Rievaulx Abbey: History & Short Films

Visitors today flock to the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey in their thousands. In 2016 English Heritage opened a new museum and visitor centre to cope with the influx of people arriving from across Yorkshire, the UK and overseas.

▶  Postcard from Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire | England Drone Footage is a quick, one-minute video from English Heritage. It shows the ruins of the Abbey which visitors today know and love.

The Founding Of Rievaulx Abbey

When Rievaulx was founded in 1132 by twelve monks from Clairvaux Abbey in France, it became the first Cistercian monastery in the north of England. They were looking for an isolated place in which to maintain a strict life of prayer and self-sufficiency. Helmsley’s remote location was ideal.

▶  A short video by Yorkshire’s Hidden History, A Day in the Life of a Medieval Cistercian Monk, focuses on the life of monks at Kirkstall Abbey about 50 miles from Rievaulx. But the Cistercian rules described there applies to both communities.

Work on the monastery buildings started in 1130 under the leadership of William I, the first abbot of Rievaulx. It took two years to complete. 

Expansion And Contraction Of Rievaulx Abbey

Under the second abbot of Rievaulx, Saint Aelred of Rievaulx, the number of buildings was greatly expanded as the community grew to some 140 monks and 500 lay brothers. Over time, the monastery became an Abbey and its agriculture-based businesses were very successful.

▶  In 2019, a parish priest from Western Massachusetts (Lenox), Michael Tuck, made a series of videos about his pilgrimage of holy places in England. In Pilgrimage – Saint Aelred of Rievaulx, he talks about the importance of Aelred to religion, literature, and history.

But by 1381 there were only fourteen choir monks, three lay brothers and the abbot left at Rievaulx. Fewer buildings were used too. Between debts for building costs, sheep scab (psoroptic mange), raiders from Scotland, and the decimation of available workers by the Black Death, the Abbey could no longer farm its own lands.

Meanwhile, the community abandoned the strict observance of Cistercian practices according to the Rule of Saint Benedict. Meals now included meat dishes and everyone had more private accommodation. The infirmary was even made over as the private household of the abbot.

The Dissolution Of Rievaulx Abbey

By 1538 Rievaulx Abbey had built itself back up to a community of 21 monks and 102 lay employees. 72 buildings were occupied, and the estate received an annual income of £351.

Part of the income came from the blast furnace at Laskill, which produced cast iron.

But Henry VIII’s dispute with the Roman Catholic Church over his divorce from his long-standing first wife Catherine of Aragon led to the creation of the Church of England.

Henry quickly ordered all Catholic establishments to be disbanded under the legal framework known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Subsequently, the Crown and English nobles were the main beneficiaries of these enforced closures.

▶  The Cambridge University student known online as History with Hilbert has compiled a ten-minute video explaining the Dissolution, called The Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Rievaulx Abbey closed in 1538. All valuables were removed, the community was dispersed, and the buildings made uninhabitable.

An Advisor to Henry VIII, the Earl of Rutland, was granted the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey and its valuable lands.

Rievaulx Terrace

Eventually the Rievaulx estate passed into the hands of the Duncombe family.

Thomas Duncombe III decided the best way to view his ruins of an ancient monastery was from a hilltop terrace complemented by two Grecian-style temples. Therefore, in the 1750s, Rievaulx Terrace was built.

Today, English Heritage maintains Rievaulx Abbey. Rievaulx Terrace is cared for by another national charity, the National Trust.

Baron Wilson Of Rievaulx

James Harold Wilson, known to the public as Harold Wilson, was a notable English politician of the 20th Century. He served as Prime Minister from 1964 to 1970 and again from 1974 to 1976.

When elected Members of Parliament no longer wish to represent their constituency in the House of Commons, they are usually offered a life peerage and membership of the House of Lords. 

Harold Wilson received life peerage in 1983. He had left his native Huddersfield, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, when he was a teenager. But Yorkshiremen are proud of their county of birth.

And so he became Baron Wilson of Rievalx until his death in 1995, aged 79, though he never lived there.

▶  You can see 2016 footage of Harold Wilson’s birthplace in a Huddersfield Terrace in the three-minute video Harold Wilson Centenary Day 2016, produced by Uni of Huddersfield Research News. It also reveals the ongoing relationship between the Yorkshire town of Huddersfield and the Wilson family.

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Thanks to Roger Thissen for the image at the top of this page.