A dispute and riot at St Mary's Abbey in York led to the founding of Fountains Abbey in 1132, thirteen monks were exiled and taken into the protection of Thurstan, Archbishop of York. Three years later the exiled monks became part of the Cistercian Order, founded in France in 1098. By the middle of the 13th century it was one of England's richest religious houses, however after the Dissolution, the Abbey buildings stood empty and by 1540 glass and lead from the dismantling of Fountains had found their way to Ripon and York.
The buildings and parts of the estate were sold to Sir Richard Gresham, whose family subsequently sold them on to Stephen Proctor, the builder of Fountains Hall. Then the abbey passed through several hands and in 1767 it was sold for £18,000 to William Aislabie, who landscaped the abbey ruins as a picturesque folly to be viewed from the Water Garden of the Hall. In 1966 the estate was bought by the County Council of the West Riding of Yorkshire and in 1983 the ownership of the estate passed in perpetuity to the National Trust.