Rievaulx Abbey was founded in 1132 by twelve monks from Clairvaux Abbey as a mission centre for the colonisation of the north of England and Scotland. It was the first Cistercian abbey in the north. With time it became one of the great Cistercian abbeys of Yorkshire, second only to Fountains Abbey in fame.
The remote location was ideal for the Cistercians, whose desire was to follow a strict life of prayer and self-sufficiency with as little contact as possible with the outside world. The patron, Walter Espec, settled another new Cistercian community, founding Wardon Abbey, Bedfordshire, on one of his inherited estates, again on unprofitable wasteland.
The abbey lies in a wooded dale by the River Rye, sheltered by hills. To have enough flat land to build on, a small part of the river had to be diverted to a point several metres west of where it formerly flowed. (The monks altered the course of the river three times during the 12th century.) The trace of the old river is still visible in the abbey's grounds. This is one illustration of the technical ingenuity of the monks, who over time built up a very profitable business mining lead and iron, rearing sheep and selling wool to buyers from all over Europe. Rievaulx Abbey eventually became one of the greatest and wealthiest in England, with 140 monks and many more lay brothers, receiving grants of land totalling 6000 acres (24 km²) and establishing daughter houses in England and Scotland.
However, towards the end of the 13th century the abbey had incurred a great deal of debt with its building projects and lost revenue due to an epidemic of sheep scab (psoroptic mange). This ill fortune was compounded by Scottish raids in the early 14th century.
To make matters worse the decimation of the population caused by the Black Death in the mid 1300s made it difficult to recruit new lay brothers for the manual labour. As a result the abbey was forced to lease much of its lands. By 1381 there were only fourteen choir monks, three lay brothers and the abbot left at Rievaulx, and therefore some buildings were reduced in size.
By the 15th century the original Cistercian practices of strict observance according to the letter of Saint Benedict's rule had been abandoned in favour of a more "comfortable" lifestyle; it was now permitted to eat meat, more private living accommodations were created for the monks, and the abbot now had a substantial private household.
The abbey was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1538. At that time there were said to be 72 buildings occupied by only an abbot and 21 monks, attended by 102 servants, with an income of £351 a year. It also had a prototype blast furnace at Laskill, producing cast iron as efficiently as a modern blast furnace; according to Gerry McDonnell (archeometallurgist of the University of Bradford), the closure of Rievaulx delayed the Industrial Revolution for two and a half centuries.
Henry ordered the buildings to be rendered uninhabitable and stripped of any valuables such as lead. The abbey site was granted to the Earl of Rutland, one of the Henry's advisers, until it passed to the Duncombe family.
In the 1750s Thomas Duncombe III beautified the estate by building the terrace with two Grecian-style temples; these temples, now called Rievaulx Terrace & Temples, are in the care of the National Trust.
The ruins of the abbey are still standing and are yet impressive today. They are now in the care of English Heritage.
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