Rievaulx Abbey Cistercian monastery: inner and outer precinct, water-management works, agricultural features, enclosures and ancillary buildings


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Ordnance survey map of Rievaulx Abbey Cistercian monastery: inner and outer precinct, water-management works, agricultural features, enclosures and ancillary buildings
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

North Yorkshire
Ryedale (District Authority)
National Park:
National Grid Reference:
SE 57450 85138, SE 57633 84241

Reasons for Designation

From the time of St Augustine's mission to re-establish Christianity in AD 597 to the reign of Henry VIII, monasticism formed an important facet of both religious and secular life in the British Isles. Settlements of religious communities, including monasteries, were built to house communities of monks, canons (priests), and sometimes lay-brothers, living a common life of religious observance under some form of systematic discipline. It is estimated from documentary evidence that over 700 monasteries were founded in England. These ranged in size from major communities with several hundred members to tiny establishments with a handful of brethren. They belonged to a wide variety of different religious orders, each with its own philosophy. As a result, they vary considerably in the detail of their appearance and layout, although all possess the basic elements of church, domestic accommodation for the community, and work buildings. Monasteries were inextricably woven into the fabric of medieval society, acting not only as centres of worship, learning and charity, but also, because of the vast landholdings of some orders, as centres of immense wealth and political influence. They were established in all parts of England, some in towns and others in the remotest of areas. Many monasteries acted as the foci of wide networks including parish churches, almshouses, hospitals, farming estates and tenant villages. Some 75 of these religious houses belonged to the Cistercian order founded by St Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century. The Cistercians - or "white monks", on account of their undyed habits - led a harsher life than earlier monastic orders, believing in the virtue of a life of austerity, prayer and manual labour. Seeking seclusion, they founded their houses in wild and remote areas where they undertook major land improvement projects. Their communities were often very large and included many lay brethren who acted as ploughmen, dairymen, shepherds, carpenters and masons. The Cistercians' skills as farmers eventually made the order one of the richest and most influential. They were especially successful in the rural north of England where they concentrated on sheep farming. The Cistercians made a major contribution to many facets of medieval life and all of their monasteries which exhibit significant surviving archaeological remains are worthy of protection.

Rievaulx was the first outpost of the Cistercian Order in the North. At the height of its prosperity under Abbot Ailred, it was one of the greatest Cistercian houses in England. The main monastic buildings, including the abbey church, survive well and retain important architectural evidence of the changing wealth of the community. In particular, the abbey church contains the earliest large Cistercian nave in Britain and is older than any now surviving in France. Unusually, the whole precinct layout of the abbey can be recovered from the evidence of early documents and extensive remains survive throughout this former precinct both as upstanding features and as buried remains. The extensive water-management earthworks demonstrate well the lengths monastic communities would go to to ensure a water supply that was sufficient to support their domestic, agricultural and industrial activities. Together, these various features allow the development and workings of the whole precinct to be studied and provide a rare and important opportunity for detailed analysis of the monastic economy. This exceptional state of preservation, combined with the high level of surviving documentation, makes Rievaulx of particular importance to European Cistercian studies.


Rievaulx Abbey is situated in Ryedale, on the east bank of the River Rye. The monument comprises two separate areas containing the standing remains and inner precinct of the Cistercian monastery and an outer precinct which contains a wide variety of associated features. Well-preserved standing remains demonstrate the usual layout of a Cistercian monastery but not the standard orientation. Traditionally, monastic buildings were laid out so that the church ran east-west and formed the north range of a four-sided complex known as the cloister. Domestic buildings such as kitchens would then form the south range, buildings such as the parlour, chapterhouse and abbot's lodging would form the east range, and the lay-brother's quarters would form the west range. At Rievaulx, however, the lay of the land was such that the church was built almost on a north-south axis and formed what amounted to the east range. However, old documents describe the complex as if it adhered to the traditional plan and this habit, as in most modern references, is repeated here. The earliest standing remains at Rievaulx are those of the nave and transepts of the church, and parts of the chapterhouse and frater (refectory). The former date to just after the foundation of the abbey and were built between 1140 and 1150. The east end of the church and the quire, that is the stalls between the east end and the nave where the monks sang the offices, were rebuilt and extended in the thirteenth century. Rather than demonstrating the architectural simplicity usually observed by the Cistercians, as seen in the earlier parts of the church, the latter are a very fine example of English Gothic. Flying buttresses were added in the fourteenth century to support the vault above the quire, and, in the same century, a sacristy, that is a room for storing sacred vessels, was built in the angle of the quire and south transept. South of the south transept were the library, vestry and chapterhouse. The remains of the latter are those of a rectangular room with a semicircular end or apse, lined with an arcade inside which the monks sat. A number of graves inside the chapterhouse indicate that it was the burial place of the early abbots. In the thirteenth century a shrine, indicated by two inscriptions to have been dedicated to William, the first abbot, was added. East of the chapterhouse lay the infirmary, built in the late twelfth century and partly remodelled in c.1500 to form the later abbots' lodging. Along with a thirteenth century chapel, fourteenth century infirmary buildings and the fifteenth century abbot's kitchen, this enclosed a small court on its east side and also formed the east range of the infirmary cloister. Other late twelfth century buildings enclosed the infirmary cloister, including the so-called Long House, a day room with the monks' dorter (dormitory) over, and the reredorter or latrine with its drain running underneath. A passage went from the covered walk on the north side, between the treasury and day room, and joined the infirmary cloister to the main cloister. The latter measures 42.7m square and possessed an arcade of round-headed arches on double shafts which dated to the third quarter of the twelfth century. The west range of the cloister was formed by the late twelfth century lay-brothers' quarters and an outer parlour remodeled in the fourteenth century. A complex of domestic buildings made up the south range and included a warming house with two fireplaces, an early kitchen, and the frater (refectory) with an attached lavatorium where the monks washed their hands before meals. A separate building, originally thought to have been a guesthouse with its own oratory or private chapel, lay below the angle of the south and east cloister ranges and has been identified as a fulling mill. In addition to its main cloister buildings, Rievaulx also possesses a wide range of associated features. These include sections of the precinct wall, visible on all sides as part of modern field boundaries, and a block of surviving monastic enclosures to the north of the cloister ranges. The latter included areas used for sheep shearing, pig keeping and stabling. Cultivation terraces, the buried remains of two gardens and the locations of numerous documented buildings such as the brewhouse, kilnhouse, common stable and plumber's house, and a small number of upstanding ancillary buildings such as the tannery and fulling mill are also known to survive to the north of the abbey in the area of the modern village. Also extant are parts of the gate chapel, situated between the inner and outer gatehouses and now incorporated into the twentieth century church. A system of river channels and leats extends north and south of the abbey, through the precinct, and dates to the early years of the monastery's foundation. The northernmost of these were created as a result of an agreement with the monks of neighbouring Byland Abbey who had been granted lands on the west bank of the River Rye by Roger de Mowbray. At the time of the grant, the river did not flow along the west side of the dale, as it does today, but along the east. This meant that Rievaulx, sandwiched as it was, between the river and the east ridge of the valley, had been left without valuable meadowland. It also meant the abbey had little control over the river, though the monks had taken off a sewer to flush the latrines. The agreement with Byland allowed Rievaulx to divert part of the river and annexe all the land on its own side. A second grant of land from Hugh de Malbis, and a third from his son Richard, completed the process so that, by the early thirteenth century, the river and the abbey precinct appeared as they do today with the old course of the river having become a controllable leat. To the south of the abbey the river was dammed to create a large fishpond known as Le Stanke. To the north it became a mill-leat on which three mills were built: the corn-mill, fulling mill and a water-powered smithy. Rievaulx Abbey was founded in 1131 by Walter Espec. It was intended as a Cistercian mission centre from which Cistercian colonies were sent out to found daughter houses throughout the North of England and Scotland. Its first abbot was William, a former secretary of St Bernard of Clairvaux in France. Its most famous abbot, however, was its third, St Ailred. Under him, Rievaulx became one of the handful of great Cistercian mother houses in the British Isles and one of the most prosperous. This prosperity did not last, however. At the end of the twelfth century a costly reconstruction of the south cloister range was carried out and, in c.1230, the even more costly enlargement of the church. By the end of the thirteenth century the abbey was heavily in debt and little building work was carried out in the succeeding centuries. In the fifteenth century, several sections, including the chapterhouse, were demolished as being too large for the abbey's needs, showing that it had declined in numbers as well as in wealth. At the Suppression in 1538 there were only twenty-two monks where there had been one hundred and forty monks and over five hundred lay-brothers in St Ailred's abbacy. After the Dissolution, the site was granted to Thomas, Earl of Rutland and passed, with the Helmsley estates, through the Manners, Villiers and Duncombe families. The abbey ruins have been in State care since 1918 and are also a Grade I Listed Building. Several other features with Listed Building status lie within the area of the scheduling. These include the Grade II Listed Rievaulx mill and cartshed which, though eighteenth century, are believed to overlie the monastic corn-mill, the Grade II Listed abbot's well and seven seventeenth to nineteenth century Grade II Listed houses of which two, Rye House and Swiss Cottage, also contain earlier material. The Grade II Listed Church of St Mary stands on the site of the monastic gate- chapel and incorporates thirteenth century masonry in both the nave and west front. It is not, however, included in the scheduling being in current ecclesiastical use. In addition to the church, several features within the protected areas are excluded from the scheduling. These include all post- medieval and modern buildings and outbuildings, all modern fencing, all English Heritage fixtures and fittings such as the ticket-office and exhibition centre, the fixtures and fittings of the abbey car park including the public conveniences, the electricity sub-station and the surfaces of all paths, roads, driveways and the surface of the carpark. The ground beneath all these features is however, included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Coppack, G, English Heritage Book of Abbeys and Priories, (1990)
McDonnell, J, A History of Helmsley Rievaulx and District, (1963)
Coppack, G, 'Journal of the British Archaeological Association' in Rievaulx Abbey, (1986), 100-133
Coppack, G, 'Journal of the British Archaeological Association' in Rievaulx Abbey, (1986)
Coppack, Glyn, (1990)
Monograph on excavations and surveys to 1990's, Forthcoming in late 1990's
Official HBMC Guide, Sir Charles Peers, Rievaulx Abbey, (1967)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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