Rievaulx was the first Cistercian Abbey in the north of England, begun in the 1130s under the patronage of Walter Espec, a lord who came to England with William the Conqueror. He was one of the justiciar’s of northern England under William and his descendants, and one of the most powerful men in England as a result.
The Abbey is located in Yorkshire, in a wooded dale by the River Rye, which the monks actually diverted to the west in order to have enough flat land to build on. They also used the river to provide fresh water to their monastery. By mining lead and iron and raising sheep to sell their wool, the abbey eventually built itself up to be one of the most powerful in England, with a hundred and forty monks (Norman, of course) and over five hundred lay brothers, who provided the manual labor and were commoners. We are going to talk more about the differences among all these different kinds of monks in a later video.
Interestingly to me, only forty years after the Norman Conquest and William’s pledge to the pope to reform the Saxon Church, the monastic houses that had been established in England were seen by the Cistercians as in need of reform again. English Heritage states that Bernard of Clairvaux started “what 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.” His goal was to use Rievaulx to “spearhead the monastic colonisation of northern Britain”. Furthermore, the establishment of Rievaulx “sent shockwaves through the older Benedictine houses of the north.” To that end, Rievaulx’s first abbot sent out brother monks to establish four daughter houses to Rievaulx.
Most of the construction seen today derives from the end of the 12th century, under the guidance of the Abbot, Aelred—of Saxon descent and a former steward of King David of Scotland. This includes the monumental church, the chapter house, the east range of the cloister, the infirmary, and the abbot’s quarters.
Unfortunately for Rievaulx, it fell into hard times due to the triple threat of 1) a mange disease affecting their sheep (and thus their prosperity) towards the end of the 13th century, 2) increasing raids from Scotland, and 3) the Black Plague, which reduced the numbers of able workers to the point that they had to rent out their lands rather than find lay brothers to do it for free.
By the 15th century, the monks had for the most part abandoned the strict rule of St. Benedict (and were eating meat, for example), after which the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII made the buildings uninhabitable.
Next week we’ll be talking an abbey made famous during the time of Edward I, Lanercost.