Tucked away in a serene and peaceful valley near the Yorkshire market town of Helmsley, Rievaulx Abbey is a magnificent ruin of one of the greatest abbeys in England. It is situated in a peaceful green valley near the River Rye. The name Rievaulx was derived from Rye (the river) and Valle (the valley).
The abbey was built on land given to the Cistercian Order of monks by Walter Espec, Lord Helmsley who was a local judge. Work on the abbey began in 1132. It became the first Cistercian Abbey in the north of England with Walter Espec as its patron. The first 12 monks were sent from Clairvaux Abbey by St Bernard, an influential French abbot. The Catholic Cistercian Order practiced an austere monastic life dedicated to prayer, self-sufficient agriculture and building the abbey.
The earliest abbey was built of wood and later replaced by stone building. It was designed to have the same layout as the mother church in Citeaux, complete with a cruciform footprint, cloisters, chapter house and infirmary, all with outstanding arches, columns and architectural detail.
The magnificent building reflected the prosperity of Rievaulx Abbey which also owned over 6,000 acres. However, building debts and an epidemic of sheep scab created massive problems. Problems were compounded by attacks by raiders from Scotland and the devastating impact of the Black Death in the mid-14th Century. The once-glorious abbey shrank from 650 monks to just 14 choir monks, three lay brothers and the abbot in 1381.
The once strict Cistercian practices were also relaxed with the monks enjoying a comfortable lifestyle. While the abbot himself oversaw an enviable private household. It all came to an abrupt end in 1538 when King Henry VIII announced the Dissolution of Monasteries Act. His divorces had led to a final clash with the Pope and he established himself as head of the Church of England. Henry saw the monasteries as a threat to his position and simply had them all closed and dissolved. In many cases he also destroyed the once magnificent abbey churches.
Rievaulx Abbey was stripped of its valuables, including the lead roof, and the 72 buildings were left uninhabitable. The estate was sold to Thomas Manners, Earl of Rutland, who used the site and blast furnace at Laskill for his iron forge business.
By 1640, the abbey ruins and land had passed to the Duncombe family, owners of neighbouring Duncombe Park. They created a neo-classical pleasure garden with two Grecian-style temples in 1758 (now managed by the National Trust). The terrace still provides wonderful views of the surviving arches, walls and colonnades of this once great abbey.
Many visitors find the peaceful site and ruins of Rievaulx Abbey deeply moving. The elaborate detail and stonework of the abbey created between 700 and 900 years ago remains something to marvel at in its quiet repose. Indeed, the abbey is an inspiration to artists, poets and painters in its remote river valley setting. It is now managed and maintained as a historic tourist attraction by English Heritage and is a protected Scheduled Ancient Monument.