North Riding of Yorkshire
One of the great Abbey ruins of Yorkshire, Rievaulx stands in an isolated but beautiful spot on the edges of the North York Moors not far from Helmsley.
The Abbey began life in 1132 when 12 Cistercian monks from Clairvaux Abbey in France set up their first northern abbey. The location was perfect for the early Cistercian strict life of contemplation and self-sufficiency and over time Rievaulx became the second richest Abbey in Yorkshire (after Fountains Abbey, another Cisterian founding).
The River Rye was diverted in order to create enough flat ground for an Abbey of this size to be built. The monks here were self-sufficient to the point of massive creativity; they mined for lead and iron, reared sheep and sold wool across Europe; at the time of the Dissolution the Abbey owned a blast furnace very similar to the ones which kicked off the Industrial Revolution in the UK and it is often said that the Dissolution of Rievaulx Abbey held up the Industrial Revolution for 250 years.
At it’s peak, Rievaulx Abbey was home to 140 monks and many more lay-borthers and owned 6,000 acres of land. Disaster struck late in the 13th Century. An epidemic of sheep scab wiped out their flock, raisers from Scotland sacked the local area a few years later and then the Black Death arrived and destroyed most of the population of the surrounding land. In the end the Abbey was forced to lease out much of its land and by 1381 there were only 14 monks, 3 lay brothers and the Abbot left.
The years that followed saw a slow increase in the fortunes of the monks at Rievaulx and when Henry VIII’s Dissolvers arrived in 1538 there were 21 monks, 102 lay people and the Abbot in residence.
At this point Rievaulx’s former power became an issue and Henry ordered the buildings to be made uninhabitable and stripped of anything of value.
By 1750 the land here was owned by Thomas Duncombe III who beautified his estate by building the terrace on the hill overlooking the Abbey ruins along with the two Greek-style temples which are now owned by the National Trust and offer a superb view down on the Abbey itself (which is owned by English Heritage).
In 1983 former UK Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, a famous Yorkshireman adopted the title Baron Wilson of Rievaulx.
The ruins today are still massive and impressive and the setting is dramatic and worth the drive down some fairly small roads to visit.
Photo - Andrew J. Müller
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