31 May 2016

Rievaulx Abbey Revealed

Previously unseen artefacts from one of the most important monastic remains in Europe have gone on display at Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire, English Heritage announced today. Elaborate medieval stone carvings, chess pieces and gold coins will tell the story of the rise and dramatic fall of the first Cistercian abbey in the North of England.

The new museum at Rievaulx Abbey

The new Rievaulx Abbey museum, seen through the abbey's former screen

Under the direction of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, Rievaulx Abbey was one of the monastic sites ransacked during the English Reformation, leaving the now spectacular ruins enjoyed by visitors today. On display is a half-tonne lead bar stamped with Henry’s emblem – all that remains of the abbey’s roofs and windows and vivid evidence of how 400 years of piety, culture and tradition were destroyed at the Reformation. The imposing screen from the abbey church has been reassembled for the first time and serves as the centrepiece to the new English Heritage museum at the abbey.

Dr Michael Carter, Senior Properties Historian for English Heritage, said: “Rievaulx Abbey is one of the most important abbeys in England – and the setting one of the most beautiful. It was a place of huge spiritual significance for the country – two of its abbots were venerated as saints – and one utterly transformed by dramatic upheavals under Henry VIII. Our new museum now does justice to the abbey’s whole story, showcasing its most important artefacts, many of which have never been seen before.”

The new museum and exhibition will tell the story of Rievaulx from its foundation in 1132 to its suppression by Henry VIII, and challenges preconceptions about monastic decline before the Reformation. The museum forms part of a £1.8 million investment by English Heritage into the site, completely transforming the experience and understanding of visitors to Rievaulx Abbey. A new visitor centre will welcome those arriving, offering an expanded café featuring views of the abbey and improved visitor facilities.

Monks visiting Rievaulx Abbey

Cistercian monks from the monastery of Saint Bernard were invited to Rievaulx to mark the opening of the new museum and visitor centre.

The new museum and visitor centre at Rievaulx Abbey is now open daily.

Rievaulx Abbey was founded in 1132 as the first monastery of the reforming Cistercian order in the North of England. From humble beginnings, when a founding party of about 30 men – one-third monks, the rest lay brothers – came from Clairvaux in Burgundy, in eastern France, the abbey quickly grew to become one of the most powerful and spiritually renowned centres of monasticism in Britain. At its peak in the 1160s it was home to a community of over 600 men, who passed their lives in an ordered daily sequence of religious services, reading and manual work. Many of the buildings visible today were constructed by the third abbot, Aelred (abbot 1147-67), who became the most prominent religious figure in England of his day. Under his rule, the name of Rievaulx was familiar in the royal courts of England, Scotland and France and the papal court of Rome, and the abbey served as the centre of the monastic colonisation of northern England and Scotland. After his death, Aelred was revered at Rievaulx as a saint and to this day he is venerated by Anglicans and Roman Catholics.

After the suppression in 1538, when King Henry VIII closed more than 800 monasteries across England and Wales, the new owner of Rievaulx deliberately destroyed many of the buildings. But, by a twist of fate which the Tudor reformers could not have foreseen, those buildings that survived assumed a new identify as ruins 200 years later. In the 1750s Thomas Duncombe, owner of nearby Duncombe Park, created a grassed terrace along a ridge overlooking the valley, affording dramatic views through the trees of the ruins below and initiating one of the earliest examples of the Picturesque landscape in the north of England. As haunting reminders of the past, the ruins – set in the newly appreciated grandeur of the North York moors – inspired visits from writers, artists and tourists.

Today, although much of the abbey is ruined, the eastern parts of the church stand to almost their full height as a breath-taking reminder of Rievaulx’s monastic past.

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