Remarkable Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey from the road


The East end of the Abbey church

Rievaulx Abbey is a ruined Cistercian monastery located approximately 3 miles from the town of Helmsley, in Ryedale, North Yorkshire.

26 miles from York, it is reached by travelling on the B1363.

It sits in a beautiful, isolated valley, nestled below wooded hills, and in my opinion is one of the most interesting ruined abbeys in all of England.


Rievaulx Abbey was founded as a Cistercian abbey after Walter Espec donated land in 1132.

West end of the Abbey church

Walter Espec also built nearby Helmsley Castle and was a Justice of the Forest and Northern Counties under King Henry I.

He went on to support King Stephen against the Scots, and was a leader in the Battle of the Standard in 1138.

He was well respected by the northern barons, and thought of as their leader.

Looking back at the church from the monk’s dormitory

It was one of the first Cistercian abbey’s to be built in England, soon after the Cistercians arrived in England in 1128.

The Cistercian order was founded in 1098 by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a french abbot from Dijon.

It was known for its rigid dedication to the rules for monastic life as set out by St. Benedict in the 6th century.

Building Rievaulx

View of the Frater (Monk’s Dining Room)

The original buildings at Rievaulx were temporary and built of timber.

Three years after William became the first Abbot in 1332, stone structures were begun, including a church, and the cloisters to the south.

The 3rd Abbot of Rievaulx was Aelred who rebuilt the abbey church on a grander scale.

Aelred was originally from Northhumbria and had spent his young adulthood at the court of the Scottish King David I.

At the age of 24, he arrived at Rivaulx and rose through the ranks, becoming Abbot in 1147.

View of the Nave of the church from the South

The Abbey became prosperous under Aelred, with 140 monks and 500 laymen in residence.

Many of the buildings standing today date from Aelred’s time as abbot.

By 1239, the church was complete, including a enlarged East End and a shrine to Aelred.

There were ambitious plans for the rest of the church but the Abbey was in financial difficulty.

The church is unusual in the fact that it lies north/south, rather than east/west, I would think due to the landscape of the site.

Abbey Life

The Church from the Cloisters

The Abbey became wealthy through the monks making the most of the surrounding moorland by farming sheep.

Because they had a large number of lay brothers they were able to take advantage of their ability to work the land.

By the end of the 13th century it is thought that the Abbey had a flock of 12,000 sheep.

The 12th century saw the Abbey reach the peak of its power and become one of the most influential abbeys in the North

Through the doorway

The following years were difficult for Rievaulx, the monks found themselves in debt as a result of their expansive building.

Their main income from the sheep farming was severely depleted in the 13th century due to their sheep being afflicted by an epidemic.

By the 14th century, the community of lay brothers was much reduced which meant the labour the monks had relied on was no longer available.

War comes to Rievaulx

During the reign of King Edward I, there was war between England and Scotland.

The High Altar

Edward I would go down in history as the ‘Hammer of the Scot’s’ – such was his determination to repress Scotland.

He was nearly successful, and dictated to his son that his bones were to be carried into Scotland so he could see England’s final victory which of course, never came.

Looking down the length of the church from the High Altar

England’s loss at the Battle of Bannockburn under Edward II changed their fortunes dramatically and in 1322 the English army were defeated once more at the Battle of Old Byland, located close to Rievaulx.

Edward II was at Rievaulx at the time, and as soon as he heard the news of his armies defeat he fled to York and was nearly captured.

Rievaulx was sacked by the Scots and lost the royal treasure, which had been left behind by Edward.

Dissolution of the Monasteries

After years of decline, including during the 15th century when some of the buildings had to be pulled down.

The Refectory

By 1533, the Dissolution of the Monasteries was looming, and the Abbot at the time Edward Kirkby was not in favour of King Henry VIII’s reforms.

He was removed from his position, and allocated an annual pension of £44 ( ca.£14,000) but it doesn’t seem that he saw any of this based on two letters he wrote to Thomas Cromwell.

A view of the Refectory

Rievaulx was surrended to Henry VIII on December 3, 1538., and by this time the monastery had shrunk to supporting 22 monks and 110 lay brothers.

It’s income at the time was £278, the equivalent of ca. £89,000 in today’s money.

In Closing

Rievaulx will stay with me forever! I had wanted to visit for so long and it didn’t

Arches in the Nave


Wandering the grounds with my camera, you could feel the quietness and serenity that the Abbey must have commanded in its prime.

The Nave of the church is still incredibly impressive with its gothic arches still very much in tact.

The internal view to the East end with the altar is lovely, with the tree covered hills in view through the windows.


The South transept of the Church

I would check the opening times before visiting as I understand it is only open during the weekends in the off season.

Also, I recommend the cafe, the food was really excellent.

Don’t forget to visit the small museum on site, it showcases some wonderful finds from the Abbey’s past.

Richard III visited in May 1484 on his way from Durham to Scarborough. This was the only trip North that he took after he became King, and sadly it was after the death of his son Edward in April at Middleham. I hope he and his wife Anne found some comfort within the walls of Rievaulx

If you would like to see more photos of my visit to Rievaulx, please visit my flickr


English Heritage – Rievaulx Abbey
Britain – Rievaulx
Wikisource – Walter Espec
Wikipedia – Battle of the Standard – Rievaulx
Wikipedia – Bernard of Clairvaux
A New Light on the Sacking of Rievaulx Abbey
Historic Currency Converter – Rievaulx

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