History and Research: Rievaulx Abbey

Set in the valley of the River Rye, Rievaulx Abbey's ruins are among the most scenic in the British Isles

Rievaulx was one of the first Cistercian abbeys to be founded in England. Surrounded by a massive agricultural and industrial estate, staffed by lay brothers, it was intended as the focus of a substantial family of daughter houses throughout northern Britain. Suppressed in 1538, the existing monastic ironworks was developed by new owners, the earls of Rutland. Incorporated into the parkland of Duncombe Park, the shattered abbey ruins became a popular subject for Romantic artists in the 18th and 19th centuries. 


Set in the deep valley of the River Rye, to the west of its founder’s castle at Helmsley, Rievaulx Abbey started as a timber structure and evolved through four stages of design, before declining into one of the pre-eminent medieval ruins in Europe.

History of Rievaulx Abbey


Rievaulx Abbey retains some of the earliest surviving buildings of the Cistercian order in Europe. Later it became the site of iron-making experiments that pre-figured the Industrial Revolution. A beacon for Romantic poets and painters, and latterly for scholars, the abbey was one of the first major ruins to be conserved by the Office of Works, starting in 1919.

Significance of Rievaulx Abbey


Read a review of the major studies that have contributed to our growing understanding of Rievaulx Abbey, its role in the development of the Cistercian order and its important place in England's medieval economy.

Research on Rievaulx Abbey

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.

About Portico

Portico is the area of the English Heritage website dedicated to exploring the history and significance of the 400 or so sites in the care of English Heritage.

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Buy the guidebook

The Rievaulx Abbey guidebook is one of a suite of authoritative and beautifully illustrated guides that help to bring our properties to life with their photographs, plans and reconstruction drawings.

Rievaulx Abbey guidebook