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.
Origins and Early Monastery
Rievaulx was an abbey of the Cistercian order, which was founded by St Bernard of Clairvaux 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. 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 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. 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.
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 the abbey church in the 1220s, providing the setting for the shrine dedicated to Aelred.
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.
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.
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 Rievaulx’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. 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.
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.