Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions December 1: Rievaulx Abbey

The last two years I have run an advent calendar over December. In 2015 it was medieval quotes, in 2016 it was medieval castles, this year I am doing medieval religious institutions (abbeys, monasteries, convents, priories etc not churches or cathedrals). This means that each day from the 1st of December to the 25th of December I will put up a short post on a medieval religious institution with photos. These will be British, Irish and French and from a variety of religious orders. Some of the places I will have written about before in more detail and some I will write about later in more detail.

I am beginning with Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx 1Rievaulx2Rievaulx3

Rievaulx is a Cistercian abbey in North Yorkshire in England. It was the first Cistercian monastery in the north of England. As this is first Cistercian monastery listed I’m going to briefly explain what the Cistercian Order was.

The Cistercian Order was founded in 1098 in Citeaux in what is now France. While its foundation is complex, essentially it was a reaction against the perceived corruption and extravagance of the older Benedictine monasteries like Cluny. The aim of the Cistercian Order was to return to the original ideals of St Benedict and to live a very simple life. Cistercian abbeys were usually isolated and self sufficient, though the lay brothers did the work on the farms because the monks were cloistered. They lived simply and ascetically, closely following the rule, away from the gold, excesses and luxuries often seen in the bigger older monasteries.

By 1153 over 350 houses had been established across Europe, including Rievaulx. This was at least partly due to the work of the man who is probably the best known Cistercian of his period; Bernard of Clairvaux.

Bernard is not one of my favourite historical figures, largely due to his puritanical opposition to Eleanor of Aquitaine when she was Queen of France. He was, however important. He joined the Cistercian Order as a novice in 1113 and by 1115 was the founding abbot of one of the early daughter houses in Clairvaux. He preached the 2nd crusade, was a councillor to Louis VII and had an immense amount of influence. He died in 1153 and was canonised  by 1174.

Riveaulx was founded in 1132 by Bernard to drive the colonisation of Northern England by the Cistercian order. The original buildings would have been wooden, but William, the first abbot, began building in stone by the late 1130s. By the 1160s it was one of the most powerful abbeys in Britain. The abbey was at its height under Abbot Aeldred (1147-67) who was later canonised. Aeldred came to Rievaulx in 1134 and was elected abbot in 1147. Under Aelred Rievaulx was home to a community of 140 choir monks and 500 lay brothers and servants. It also expanded extensively including the building of the spectacular church in the late 1140s

Riveaulx was part of the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. It was dissolved in 1538, though by this time it had shrunk to a community of just 23. It was sold to Thomas 1st Earl of Rutland. Rutland had the buildings dismantled, especially the lead roofs and the bells which he reserved for the king. Luckily Rutland’s steward from nearby Helmsley Castle kept detailed records of everything that was dismantled.

Rievaulx made very picturesque ruins and was a favourite of the romantic painters. It is certainly still hauntingly beautiful today.



Site visit 2012

English Heritage Rievaulx booklet (for the part about the Cistercians)



8 thoughts on “Advent Calendar of Medieval Religious Institutions December 1: Rievaulx Abbey

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