As part of our curriculum, each student has the opportunity to be the tour guide for one of the sites we are visiting on our trip. This is a lot of pressure. Their experience at this location is based on my preparation. I’d better make sure I don’t nerd out and bore them all with my enthusiasm. To get us introduced to the places we chose, we are using this blog post to introduce our places to our readers, getting us researching the subject ourselves before the trip.
I have chosen to explore and present on Rievaulx Abbey. Choosing this location was easy; I didn’t want a castle or cathedral, so a monastery or abbey was the only other option. I knew nothing about Rievaulx going into this blog post, but the name sounds French, so I was instantly intrigued to see if this was a French Abbey or a British imitation of a French Abbey. Dr. L has accumulated quite a few guidebooks for the places we will be visiting, so I am lucky enough to have use of her book on Rievaulx for a while. I hope you are as excited as I am!
The above image is an artist’s representation of what the abbey would have looked like when it was operational.
The Abbey was founded in 1132, and it was the first Cistercian abbey in the north of England (it is located in Yorkshire). Rievaulx was the most important Cistercian abbey in Britain and served as the center for the monastic colonization of north England and Scotland. It became most important under the rule of its third abbot, St. Aelred (1147-1167). Many of its surviving buildings were begun under Aelred, and the community grew to 140 choir monks and 500 lay-brothers and servants. The Abbey is in ruins today, but enough of it is left to tell the story of the location. Monastic life changed drastically during the 400-year history of the place, which can be read in the buildings themselves.
Since Rievaulx is a Cistercian abbey, I’m going to explain a little bit about the Cistercian order because it will help with historical context. In 1098, a group of monks left the abbey of Molesme and built their own monastery. It’s reputation for discipline and simple living attracted recruits. Soon, a number of other monasteries were founded, and the new order was officially named the Cistercian Order by 1119. Their monastic philosophy included an insistence on poverty, simplicity of life, and the need to separate the communities physically from the outside world. As a result, the monasteries became self-sufficient, using lay-brothers to do the farming so they could avoid the feudal system.
No chronicle survives after Aelred’s death, so little is known about Rievaulx after 1167. By the end of the 13th century, the abbey was deeply in debt due to borrowing funds based on future income. The end of the abbey didn’t come through debt but through Henry VIII and his 1532 takeover of the church in England. The abbot of Rievaulx questioned Henry’s authority to interfere with church matters; the King retaliated by electing a new abbot that would serve his needs. In 1538, the remaining monks surrendered the monastery after a lengthy process of decline. The site of the abbey was granted to Thomas Manners, Earl of Rutland, who began the systematic destruction of the abbey buildings.
The buildings in the care of English Heritage today represent only the nucleus of the abbey. Fewer than half of the 72 buildings listed in 1538 can be traced, and only 15 acres remain of the original 92. None of the abbey’s courts, meadows, orchards, gardens, fishponds, mills, or service and industrial buildings survives above ground, though it is important to add them to the imagination to get a true sense of the extent of the original abbey.
This is a picture of what Rievaulx looks like today. There is still a lot there, so we can get a good sense of what the main structure of the abbey looked like.