History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
HERITAGE HIGHLIGHTS: Magnificent church with Early English buttresses
The first structures at Rievaulx were temporary timber buildings, intended to serve only until proper permanent buildings could be erected in stone. The first stone structures were begun under the first abbot, William (1132-1145), sometime after 1135. The plan for Rievaulx was to follow the same layout as that of the mother abbey of the order at Citeaux, in France. This consisted of a large church, with a cloister range to the south.
Abbot William's church was taken down and rebuilt on a grand scale by the third abbet, Aelred (1147-1167). Aelred had come to Rievaulx from Scotland, where he had served as a steward in the household of King David.
But some things were beyond the abbey's control. Like most Cistercian monasteries (and those maintained by other orders such as the Premonstratensians) Rievaulx relied heavily on income from sheep farming. In the 13th century a series of epidemics ravaged the abbey's flocks, leaving them with far lower income than expected. They did engage in minor rebuilding during the 14th century, but by then the abbey had truly fallen upon hard times. Parts of the abbey buildings were torn down in the 15th century. By the time the abbey was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1538 it supported 22 monks and 100 lay people. Compare that to the 1160s when, under Abbot Aelred, it had a population of 140 monks and more than 500 lay brothers.
After the Dissolution of the Monasteries Rievaulx was sold to the Earl of Rutland. Though much of the stone was sold and carried off (or reserved for the king) Rutland was no fool, and he saw an even better prospect than simply looting the abbey remains for building material. One of the buildngs at Rievaulx was a water-powered iron forge. Rutland hired the former abbey iron master, and extended the ironworks, smelting and creating a variety of iron objects for sale.
Curiously, this small-scale iron industry was under the control of a clergyman, John Blackett, of Helmsley. Blackett used the undercroft of the abbey refectory to store charcoal used in heating the iron ore for smelting. The ironworks prospered, and a blast furnace was added in 1577. A new forge was built, and renovated in 1600 and 1612, but by the 1640s the supply of local timber needed to create charcoal for smelting had been exhausted, and the abbey ironworks were closed.
I've been to Rievaulx several times, and each time I see something new. Its such a magnificent location, set at the bottom of a treed slope, and surrounded by lush greenery. The arcades of the abbey church are, in my opinion, among the highlights of medieval architecture in England. Rievaulx does not get as many visitors as Fountains (I'm not privy to official numbers, but it has always been les crowded when I've visited), but it is every bit as interesting and well work a visit.
About Rievaulx Abbey
Address: Rievaulx, Helmsley, Yorkshire, England, YO62 5LB
Attraction Type: Abbey
Location: 2 miles west of Helmsley, off the B1257. Well signposted. On site parking.
Website: Rievaulx Abbey
Phone: 01439 798 228
English Heritage - see also: English Heritage memberships (official website)
OS: SE576 851
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
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12th century (Time Period) - 13th century (Time Period) - 14th century (Time Period) - 15th century (Time Period) - castle (Architecture) - Cistercian (Historical Reference) - Early English (Architecture) - Henry VIII (Person) - Medieval (Time Period) - neo-classical (Architecture) - Norman (Architecture) -
Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low-exceptional) on historic interest
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Gilling Castle - 5.3 miles (Historic Building)
Nunnington Hall - 6.8 miles (Historic Building)
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