The Cistercians first appeared in England at Waverley, Surrey, in 1128. Rievaulx was established in March 1132 on land given by Walter Espec, lord of nearby Helmsley.
The arrival of the reform-minded Rievaulx community sent shockwaves through the older Benedictine houses of the north. The foundation at Rievaulx was carefully planned by Bernard of Clairvaux to spearhead the monastic colonisation of northern Britain. The Cistercian Order was to become one of the most remarkable European monastic reform movements of the 12th century, placing an emphasis on a return to an austere life and literal observance of the rules set out for monastic life by St Benedict in the 6th century.
The first buildings at Rievaulx were temporary wooden structures. In the late 1130s the first Abbot William began the construction of stone buildings around the present cloister.
Rievaulx’s most famous abbot, Aelred, had been a steward in David I of Scotland’s household. He came to Rievaulx as a postulant in 1134, rising quickly to be elected abbot in 1147. He enjoyed a reputation as a brilliant writer and England’s most revered biblical scholar. By the time of his death in 1167 the community had doubled in size, having 140 monks and about 500 lay brothers.
This increase in numbers required much larger buildings – many of the standing buildings today date from Aelred’s rule. A monumental church was begun in the late 1140s, one of the earliest great mid-12th-century Cistercian churches in Europe.
A new chapter house was built to a revolutionary design which was not repeated anywhere else in the Cistercian world. The east range of the cloister was reconstructed on a vast scale to provide accommodation for the choir monks.
Work continued under Aelred’s successor, Silvanus, who rebuilt the south range of the cloister and completed the main cloister arcades in the 1170s. The new refectory was built, atypically, over a massive undercroft because of the steep slope of the valley side on which Abbot William had built his first stone monastery.
The most significant alteration was the spectacular extension of the the abbey church in the 1220s, providing the setting for the shrine dedicated to Aelred.
From the second half of the 14th century, Rievaulx witnessed dramatic changes in the communal life of the monks. The lay brothers, who had performed most of the monastery’s manual work, almost entirely disappeared from within the community, and substitute labour had to be hired.
The loss of the lay brothers prompted further changes to the abbey buildings. The monks occupied the space belonging to the lay choir in the nave of Aelred’s great church. The aisles began to fill with chapels, while the central part of the nave was used for processions. The aisle around the apse in the chapter house, which had been used by the lay brothers on religious festival days to hear the abbot’s sermons, was lost. The lay dormitory was halved in size and partitioned into private closets, while the lay brothers’ refectory was totally demolished.
With the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Rievaulx was decommissioned December 3, 1538 - as part of Henry VIII's plan to subsume all the wealth of the church for the state. (Good plan Henry, you built your famous Navy with the results of that).
At the time of the Abbey's closure, only 23 monks were living there.
It was sold to Thomas Manners, 1st Earl of Rutland, who was closely associated with the royal court. Rutland dismantled the buildings, reserving the roof leads and the bells for the king. His steward at nearby Helmsley, Ralf Bawde, recorded the process of dismantling, leaving remarkably detailed accounts of the process and the form and contents of individual buildings.
By the 18th century, the ruins of the Abbey became the subject of romantic paintings and were a perfect dramatic setting, and have remained so for centuries.
And of course, the subject of Photographers' eye for nearly just as long. I have been here once before but the day was gloomy and cloudy (Oh England lol) but what a gift this day was. It was really perfect, and I had my whole family with me. What a treasured, treasured memory this will be <3
Thanks to English Heritage for providing most of the information on this post!