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.
ORIGINS AND EARLY MONASTERY
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