Origins of Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey, founded in March 1132, was the first Cistercian abbey to be established in the north of England. It was founded from the abbey of Clairvaux, in north-eastern France, for a number of monks from Yorkshire who had entered Clairvaux in the 1120s, and it was intended to spearhead Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux’s colonization of the north of England and Scotland.

The Cistercian Order

Rievaulx was an abbey of the Cistercian order, which was founded by St Bernard of Clairvaux at Cȋteaux (Côte-d’Or), near Dijon, France, in 1098. It was to become the most remarkable of the 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.

Cȋteaux established four daughter houses: La Ferté (Saône-et-Loire) in 1113, Pontigny (Yonne) in 1114, and both Clairvaux (Aube) and Morimond (Haute-Marne) in 1115. These five monasteries – increased to six in 1147 by the adoption of the abbey of Savigny (Manche) – provided the basis from which the order was spread throughout Europe. All subsequent monasteries belonged to the family, or 'filiation', of one of this initial group.

The Cistercians had first appeared in England at Waverley in 1128 and belonged to the filiation of Cȋteaux. A sister house was established at Tintern in the borderlands of Wales in 1131. [1] It is likely that the foundation at Rievaulx was carefully planned by Bernard of Clairvaux, the Cistercian Order's founder; the first abbot, William, had earlier been Bernard’s secretary and confidant.

Relations with Durham and York

The abbey was founded on land given by Walter Espec (died 1154), lord of Helmsley and one of Henry I’s justiciars in the north, who held land both from King Henry and King David of Scotland and had been an earlier supporter of the reformist Augustinian canons (he founded Kirkham Priory in about 1121).  

The arrival of the reform-minded Rievaulx community in York sent shockwaves through the marginally older Benedictine houses of the north, such as the cathedral priory of Durham and particularly St Mary’s abbey in York.

Nevertheless, Rievaulx went on to build and maintain a special relationship with the Benedictines at Durham, while at York, the prior and twelve others wanted to reform their abbey on Cistercian lines, and in due course went on to establish Fountains Abbey in December 1132, which three years later was accepted into the Cistercian family.

The first buildings at Rievaulx

Abbot William’s first buildings were temporary structures, erected under the direction of Geoffroi d’ Ainai (died 1140), a Clairvaux monk, in 1131/2. [2] Built largely of wood, they occupied the site where the surviving church and cloister ranges now sit. A rectangular building within the present cloister garth has been identified as a possible church.

The form of these early buildings is not known, but they may well have been similar to the surviving early buildings at Clairvaux and the excavated buildings at Fountains Abbey, also constructed by Geoffroi d’Ainai in 1133/4.

It was to this temporary monastery that Ailred, steward of King David of Scotland’s household, came as a postulant in 1134. Walter Daniel describes a fire in the guest house when Ailred was staying there prior to his joining the house. [3]


1. G Coppack 1998, 'The White Monks: the Cistercians in Britain 1128–1540', Stroud, 17 and 19–20.

2. P Fergusson and S Harrison 1999, 'Rievaulx Abbey: Community, Architecture, Memory,' London, 45–8.

3. F M Powicke 1951, 'The Life of Ailred of Rievaulx by Walter Daniel', New York, 73.

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