Rievaulx Abbey, founded in 1132, was the first Cistercian abbey to be established in the north of England. It quickly became one of the most powerful and spiritually renowned centres of monasticism in Britain, housing a 650-strong community at its peak in the 1160s under its most famous abbot, Aelred. The monastery was suppressed in 1538, but the spectacular abbey ruins became a popular subject for Romantic artists in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Rievaulx was an abbey of the Cistercian order, which was founded by St Bernard of Clairvaux at Cîteaux, near Dijon, France, in 1098. It 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.
The Cistercians first appeared in England at Waverley, Surrey, in 1128. Rievaulx was established in March 1132 on land given by Walter Espec (d. 1154), lord of nearby Helmsley and a royal justiciar. He was an active supporter of ecclesiastical reform and had founded Kirkham Priory for the reformist Augustinian canons in about 1121.
The arrival of the reform-minded Rievaulx community sent shockwaves through the older Benedictine houses of the north. The foundation at Rievaulx was carefully planned by Bernard of Clairvaux to spearhead the monastic colonisation of northern Britain. Rievaulx’s first abbot, William, dispatched colonies to establish daughter houses at Warden and Melrose in 1136, Dundrennan in 1142 and Revesby in 1143.
The first buildings at Rievaulx were temporary wooden structures. In the late 1130s Abbot William began the construction of stone buildings around the present cloister. The northern part of his west range, which housed the abbey’s lay brothers, still survives, as does a fragment of the south range.
Rievaulx Abbey was shut down on 3 December 1538, as part of the Suppression of the Monasteries that took place under Henry VIII in 1536–40. By this time Rievaulx’s community had shrunk to just 23 monks. It was sold to Thomas Manners (d.1543), 1st Earl of Rutland, who was closely associated with the royal court.
Rutland dismantled the buildings, reserving the roof leads and the bells for the king. His steward at nearby Helmsley, Ralf Bawde, recorded the process of dismantling, leaving remarkably detailed accounts of the process and the form and contents of individual buildings.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the abbey ruins were in a state of imminent collapse. Minor repairs were carried out in 1907, but the scale of the repairs needed was such that only state intervention could save the site. The Office of Works took the ruins at Rievaulx into guardianship in July 1917.
Immediate repairs were begun, in spite of the shortage of labour and materials brought about by the First World War. After 1918 Sir Frank Baines, Principal Architect at the Office of Works, devised pioneering engineering techniques at Rievaulx such as reinforced concrete beams hidden in the upper walls to stabilise the buildings.
In the 1920s Sir Charles Peers, Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments, ordered the removal of much fallen debris to expose buried elements of the building. The work was carried out by war veterans. This policy of preservation and display set the style for the presentation of ancient monuments in Britain for the next two generations.