Rievaulx Abbey built in 1132 as the first Cisterian abbey in the north of England when Norman baron Walter Espec provided land to 12 monks to build their monastery in the neighboring Rye Valley. As you make the turnoff the road heading down into the valley, you pass by several old stone homes. Making the last turn at the bottom of the hill, there before you stands the Rievaulx Abbey in its ruinous state. While in the foreground were much of the footings of many of the buildings that are now just outlines on the earth. Behind, however, are the tall skeletal remains of the presbytery, along with partial structures remaining such as the refectory and cloister. Over 400 years of monastic life has been captured in the history of Rievaulx, believed to be the greatest in all of England.
Part of the early missionary push to reform Christianity in Western Europe, the modest start of this abbey resulted in one of the richest in medieval England. Many men came here to study and work with perhaps the famous and most influential Abbott Aelred. At its height, Rievaulx Abbey housed over 140 choir monks and 500 lay-brothers and servants. Of course, it was short lived when Henry VIII dissolved the abbey in 1538 as part of the religious reformation in England.
The new owner was Thomas Manners, the same gent who owned the Helmsley Castle at the time. He chose to systematically destroy several of the smaller outer buildings, leaving the presbytery itself to fall into a natural state of decline.
The monks of this monastery were working men of the church, refining their agricultural techniques to make the most of their farm land. Vegetarians in their early years, they mainly raised sheep for wool and grew crops for their foods. They were industrious and able to support their works through their work of the farm. They were also known for their influence on the valley and how the river flows today, hundreds of years later. As the result of a land dispute, they performed quite the engineering feat by redirecting the flow of the Rye River. Today you can see the traces of the old river as well as the channels dug by the monks.
As part of this British Heritage site, there is a very informative and illustrative exhibit that tells the story of the Cisterian Monks and includes several archeological remains found not only on this site but around the neighboring land. “The Works of God and Man” should not be missed! Archeologists continue to excavate and research in this valley given its richness of history and finds dating back to medieval times. Annually there is a hosted Archeological Day in July to further the efforts of scientists worldwide.
Today the words of Abbot Aelred still apply: “Everywhere peace, everywhere serenity and a marvelous freedom from the turmoil of the world.” We thoroughly enjoyed our time at Rievaulx Abbey. It was especially lovely as the sun began to set behind the hillside to the west, with the fall colors glistening throughout the valley.