The Rediscovery of Rievaulx Abbey

English Heritage

Discover how these medieval ruins were saved for the public

Introducing Rievaulx
Founded in the 12th century, Rievaulx Abbey quickly became one of the most powerful and spiritually renowned centres of monasticism in Britain. At its peak in the 1160s it housed a 650-strong community of monks under its most famous abbot, Aelred. The monastery was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1538 and fell into disrepair. The spectacular ruins became a popular subject for Romantic artists in the 18th and 19th centuries, but in 1917 English Heritage's predecessor, the Office of Works, saved the site for the public.

Set in the foothills of the North York Moors, Rievaulx Abbey was part of a walled precinct measuring some 37 hectares (92 acres).

Within these walls the monks also created enclosures for livestock, built agricultural buildings and developed orchards and gardens.

Rievaulx was an abbey of the Cistercian order, one of the most remarkable European monastic reform movements of the 12th century.

The arrival of the reform-minded Rievaulx community in 1132 sent shockwaves through the older Benedictine houses of northern England.

The ruins seen today contain many phases of building and development, spanning the 12th to the 15th centuries. The changes in building styles and functions reflected the monastery's economic and spiritual development.

The church lay at the centre of monastic life. It served two distinct communities: the monks, who used the eastern half of the church (the presbytery), and the lay brothers who undertook much of the manual labour around the abbey and used the western end of the church.

The first church was built under William, Rievaulx's founding Abbot. Some 15 years later, Aelred the newly elected Abbot assisted in expanding the Abbey to a 650-strong community. This sharp rise made Aelred, arguably, the most famous of Reivaulx's Abbots.

Two distinct phases are visible in the church ruins today. The lighter stone and more elaborate forms in the east end date from the 1220s when the abbey church was rebuilt.

This spectacular extension to the abbey church provided the setting for a shrine dedicated to Aelred.

The darker stones and simpler remains in the western end are from the first stone church built in the late 1140s, towards the end of Aelred's time as abbot.

The great cloister is one of the largest built by the Cistercians in Britain.

The north alley was used by the monks for reading and study. The cloister also provided access to all of the surrounding monastic buildings.

The west range of the cloister housed the lay brothers' accommodation. Dating from 1135–42, it is the only substantial part of the first stone monastery to survive, making it the earliest surviving Cistercian building in Europe.

Rievaulx Abbey fell victim to Henry VIII's Suppression (or Dissolution) of the Monasteries on 3 December 1538. By this time, the abbey's community had shrunk to just 23 monks.

After the Suppression, the new owner, the 1st Earl of Rutland, developed an ironworks within the abbey precinct.

The vaulted undercroft of the refectory was used to store the charcoal which fuelled the furnaces.

By the 19th century the condition of the buildings was rapidly deteriorating.

The ruins we see today – including this Annunciation panel above the doorway to the abbot's chambers – were saved when Rievaulx came into the care of the government's Office of Works in 1917.

The Rediscovery of Rievaulx
When Rievaulx Abbey came into the care of the Office of Works, the predecessor to English Heritage, it was overgrown and covered in rubble. Careful clearance and excavation gradually revealed the original walls and outlines of the medieval monastery.

By the late 19th century, Rievaulx had stood for 300 years. The once-great monastery had gradually retreated behind blankets of ivy and scrub and the layout of the monastic buildings was at risk of being concealed beneath piles of soil and rubble.

"I went down to look at the ruins – thrushes were singing, cattle feeding amongst the green grown hillocks about the Ruins. These hillocks were scattered over with grovelets of wild roses and other shrubs, and covered with wild flowers..."

From Dorothy Wordsworth's 'Grasmere Journal' (1802)

Abbey Farm stood on the ruins of the abbot's house kitchen. The tenant farmer, Mr Wass, is shown here with two ladies.

The farm remained in use until the Ministry of Works demolished it in the 1950s in order to reveal the core monument beneath.

"...The condition of things is disgraceful. [The ruin] is used as a sort of sheepfold and is in a horribly filthy condition. When I visited it a few weeks ago the noise in the choir of the church of sheep and lambs bleating was literally deafening".

From a report (1900)

Two ladies rest in the overgrown infirmary cloister in the late 19th century. Here you can see that vegetation has been cleared from the wall behind, revealing the Annunciation panel over the doorway to the abbot's chambers.

From 1900 onward the site's owner, William Duncombe, 1st Earl of Feversham, came under increasing pressure to carry out conservation works to the abbey. One English antiquarian wrote to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings:

"The whole place is falling to rack and ruin, no care is taken of anything and the owner will not say whether or not he will let the place be put in order for him."

When Rievaulx was transferred into the care of the state in 1917, a photographic survey to establish the scale of repairs required was soon carried out.

This photograph from February 1918 shows the abbey from the south-west.

This view shows soil and rubble up to eight feet deep covering the remains of the church nave. The image is part of a survey of 50 glass negatives taken by a Mr Walsham.

Work to clear the site began in 1919, and by the mid 1920s the nave had been uncovered. The now-familiar sight of grass and starkly pointed masonry gradually unfolded.

Railway and mining trucks were used to removed an estimated 90,000 tons of soil from the abbey ruins.

The clearing and excavation of the walls revealed massive structural weaknesses. The Office of Works, English Heritage's predecessor, developed innovative engineering techniques to stabilise and repair the fabric.

In contrast to the romanticised, overgrown ruins of the 19th century, the cloister and church were now revealed with objective clarity.

Rievaulx Abbey was finally presented as a monument for public understanding and appreciation.

Credits: Story

Contributors
Kevin Booth, Rose Arkle

Visit Rievaulx Abbey.

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