Rievaulx Abbey, which was founded in 1132, was the first Cistercian abbey in the north of England and one of the great Cistercian monasteries of medieval Europe. The earliest Cistercian monastery, Waverley Abbey, Farnham in Surrey, was built in 1128. Rievaulx Abbey’s greatest importance, was during the period from 1147 to 1167, when St. Aelred was the abbot. At that time, there were 140 choir monks and 500 lay-brothers and servants. It is set in the wooded valley of the River Rye, one of the most picturesque sites in Britain and is under the protection of English Heritage.
King Henry VIII closed over 800 monasteries across England and Wales and destroyed many buildings of Rievaulx Abbey. Two hundred years later, in the 1750s, Thomas Duncombe, owner of Duncombe Park, created a terrace along a ridge overlooking the valley, giving spectacular views of the ruins through the trees. The ruins have inspired many artists and writers.
Although much of the Abbey is ruined, the eastern parts of the church stand almost to their original full height. Here, monks spent five hours each day in prayer, thanksgiving and praise of God. The western part of the church served the lay-brothers. They were a class of men who were probably illiterate and did heavy manual work to support the monastic economy. Rievaulx Abbey was mainly built from sandstone, which came from local quarries, with some imported stone for ornamental purposes brought from further afield.
The monastery provided a source of medical help for the local community. The sick were looked after in three separate infirmary buildings. Monks were tended to east of the main cloister, lay-brothers in the inner court and those from the local community, just outside the great gatehouse. Only the monks’ infirmary survives.