History of Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey, founded in 1132, was the first Cistercian abbey to be established in the north of England. It quickly became one of the most powerful and spiritually renowned centres of monasticism in Britain, housing a 650-strong community at its peak in the 1160s under its most famous abbot, Aelred. The monastery was suppressed in 1538, but the spectacular abbey ruins became a popular subject for Romantic artists in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Rievaulx west range
The remains of the west range. In the foreground is the site of the original parlour – further along the range are the remains of the later parlour and lay brothers’ refectory

Origins and early monastery

Rievaulx was an abbey of the Cistercian order, which was founded at Cîteaux, near Dijon, France, in 1098. It was to become one of the most remarkable European monastic reform movements of the 12th century, placing an emphasis on a return to an austere life and literal observance of the rules set out for monastic life by St Benedict in the 6th century.

The Cistercians first appeared in England at Waverley, Surrey, in 1128.[1] Rievaulx was established in March 1132 on land given by Walter Espec (d. 1154), lord of nearby Helmsley and a royal justiciar. He was an active supporter of ecclesiastical reform and had founded Kirkham Priory for the reformist Augustinian canons in about 1121.

The arrival of the reform-minded Rievaulx community sent shockwaves through the older Benedictine houses of the north. The foundation at Rievaulx was carefully planned by Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, to spearhead the monastic colonisation of northern Britain. Rievaulx’s first abbot, William, dispatched colonies to establish daughter houses at Warden and Melrose in 1136, Dundrennan in 1142 and Revesby in 1143.

The first buildings at Rievaulx were temporary wooden structures.[2] In the late 1130s Abbot William began the construction of stone buildings around the present cloister. The northern part of his west range, which housed the abbey’s lay brothers, still survives, as does a fragment of the south range.[3]

Reconstruction of Rievaulx as it may have appeared in the mid-12th century, at the height of Aelred’s rule. By this time, the west and east ranges had reached their furthest extent
Reconstruction of Rievaulx as it may have appeared in the mid-12th century, at the height of Aelred’s rule. By this time, the west and east ranges had reached their furthest extent
© Wellesley College, MA (illustration by Tig Sutton)

Abbot Aelred

Rievaulx’s most famous abbot, Aelred, had been a steward in David I of Scotland’s household. He came to Rievaulx as a postulant in 1134, rising quickly to be elected abbot in 1147. He enjoyed a reputation as a brilliant writer and England’s most revered biblical scholar, Latin stylist and pastoral master. By the time of his death in 1167 the community had doubled in size, having 140 monks and about 500 lay brothers.[4]

This increase in numbers required much larger buildings – many of the standing buildings today date from Aelred’s rule. A monumental church was begun in the late 1140s, one of the earliest great mid-12th-century Cistercian churches in Europe.[5]

A new chapter house was built to a revolutionary design which was not repeated anywhere else in the Cistercian world.[6]

The east range of the cloister was reconstructed on a vast scale to provide accommodation for the choir monks.[7] To the east of this range Aelred built his own lodging, the great infirmary hall and the novitiate around a second, infirmary cloister.

The presbytery viewed from the south-east, one of the finest examples of Early English architecture in northern England
The presbytery viewed from the south-east, one of the finest examples of Early English architecture in northern England

The 13th-century Church

Work continued under Aelred’s successor, Silvanus, who rebuilt the south range of the cloister and completed the main cloister arcades in the 1170s. The new refectory was built, atypically, over a massive undercroft because of the steep slope of the valley side on which Abbot William had built his first stone monastery.

The most significant alteration was the spectacular extension of the abbey church in the 1220s, which provided the setting for the shrine dedicated to Aelred.[8]

The original intention was to remodel both the presbytery and the transepts. Severe financial problems, however, prevented the work on the transepts from being carried out. Only the upper parts of the transepts and their eastern chapels were eventually rebuilt, and the cash crisis seems to account for the resignation of Abbot Roger II in 1239.

Reconstruction of the abbey in about 1500
Reconstruction of the abbey in about 1500. The west range had been truncated, reflecting the disappearance of the lay brothers from the monastic community. Similarly, the east range had been lowered in height with the drastic reduction in the number of monks
© Wellesley College, MA (illustration by Tig Sutton)

Rievaulx in the later middle ages

From the second half of the 14th century, Rievaulx witnessed dramatic changes in the communal life of the monks.[9] The lay brothers, who had performed most of the monastery’s manual work, almost entirely disappeared from within the community, and substitute labour had to be hired.

The loss of the lay brothers prompted further changes to the abbey buildings. The monks occupied the space belonging to the lay choir in the nave of Aelred’s great church. The aisles began to fill with chapels, while the central part of the nave was used for processions.[10] The aisle around the apse in the chapter house, which had been used by the lay brothers on religious festival days to hear the abbot’s sermons, was lost.[11] The lay dormitory was halved in size and partitioned into private closets, while the lay brothers’ refectory was totally demolished.[12]


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Statue of ‘Christ in Majesty’, dating from the 13th century, discovered during excavations at Rievaulx
Statue of ‘Christ in Majesty’, dating from the 13th century, discovered during excavations at Rievaulx

Suppression of Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey was shut down on 3 December 1538, as part of the Suppression of the Monasteries that took place under Henry VIII in 1536–40. By this time Rievaulx’s community had shrunk to just 23 monks. It was sold to Thomas Manners (d.1543), 1st Earl of Rutland, who was closely associated with the royal court.

Rutland dismantled the buildings, reserving the roof leads and the bells for the king. His steward at nearby Helmsley, Ralf Bawde, recorded the process of dismantling, leaving remarkably detailed accounts of the process and the form and contents of individual buildings.[13]


View highlights of the collection at Rievaulx
The refectory at Rievaulx Abbey
The refectory and the remains of its undercroft below, seen through the doorway of the cloister. After the Suppression, the undercroft served as a charcoal store, supplying fuel to the nearby blast furnace

The Abbey Ironworks

One of the buildings within the abbey precinct was called ‘the Yron Smiths’. Abbey records show that this was a water-powered forge used for making the many objects of iron required by a monastery, from nails to tools and cutlery.

Under Rutland the ironworks grew in scale – by 1545 enough iron ore was being smelted to keep four furnaces busy.[14] The vaulted undercroft of the refectory was used as a dry place to store the charcoal used to heat up the ore to the temperature required to extract molten iron.[15]

The ironworks continued to grow throughout the later 16th century, with the addition of a blast furnace in 1577, possibly the first in the north of England. A new forge was built at the south end of the old monastic precinct, which was re-equipped between 1600 and 1612. By the 1640s, local supplies of timber for charcoal were all but exhausted, and the ironworks was closed.[16]

A hunting party, guests of the Duncombe family, at Rievaulx, painted by John Wootton in about 1728.
A hunting party, guests of the Duncombe family, at Rievaulx, painted by John Wootton in about 1728. Labourers in the background work on ladders to repair the ruins
© Yale Center for British Art (Paul Mellon Collection)

Romantic Ruins

In 1687 the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, whose father, George Villiers, had acquired the Rutlands’ Yorkshire estates by marriage, sold the Rye Valley and many of Rievualx’s former estates to Sir Charles Duncombe (d.1711), a London banker. Duncombe built a new house, Duncombe Park, on the west side of Helmsley.[17] The park was further extended along the Rye Valley in the 1750s by Charles’s nephew, Thomas Duncombe, who created a terrace above the abbey with Classical temples at either end.[18]

The success of this artful setting was apparent from the 1770s, when writers and artists came to the abbey and recorded its effects. From the late 18th century the abbey became an increasingly popular destination for visitors.

First World War veterans excavating the east range in 1920–21
First World War veterans excavating the east range in 1920–21
© Historic England Archive

Preservation and Display

By the mid 19th century scholarship had eclipsed art, and the ruins began to be appreciated for the first time for the architectural evidence they contained. Remarkably, there was to be no excavation to recover buried buildings, though the Yorkshire Archaeological and Topographical Association had visited with expert guides in 1881 and 1893.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the abbey ruins were in a state of imminent collapse. Minor repairs were carried out in 1907, but the scale of the repairs needed was such that only state intervention could save the site. The Office of Works took the ruins at Rievaulx into guardianship in July 1917.

Immediate repairs were begun, in spite of the shortage of labour and materials brought about by the First World War. After 1918 Sir Frank Baines, Principal Architect at the Office of Works, devised pioneering engineering techniques at Rievaulx such as reinforced concrete beams hidden in the upper walls to stabilise the buildings.

In the 1920s Sir Charles Peers, Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments, ordered the removal of much fallen debris to expose buried elements of the building.[19] The work was carried out by war veterans. This policy of preservation and display set the style for the presentation of ancient monuments in Britain for the next two generations.[20]


About the Author

Glyn Coppack BA PhD FSA is a monastic specialist who worked for English Heritage for 37 years. His research has concentrated on major sites in Yorkshire and particularly those of the Cistercians.

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    G Coppack, The White Monks: The Cistercians in Britain 1128–1540 (Stroud, 1998), 17.
    P Fergusson and S Harrison, Rievaulx Abbey: Community, Architecture, Memory (London, 1999), 45–8.
    Ibid, 48–54.
    FM Powicke (ed and trans), The Life of Ailred of Rievaulx by Walter Daniel (New York, 1951), 7.
    Fergusson and Harrison, op cit, 69–81.
    Ibid, 83–99.
    Ibid, 103–9; P Fergusson and S Harrison, ‘The Rievaulx Abbey chapter house’, Antiquaries Journal, 74 (1994), 211–51.
    Fergusson and Harrison, Rievaulx Abbey, 167–8.
    Ibid, 54, 94, 99–101, 108 and 130–35; G Coppack, ‘The planning of Cistercian monasteries in the later Middle Ages: the evidence from Fountains, Rievaulx, Sawley, and Rushen’, in The Religious Orders in Pre-Reformation England, ed J Clark (Woodbridge, 2002), 204–5.
    P Fergusson, G Coppack and S Harrison, Rievaulx Abbey (English Heritage guidebook, London, 2006), 9 (buy the guidebook).
    Ibid, 22–3.
    G Coppack, ‘Some descriptions of Rievaulx Abbey in 1538–9’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 139 (1986), 126–7.
    G Coppack, ‘Some descriptions of Rievaulx Abbey in 1538–9: the disposition of a major Cistercian precinct in the early sixteenth century’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 139 (1986), 46–87.
    JC Atkinson (ed), Chartularium Abbathiae de Rievalle, Surtees Society, 83 (1889), 312.
    J McDonnell (ed), A History of Helmsley, Rievaulx and District (York, 1963), 177.
    Fergusson and Harrison, Rievaulx Abbey, 187–8.
    Ibid, 188.
    J Burton, Monasticon Eboracense (York, 1758), 560.
    W Harvey, ‘Nave excavations: Rievaulx Abbey’, The Builder (12 August 1921), 196–7; ‘Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire’, The Builder (10 November 1922), 703–6; ‘Rievaulx Abbey ruins: some details of masonry repair’, The Builder (13 July 1923), 58–61.
    Fergusson and Harrison, Rievaulx Abbey, 195–211.