Rievaulx Abbey - History and Facts | History Hit

Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx, York, England, United Kingdom

Peta Stamper

05 May 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey was a Cistercian abbey in Rievaulx near Helmseley in the North York Moors, England. One of England’s great abbeys, Rievaulx was seized during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538.

The wider site has since been awarded Scheduled Ancient Monument status and the striking ruins of the main abbey continue to be a popular tourist destination, owned and managed by English Heritage. The abbey’s records also provide one of the earliest insights into queer relationships during the medieval period.

Rievaulx Abbey history

Rievaulx Abbey was the first Cistercian monastery in northern England, a branch of the Benedictine order, founded in 1132 by 12 monks from Clairvaux Abbey in Burgundy (France). Rievaulx’s remote location suited the order’s strict life of prayer and self-sufficiency, the monks having little contact with outsiders.

William I, first abbot of Rievaulx, began construction during the 1130s and the abbey was extended and consolidated under the second abbot, Saint Aelred of Rievaulx. During this time, the abbey grew to house 140 monks and 500 lay brothers and by the end of Aelred’s tenure, had 5 daughter houses across England and Scotland.

Aelred had been accused of sexual relations with another man when he was young at the court of King David I. He is also believed to have had intimate relationships with 2 monks called Hugh and Simon at Rievaulx. Aelred’s documented feelings of the ‘sublime’ love between men and feeling ‘eviscerated’ upon Simon’s death, suggest a romantic – albeit chaste – relationship between them.

The monks diverted the nearby River Rye so they had enough flat land to build on and over time established profitable businesses mining lead and iron as well as rearing sheep and selling their wool across Europe. Rievaulx resultantly became one of England’s wealthiest abbeys.

However, by the end of the 13th century, the abbey had accrued debts and suffered raids by the Scots. The Black Death of the mid 14th century also made it hard to recruit labour, so the abbey leased out much of its land. The 15th century saw the abbey’s revival with the monks adopting a more comfortable lifestyle.

In 1538, Henry VIII dissolved Rievaulx to inherit their wealth which at the time consisted of 72 buildings and had an income of £351 a year. The building was left uninhabitable: stripped of lead and the land given to one of Henry’s advisers. The Duncombe family who later owned Rievaulx beautified the grounds with a terrace garden and 2 Grecian temples. The abbey eventually came under the protection of English Heritage.

Rievaulx Abbey today

Today, the dramatic ruins of Rievaulx Abbey are set against beautiful blue skies and can be explored by visitors. There are plenty of information boards dotted throughout the site, exploring the life of Saint Aelred and the monastery. Follow the exhibition trail before enjoying a treat in the tearoom.

Explore the museum that displays artefacts that tell the story of Rievaulx’s rise and fall as one of England’s most prestigious abbeys. There is also a scenic walk from Helmsley to Rievaulx.

Getting to Rievaulx Abbey

For those driving, Rievaulx is located just off the A170 at Helmsley, a 53 minute drive via the A19 from York. There is parking on site. Otherwise, you could get the 31X or 128 buses to Helmsley Market Place and walk to Rievaulx which takes roughly 50 minutes.

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Discover the ruined churches, monasteries, abbeys and cathedrals that were devastated by one of the most turbulent moments in Britain's religious history, the dissolution of the monasteries (1536-1541).