Last Photographed: Saturday 9th July 2005
Founded in 1135AD, Rievaulx was the first Cistercian abbey to be built in the north of England and was intended as a base from which to establish further monasteries, as far afield as Scotland. It was founded by 12 monks from the Cistercian motherhouse at Clairvaux, and it went on to become the second greatest abbey of the north, surpassed only by Fountains.
The first church at the site was built between 1135-1142AD, and the steeply sloping nature of the land meant that the monks had to make a rare deviation from their established monastic ground plan, aligning the abbey along a north-west/south-east axis instead of the more usual east/west axis.
In 1147AD, Ælred became abbot of Rievaulx. He was widely regarded as a wise and spiritual man and attracted many followers as a result of his charismatic and charming nature. Accordingly, the abbey prospered during is tenure, undertaking a massive building program and expanding rapidly in the years leading up to his death in 1167AD. Subsequently, the monks lobbied Rome to canonise Ælred, and around 1220, they rebuilt the eastern portion of the church to house his tomb.
Rievaulx continued to prosper, building its wealth on the farming and export of wool, as well as lead and iron mining. In the years leading up to the dissolution, the monks were in the process of pioneering metalworking technology, and had got as far as building a prototype blast furnace. It has been speculated that the abbey's suppression by Henry VIII may have delayed the industrial revolution by 200 years.
At its peak, Rievaulx was one of the wealthiest abbeys in England, home to around 140 monks and 500 lay brethren, owning large tracts of land, and had founding 19 daughter houses. However, large debt incurred by its building program coincided with an epidemic of sheep scab, and by the end of the 13th Century, the abbey was in severe financial trouble. The 14th Century brought the black death, Scottish raids, and social upheaval. The cumulative effect of these influences was that by 1381AD, only 14 monks and 3 lay brothers remained in residence.
By the time of the Rievaulx's dissolution in 1538AD, it had recovered somewhat from its earlier misfortunes, home to 21 monks and commanding a substantial income. The fact that the brethren were attended by 102 servants illustrates how much the religious houses of England had changed by their final days, moving far from their austere Cistercian roots towards a life of wealth and privilege. Most of the monks now enjoyed private quarters, and the abbot's lodgings were more akin to those of a noble lord.
Today, the ruins of Rievaulx appear remarkably complete, nestling serenely against the slope of a tranquil wooden valley. However, only around half of the original 72 buildings survive, giving some clue to the thoroughness of the destruction wrought by Henry's troops.
The elegant skeleton of the abbey church is one of the most distinguished and complete examples of its kind in England. Its graceful arches still evoke some small part of its original splendour, helping the visitor to easily contemplate the majesty that must once have been evident beneath its vaulted roof. The monks' refectory also survives in remarkable condition, its hall supported by a striking under-croft built into the natural slope of the land.
Rievaulx is a major tourist attraction, so is likely to be busy during the summer months. However, its precinct is large and rambling, allowing for a little space and tranquillity, despite the number of visitors. The magnificence of the ruins and the beauty of the settings make this a remarkable site. I recommend it as an essential visit for those with the opportunity to do so.