 

Fountains Abbey (pictured) is one of the largest ruined Cistercian monasteries in England. Two structures used for tanning operations originally sat just right of the entrance pictured here, in a 'bowling-alley-shaped' strip of land

Fountains Abbey (pictured is one of the largest ruined Cistercian monasteries. Two structures used for tanning operations originally sat just right of the entrance pictured here, in a ‘bowling-alley-shaped’ strip of land

One of the buildings was at least 100 feet (32 m) long. Two aisles of columns in both buildings suggest that they were more than one story high. 

The larger building likely extended above the river on stone arches, similar to some of the later twelfth-century buildings on the site.

The larger building had a large porch that faced westwards towards the abbey church to the north of the river bank.

National Trust stated that the second, squarer building is located just to the east with four internal columns bases clearly visible. 

Man occupied in the leather producing industry, shown sorting skins after drying. Tanning was usually the work of lay brothers - men who fulfilled a role focused upon manual service and other secular matters

Shown sorting leathers after drying. Tanning was usually the work of lay brothers – men who fulfilled a role focused upon manual service and other secular matters


The tannery received animal hides. Covered in dirt and blood, the plant is already stiffening and rotting.

To remove the skin’s malleability and clean it, the tanner would need water. 

They had to then remove all fat and tissue from the hide’s underside. 

The hide would then be soaked in human urine again to remove any hairs. 

Once the hairs were sufficiently loose, they used a knife and scraped the hide to create a smooth surface. 

The tanner had to soften hide into something that could be used. 

They used animal faeces to make the hide or soaked it with diluted animal brains. 

The bacteria in the faeces, brains and furs fermented the hides, which allowed them to last longer. 

The tanner would then soak the material in a tanning solution made from ground bark to give it colour. 


“There are also traces that other enclosures may have been built, and possibly a third building. There are also a number of pits that appear to be lined.

“If the identification is correct, it would be the largest monastic skin tannery in the UK. This confirms the importance of this function to the Abbey community. 

The remains, along with the proximity to the river for water – a key requirement for the tanning process – has led to the conclusion that this was the tannery serving the Fountains Abbey community.

‘For much of the 20th century, many people believed there was no further archaeological research work to do at Fountains and that pretty much everything to be found had been found,’ said Hilary McGrady, director-general of the National Trust. 

‘The team’s work with University of Bradford and our other partners, shows the opposite – there is so much more still to discover there.

“The team was excited to discover the tannery buildings, which provided a missing link. It represents the key buildings they wanted to identify on the site. 

According to the National Trust, the findings reveal ‘remarkable new evidence’ about Fountains Abbey’s community of monks and ‘lay brothers’ – men who fulfilled a role focused upon manual service and other secular matters.  

Lay brothers were not as literate as monks, and were often hired to help the monastery with crucial craft skills. This relieved the monks of most physical jobs so that they could devote more time to study or worship.   

Newman stated that monks slept under cloth blankets and had woollen habits, while lay brothers slept under sheepskins and were provided with weatherproof animal skin caps for outdoor work. 

“Fountains recruited hundreds upon hundreds of lay brothers during its early decades. All of them needed to be equipped in this manner and this tannery provided the means. 

Lay brothers were, however,’separate, but equal’ according to St Bernard, the creator of the Cistercian Ord and were not meant to be inferior to monks. Monks and lay brothers were actually buried together as equals. 

The lay brothers and the tannery were also central to the whole monastic mission in that one of Fountains’ purposes was to ‘grow’ communities of monks capable of leaving the Mother house to form new monasteries – across the North and even into Norway.  

Animal hides would be de-haired and cured to make leather for uses such as clothing, belts, bedding, book bindings and vellum or parchment for reproducing religious texts. Pictured, a leather bound volume from Fountains Abbey

To make leather, animal hides would need to be de-haired and cured. This could be used for clothing, belts or bedding, as well as book bindings and vellum for reproducing religious texts. A leather bound volume from Fountains Abbey is shown.

The sites of new houses would be prepared by teams of lay brothers, and the new community would be furnished with sets of religious texts, copied by the monks at Fountains Abbey on vellum – dried goat or calf skin – and parchment prepared from animal skins. 

The project team believes that the newly found building may have been the place where the parchment and vellum were produced at their inception, as well as during the early years of the lives and growth of the monasteries.

Later years saw a decrease in the number of Fountains Abbey lay brothers due to social changes, including better economic opportunities and other opportunities.

The tannery continued to operate until the Dissolution of Monasteries in Oct 1539. 

Today, Fountains Abbey is a World Heritage Site and visitors can walk among its stunning ruins. 

The Act of Supremacy and the Dissolution of the Monasteries

 The Act of Supremacy

The Act of Supremacy, established in 1534, was an important English act of Parliament that recognised Henry VIII as the ‘Supreme Head of the Church of England.’ 

Prior to 1534 the supreme head for the English Church was the Pope, Roman Catholic Church. 

Henry VIII introduced the Act primarily because he needed a male heir to the throne and had been unable to produce an heir with his wife, Catherine of Aragon. He had not tried for years to obtain an annulment of his marriage but The Pope had refused.

According to the church of the time, a legally contracted marriage is indivisible up until death.

The Act was finally enforced and it was declared the king ‘the only supreme head on Earth of the Church of England’ and that he would therefore Enjoy ‘all honours and dignities, preeminences jurisdictions privileges authorities profits to the said dignity 

The act also required him to swear loyalty to English subjects that recognized Anne Boleyn’s marriage.  

Significantly, the Act marked the beginning of the English Reformation and was repealed in 1554. 

The Dissolution of Monasteries 

Henry disbanded and disbanded the monasteries in England, Wales, and Ireland shortly thereafter.  

In the 1530s monasteries were seen in England and Wales as corrupt and outof touch due to increasing tensions between King Henry VIII of England and Pope Rome. 

Henry was able to free England, Wales, and Ireland from the Roman Catholic Church’s authority by dissolving the monasteries.

This was partly to reform the church, but also to strip monasteries from their enormous wealth.

Between 1536-1541, a series administrative and legal processes saw the king seize their income, dispose off their assets, provide for their former employees, and perform their former functions.