The History of Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey was in operation for over 400 years, with the Abbey being established in 1132 and disestablished in 1538. The Abbey was part of the Cistercian order, and it was headed by the Abbot of Rievaulx. The Abbey was one of the wealthiest in all of England before its demise in 1538.

The Founding and Rise of the Abbey

The Rievaulx Abbey was founded by 12 devout monks in 1132. The monks, from the Clairvaux Abbey, aimed to colonize the north, and they went on a mission to spread their religion in both England and Scotland. This would become the first Cistercian Abbey in the north of England.


The Abbey grew in fame over its lifetime, and today it’s a relic of the past, with the beautiful ruins still seen by millions every year. The founding monks picked the location strategically. Unlike castles or manor houses that often had a defensive strategy in place, Rievaulx Abbey was built to enhance the monks’ lives. Prayer was the life of the monks, and their strict schedule of prayers and self-sufficiency were the main drivers behind the location of the Abbey. Nestled in Rievaulx, North Yorkshire, England, the Abbey was in complete seclusion at the time. Little contact with the outside world was available, and this is how the monks envisioned their ideal Abbey.

Financial Abundance

Rievaulx Abbey wasn’t just beautiful and secluded, it also grew in financial abundance. The Abbey was built in the shelter of hills and is near the River Rye. The monks built the Abbey close to the river and ensured that they had enough flat land available before they broke ground. What many people don’t know is that the monks decided to change the course of the river twice in the 12 century. Technical ingenuity and advancement allowed the monks to be able to change the course of the river. Visitors can look for these changes on the grounds of the Abbey. All of this led to the great wealth and prosperity of the monks.

The diverting of the river helped the monks build a mining operation, where they mined lead and iron. Sheep were reared on the property, with wool being sold to buyers all across Europe.  The business operations helped the Abbey become one of the wealthiest in all of England. Grants of 6,000 acres of land were given to the Abbey. At the height of the Abbey, there were 140 monks and countless lay brothers on the land.

A financial downturn came at the end of the 13th century. The Abbey suffered major financial losses, as their famed sheep suffered from sheep scab, or a form of mange. The Abbey also underwent many building projects, which led to the Abbey accumulating a lot of debt along the way.

The monks suffered further hardships, as raiders from Scotland came to the Abbey in the early 14th century. Decades of trying to turn the Abbey around was followed by the rise of Black Death. The Black Death occurred in the mid-14th century and caused a decline in lay brothers, which were needed for manual labor on the property.

The Abbey was then forced to lease a large portion of its land, and the monk population fell to just 14 by 1381. There was just an abbot and three lay brothers among the 14 monks at this time. Many of the buildings on the Abbey’s property were reduced in size as a result.

Life for monks changed in the 15th century when Cistercian practices were abandoned in favor of a more comfortable lifestyle. The abbot was allowed to have a large private household, the monks ate meat, and private living accommodations were permitted. Rievaulx Abbey would soon see the dissolution of its famous Abbey after a rise in prosperity followed by countless hardships.

Dissolution in 1538 Under King Henry VIII

King Henry VIII was on a crusade during his reign after learning of the abuse of the church and monasteries. The king would eventually go on to become supreme head of the Church of England, and abandoned Rome and the Pope as a result. In 1538, he called for Rievaulx Abbey to be dissolved. The king ordered all of the buildings on the site to be made inhabitable, which is what many people see at the ruins today.

The land was reported to have 72 buildings in total at the time with an abbot and 21 monks. The records show that there were 102 servants living at Rievaulx Abbey. The income of the Abbey was £351 a year. The Abbey and all of its lands were granted to the Earl of Rutland. All of the site’s valuables were to be stripped. The lands remained in the Rutland family until it was passed to the Duncombe family, Thomas Duncombe III built two temples on the estate, which are now under the care of the National Trust. The remains of Rievaulx Abbey are part of the English Heritage, which cares for the remaining structure.

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