Located near to Helmsley, the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey are perhaps the most spectacular in the whole of the North York Moors. Despite being long abandoned, the remains are extensive; and their location - secluded on the steep, wooded banks of the River Rye - only serves to add to the mystic, eerie atmosphere.
Rievaulx was founded in 1132 by St Bernard of Clairvaux, the primary builder of the Cistercian monastic order. Initially, the abbey consisted of just 12 monks, who had journeyed here from France with the aim of reforming Christianity in Northern England and Scotland. Rievaulx was to be their mission centre and was the first Cistercian abbey to be built in the north.
The order favoured a remote lifestyle and the site's location served the monks' needs perfectly. In addition, large sections of land were granted to the men by Walter Espec, owner of the nearby Helmsley Castle. Not only did this mean a greater area for construction, it also provided the monks with a bounty of raw materials from which to expand the buildings and finance their operations. Iron and lead were both mined here, and sheep's wool was sold to traders from across Europe. The abbey's growing importance also attracted a steady stream of new monks who were drawn by the presence of Abbot Aelred, a man destined to become a saint. At its height, Rievaulx Abbey had a residency of 150 monks and some 500 lay brethren, as well as holding a position as one of the greatest and wealthiest ecclesiastical establishments anywhere in the country. By the 13th century, its lands totalled 6,000 acres (15 sq miles) and its buildings numbered over 70. Records show that the monks even had to divert the River Rye on three occasions to give them enough space for additional construction.
The abbey's fortunes were destined to alter drastically during the 1300s, however. The monks' ambitious architectural projects, combined with a epidemic of sheep scab in the flock, meant Rievaulx was now in debt. Scottish raids worsened the abbey's state still further and the Black Death meant that recruitment of lay brothers became more and more difficult. By 1381, there were just 14 choir monks and the abbot remaining on the site, and some buildings were subsequently reduced in size.
The final blow came in 1538 with the Dissolution. With this, Henry VIII granted the site to one of his advisors, Thomas Manners, Earl of Rutland, who began the systematic destruction of the site for its valuable materials. Today, only half of the original buildings are left, but what remains is stunning. The beautiful dining hall still stretches 124 ft and stands 50 ft tall. Practically all of the foundations are still visible and numerous colonnades make for peaceful strolls between rooms.
Before exploring the abbey, check out the onsite exhibition, "The Works of God and Man", which tells Rievaulx's story in full via a variety of exciting interactive displays. Overlooking the abbey, and also well worth seeing, are some hilltop landscape gardens and Georgian temples, which were added to the grounds in the 1750s by their then owner Thomas Duncombe III.
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