From The Neolithic To The Sea: A Journey From The Past To The Present

Rievaulx Abbey

North Yorkshire
54° 15′ 27″ N, 1° 7′ 0″ W

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Rievaulx Abbey is a former Cistercian abbey, located near Helmsley in North Yorkshire. The abbey is in the care of English Heritage and open to the public.

The abbey was founded in 1132 by twelve monks from Clairvaux Abbey in France and was the first Cistercian abbey in the north. The remote location was ideal, with no distractions from the outside world, they could practice their strict life of prayer and self sufficiency.

The abbey was built in a small wooded dale sheltered by hills, with the river Rye flowing through it. The monks diverted the river several times to create enough flat ground to build upon. Rievaulx abbey became very wealthy, with many interests including mining lead and iron, rearing sheep and selling wool and fleeces all over Europe. The abbey acquired grants of land in excess of 6,000 acre, its 140 monks then established daughter houses throughout England and Scotland.

A series of misfortunes beset the abbey late on in the 13th century. Its excessive building program built up huge debts, wool and fleece sales dropped when the sheep contracted a disease known as sheep scab, a form of mange, in epidemic proportions. Early in the 14th century a series of Scottish raids on the abbey exacerbated the situation. In the mid 14th century the Black Death decimated the local population, leaving a shortage of manual labour and lay brothers. The abbot was forced to lease a large portion of its land, so by the 1380s the abbey could only support the abbot, fourteen choir monks and three lay brothers.

The 15th century brought about a few changes, the strict Cistercian life style was abandoned, private quarters were created for the monks, the abbot now had a substantial private household. This was not to last for very long, as in 1538 the abbeys were dissolved by King Henry V111. Henry ordered that the buildings had to be made uninhabitable, its wealth stripped and the lands granted to the Earl of Rutland.

The monks had developed a prototype blast furnace at Laskill which could produce cast iron as efficiently as a modern furnace. With the closure of the abbey, the furnace was abandoned setting back the Industrial Revolution for two and a half centuries.