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The Abbey Church

A Grade I Listed Building in Ampleforth, North Yorkshire

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Latitude: 54.2018 / 54°12'6"N

Longitude: -1.0847 / 1°5'4"W

OS Eastings: 459807

OS Northings: 478839

OS Grid: SE598788

Mapcode National: GBR NMVV.ZJ

Mapcode Global: WHF9Y.9NR5

Plus Code: 9C6W6W28+P4

Entry Name: The Abbey Church

Listing Date: 9 September 1985

Last Amended: 2 March 2016

Grade: I

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1315767

English Heritage Legacy ID: 329560

Location: Ampleforth, Ryedale, North Yorkshire, YO62

County: North Yorkshire

Civil Parish: Ampleforth

Traditional County: Yorkshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): North Yorkshire

Church of England Parish: Ampleforth St Hilda

Church of England Diocese: York

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Roman Catholic abbey church designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and built in two phases, 1922-24 and then 1958-61. The attached monastic and school buildings are not included in the listing.


Roman Catholic church, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott 1922-24 and 1958-61 for Ampleforth Benedictine Abbey and College. Oak fittings by Robert (Mouseman) Thompson.

MATERIALS: external wall-facing is scrunch-tooled limestone that is laid to random courses with extensive snecking. Dressings are fine tooled ashlar. The early phase uses Bramley Fall stone (near Leeds), the later phase uses Dunhouse stone (Staindrop, Co Durham). Internally the walls are rough plastered, the earlier phase having Blue Hornton stone dressings. The roof structure and dome of the earlier phase is of mass concrete. The domes and vaults of the later phase are of plaster sprayed onto steel mesh formwork, roof trusses also being steel. Pitched roof covering is of Westmoreland slate.

PLAN: roughly a Greek cross with a central sanctuary beneath the crossing tower with a retrochoir to the west and the nave to the east. On the south side of both the retrochoir and nave there are side chapels, and on the north side there is a narrow side aisle. Entries are via a narthex leading to the north transept and also via external steps up to the south transept, the church being built into ground that rises to the north. Beneath, there is a crypt of 25 chapels that are at ground floor level on the south side. Attached to the north side of the church, the linking ranges between the narthex and the monastic buildings to the west and school to the east are not included in this listing.

EXTERIOR: the careful massing of the exterior gives the impression that the church is compact yet massive, its height emphasised by the placement of paired lancet windows set into tall, arched recesses extending up from the string course defining the top of the crypt. Height is also emphasised by the steeply pitched roofs to the nave, retrochoir and the short gables buttressing the central tower above the transepts, yet the whole is grounded by the substantial projections for the transepts, side chapels and the gallery at the east end of the nave, all of which are flat roofed with plain raised parapets. The tower also appears substantial rather than soring, with broad, flat, clasping buttresses, three pairs of belfry openings to each face emphasising the width, and the tower being topped with a lightly embattled parapet without finials or spire. Windows to the crypt chapels are simple lancets without hoodmoulds, generally arranged in triples, all linked by a sill band. Windows to the church are generally paired lancets set into recesses, the recesses having hoodmoulds. Windows to the clerestory are single lancets linked by a continuous hoodmoulds except for the paired clerestory lancets lighting the narrow bays immediately adjacent to the tower.

The west end has a tall arched recess with a triple lancet window, each lancet embellished with a crocketed moulding above imitating a gable. Set above there is a roundel which lights the attic space. The west end has slightly set back pilaster buttresses which include shallow mouldings imitating blind windows.

The south transept has a high gable that extends for just a single narrow bay from the crossing tower, this bay being the width of the side aisles internally. Set high in the gable is an arched recess with three tall lancets. The transept then extends as a flat roofed block for a further three bays, the first bay abutting the side chapels. Its south elevation has slightly inset pilaster buttresses and a deep, arched recess, this having a stepped triple lancet rising above a square headed double doorway with diamond-framed oak doors. This is approached by a pair of broad, dog-leg staircases which flank a row of nine lancet windows lighting the crypt.

The east gable end of the nave has a roundel high in the gable and has a flat roofed projection that accommodates the gallery at the end of the nave. This projection is flanked by hexagonal stair turrets that have embattled tops and is lit by three very tall lancets without hoodmoulds, set between a pair of simple pilaster strips with gabled heads.

The north transept has a high gable that is similarly detailed to that of the south transept, also having a lower, flat-roofed projecting block. Its north elevation has set back pilaster buttresses and a high plinth. To the centre there is a square headed double doorway with a triple lancet above (lighting the organ chamber), all flanked by narrower pilaster buttresses with gabled heads. The entrance is also flanked by square-headed two-light windows lighting the narthex. The linking ranges to east and west are not included in this listing.
INTERIOR: although there is a distinct contrast between the two phases of the church (the earlier phase with dark coloured Blue Hornton stone dressings, the later phase characterised by very clean lines uninterrupted by sculptural embellishment) this contrast can be seen as being deliberate, marking the distinction between the monastic end of the church (with its greater sense of enclosure and tradition), to that used by the school pupils and public (which is brighter and more open, with excellent sightlines to the High Altar). Yet despite this distinction, the whole reads as a harmonious, unified design linked by the general use of drop arches throughout and the three pendentive supported domes used on the east-west axis covering the retrochoir, crossing and nave. These domes are plain plastered and appear to be shallow saucers, however they are actually full hemispheres.

The church is centrally planned with the raised sanctuary beneath the crossing tower, flooded by light from windows in the crossing and the south transept. Seating for the congregation is provided in the south transept, nave and east gallery, with sight lines improved by the floor of both the transept and the nave being lowered. Visual, yet permeable separation from the monastic end of the church is provided by the high arched reredos of the back-to-back High Altar.

Retrochoir: this is domed, the giant arches supporting the dome being divided on the north and south sides into three bay arcades defining the narrow side aisles with the three lancet clerestory windows above also being encompassed by the giant arch. To east and west of the dome there are narrow bays that are tunnel vaulted, that adjacent to the crossing tower having double lancet clerestory windows set in simple round arched recesses. The giant arches and the arcades have individually carved capitals featuring a very wide range subjects. The retrochoir has a full suite of stalls, those to the west wall being canopied. These fittings are very high quality, hand tooled in oak by Robert Thompson featuring a number of his trade mark mice. The stained glass to the west lancet windows is by Herbert Hendrie (1928).

South western chapels: To the south of the west-most bay there is a single bay, tunnel vaulted chapel to St Benet which includes a medieval altar stone from Byland Abbey and stained glass by Geoffrey Webb. To its east there is the Memorial Chapel to the fallen of the First World War. This is groin vaulted of three bays and includes an elaborate reredos designed by Scott and a set of stained glass windows designed by Patrick Reyntiens. Both chapels have Blue Hornton stone dressings.

Crossing: this is domed, with the dome and its supporting giant arches being higher than those in the retrochoir and the nave. Rather than capitals, the spring points of the arches are marked by a simple string course that continues round the first bays of the transepts immediately below the sills of the high triple lancet windows. These narrow bays match those immediately to the east and west of the crossing, being tunnel vaulted and lit by paired lancets in round arched recesses. The crossing forms the sanctuary, on its western side is the back to back High Altar with its high reredos in the form of a free standing gothic archway carved from Blue Hornton stone, incorporating canopied statues of saints. This was designed by Scott and built in 1925 with carving by W.D.Gough.

Nave: this mirrors the design of the retrochoir in overall form except its floor is lowered and it has an additional eastern bay including a raised gallery. Like the crossing and the rest of the later phase of the church, mouldings are simple clean lines formed from plaster, the mouldings to the arcade arches simply dying to the circular columns, omitting capitals.

South eastern chapels: this includes a three bay Lady Chapel and a single bay Holy Cross chapel, all with stained glass windows designed by Patrick Reyntiens.

Transepts: these are tunnel vaulted, the floor of the south transept being lowered and separated from the south aisle by steps. The south windows have non-figurative stained glass by Reyntiens. The north transept houses the main part of the organ.

Crypt: this extends beneath the nave, south transept and the four side chapels. The crypt includes two large and 23 smaller chapels, four of the smaller chapels dating to the first phase of the church having Blue Hornton dressings, round arches, tunnel vaults and stained glass by Geoffrey Webb. The later part of the crypt also has round archways, but has plain plastered walls, flat ceilings and mainly plain glassing. Four of the later small chapels have been divided off for other uses, and a further four have modern glass screens dividing them from the linking corridor.

STAINED GLASS: most of the windows are clear glazed, but there are a large number of stained glass windows, only some noted above. Of those noted, the most significant are considered to be those designed by Patrick Reyntiens (particularly those in the Lady Chapel) and the small panels of medieval glass in the north aisle.

FITTINGS: in addition to the fittings in the retrochoir by Robert Thompson, as well as the High Altar reredos and the Memorial Chapel reredos, both by Scott, the church includes a number of other notable fittings including an alabaster carving of the Trinity found near Byland, a circa 1500 Italian crucifix, a C14 statue from the Rhineland, a bell cast in 1658 (the smaller of the two housed in the belfry), a reliquary presented to the abbey in 1903, a medieval style memorial floor brass to Bishop Hedley (died 1915) and a large sculpture of Madonna and Child by Jonah Jones.

As stated above the listed building is restricted to the abbey church and its south steps and does not extend to the attached monastic and school buildings.


Ampleforth is a Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery which includes an independent day and boarding school which was founded in 1803. The Abbey Church was built in two phases to the design of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. The western portion (High Altar, the retrochoir, St Benet’s Chapel, the 1914-18 Memorial Chapel and the four western crypt chapels) was built in 1922-24, retaining the earlier church of 1855-57 to the east as the nave (the church being laid out in reverse of the traditional ecclesiastical arrangement). Scott maintained contact with Ampleforth for the rest of his life, designing a number of other buildings for the community and school. He prepared at least six sets of plans for the completion of the Abbey Church, with the Victorian portion eventually being taken down in 1957. The second phase, including the central tower, transepts as well as the new nave, was built in 1958-61, being completed after Scott’s death in 1960. The two phases of the building are at the same time both harmonious and distinct: the interior is derived from the domed churches of Aquitaine, the exterior being broadly Early English in character. The earlier portion employs a modest amount of architectural elaboration with Blue Hornton stone dressings used internally including very high quality carving; the later portion is influenced by streamlined modernism, featuring very clean lines without adornment to produce an impressive space internally and a confident, well-massed and composed exterior. There are also differences in the structural design of the two phases of the church. The dome and the covering pitched roof of the earlier portion are constructed of reinforced mass concrete. The later roofs are much more lightly constructed, employing steel trusses, with the domes and vaulting formed from plaster sprayed onto steel mesh.

Even though the older part of the church contrasts very obviously with the younger because of the use of dark coloured stone dressings in the earlier phase, this appears deliberate, marking the distinction between the monastic end of the church, (meditative and steeped in tradition extending back into the medieval period), with the end of the church used by the school: bright, forward looking and full of youthful life. Overall as Martin (2006) writes “The structure looks simple; the impact makes it memorable”.

The oak fittings in the choir are the work of Robert Thompson (The Mouseman of Kilburn), with Ampleforth, as a whole, thought to own the largest collection of his work. Stone carving was also mainly by local craftsmen: the wide range of animals depicted in the capitals (including a kangaroo and a rhinoceros) is said to have been the result of requests made by pupils at the school. Stained glass includes a series of windows by Patrick Reyntiens, a former Ampleforth student described in The Spectator in 2013 as the “leading practitioner of stained glass in this country”.

Reasons for Listing

The Roman Catholic Abbey Church at Ampleforth is listed Grade I for the following principal reasons:
* Architectural interest: a sublime, beautifully-proportioned building where the distribution of openings and the restrained use of architectural embellishment are perfectly judged;
* Architect: a major building by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, representing work from both early and late in his career, demonstrating both his evolution in style and changing use of building technology;
* Interior: for the clever way in which Scott married the two phases of the church into a coherent whole, the way that the unusual design of the transepts floods the crossing in light, and the way that he maximised the seating capacity of the church whilst preserving sight lines and avoiding cramping the impressive internal space;
* Craftsmanship: as exhibited by the decorative stone carving and stained glass, but most especially for the oak fittings by Robert Thompson, the Mouseman of Kilburn;
* Historic interest: for perfectly capturing the spirit of St Benedict’s rule, austere but far from being heavy or oppressive, a seemingly simple structure which has a memorable impact.

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