‘Far from the haunt of men’ – this quote refers to the Cistercians, who broke away from the existing religious order of the Benedictines to found their own monasteries. They believed in a stricter interpretation of the Rules of St Benedictine and living apart from secular communities and their terrible temptations. Let’s face it, they chose such remote places to build their abbeys they’re still remote to this day.
Rievaulx (pronounced Ree-voh) is one such abbey in the middle of nowhere. Even now, when you go to visit the ruins, you’re heading away from towns into the North Yorkshire National Park, driving down narrow lanes and convinced your satnav isn’t right. It’s not exactly easy to find the place.
In 1131, twelve monks arrived from Clairvaux abbey in France (immigration wasn’t an issue in those days) to establish a Cistercian community. Heading north, they built wooden structures in what was the first Cistercian monastery in northern England. It must have been a bit of a shock to the Benedictines having these newcomers with their austere lifestyle and reliance on self-sufficiency spread into new territories.
By 1160, there were 650 monks at Rievaulx, so not exactly that quiet. What is still noticeable about Rievaulx, even in its ruined state, is that unlike Fountains Abbey, which seems spread out, Rievaulx is compact. When you arrive, the valley opens up, the trees clear and you spy this huddle of broken walls and the partly dismantled church. It’s hard to imagine what it looked like and you rely on a floorplan in the visitor’s leaflet to work out what is what. It’s a shame, because the original abbey probably had a simple layout.
There was a great infirmary, plus another lesser one built alongside the cloisters, which were completed in 1170. The grand church in the Romanesque style is one of the earliest examples of Cistercian churches in Europe. The abbots built up out of stone, reaching higher, and grander, by adding a tower to the church.
By the second half of the 14th Century, the lay brothers had mostly gone and the abbey had to hire labourers to work the fields and the blast furnace they used to create cast iron – hard to imagine, but abbeys were industrial businesses. I suspect this switch to employees was down to the Black Death causing a population decline. Consequently, the abbey was redesigned and various buildings used by the lay brothers, such as their dormitory and refectory, were reduced in size or demolished altogether. This decline continued so that by the time of the Dissolution there were only twenty-three monks left including the abbot, plus 102 servants. The abbey was shut down and sold to the Earl of Rutland, who dismantled many of the 72 buildings on site.
The abbey’s ironworks continued to operate and grew in scale, making cutlery and nails. The undercroft was used to store charcoal to keep it dry. By 1640s, the timber supply had been exhausted and the ironworks closed.
The beautiful, quiet setting of Rievaulx through the following centuries attracted visitors. Artists painted, nobility turned the valley into a park, adding temples and terraces higher up so they could look down on the ruins. It wasn’t until the 20th Century that repairs were made to prevent the ruins from collapsing. Now the abbey is cared for by English Heritage.
It is my favourite abbey because that remoteness and tranquillity the original monks sought is still there. Many abbeys became parish churches or developed into private homes, but those that were stripped and left in ruins allow us to see, almost, what it once was like for those early Medieval monks.