A view of the ruins of an abbey.
Rievaulx Abbey viewed from the west, taken May 2015. © Historic England Archive. Photographer credit Alun Bull. Image reference, DP169422.
Rievaulx Abbey viewed from the west, taken May 2015. © Historic England Archive. Photographer credit Alun Bull. Image reference, DP169422.

New Survey Techniques Enhance Interpretation of a Monastic Landscape at Rievaulx Abbey

A new survey for Historic England and the English Heritage Trust has provided a better understanding of Rievaulx Abbey, one of the nation’s finest monastic sites.

History of the Abbey

Rievaulx abbey stands in the secluded valley of the river Rye in North Yorkshire on the south side of Rievaulx village about 3 kilometres north of the market town of Helmsley.

Founded in 1132, Rievaulx was the first Cistercian abbey in the north of England and grew rapidly in importance following grants of land along the Rye valley and further afield within the North York Moors to the north and the Vale of Pickering to the south and east.

As part of Henry VIII’s secession from the Roman Catholic church, culminating in the Dissolution of the Monasteries the abbey was dissolved in 1538 but for a century afterwards the iron manufacturing industry begun by the monks expanded in scale with the construction of a blast furnace in the 1560s near to the abbey ruins. In the middle of the 18th century the eye-catching quality of the ruins was recognised by the Duncombe family of nearby Duncombe Park, who created Rievaulx Terrace, a long promenade on the ridge overlooking the valley giving a clear view of the abbey below. The abbey was brought into the care of the Ministry of Works in 1917 and today is managed by the English Heritage Trust, while the National Trust maintains the Rievaulx Terrace.

New survey techniques

The significance of the landscape of Rievaulx Abbey is reflected in its protection as a scheduled monument. Both Historic England and English Heritage Trust, however, recognize that there is a huge amount more to learn about the site.

In order to better understand the abbey and its setting, in 2018 Historic England carried out a detailed landscape survey employing a new technique that produces a highly accurate map of the land surface from aerial photographs taken from a UAV- an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or drone.

Very slight earthworks show clearly on the resulting image allowing areas to be targeted for more detailed investigation on the ground using GPS satellite receivers and an electronic theodolite. The survey concentrated on the 37 hectares of the abbey’s medieval precinct which is mainly farmland in private ownership. The precinct stretched for about 1 kilometre along the valley and with the church and main monastic buildings at the centre it separated the abbey from the secular world. The wall around the precinct followed the Rye on the west side, crossed the valley bottom on the north and south and climbed part way up the valley side on the east. The wall survives in places above ground as lengths of bank or stone footings.

The abbey precinct wall

The survey concentrated on the 37 hectares of the abbey’s medieval precinct, which is mainly farmland in private ownership. The precinct stretched for about one kilometre along the valley, with the church and main monastic buildings at the centre. A enclosing wall separated the abbey from the secular world. The precinct wall followed the Rye on the west side, crossed the valley bottom on the north and south and climbed part way up the valley side on the east. The course of the wall survives in places above ground as lengths of bank or stone footings.

There is no evidence to suggest the hollow ways were connected with an entrance, rather they demonstrate how people passing along the valley in the medieval period were forced around the outside of the precinct to preserve the privacy of the abbey.

The only known entrance is much nearer to the abbey church where a rebuilt arch in a garden on the village street is thought to have come from the gatehouse.

Land use within the precinct

We know from documents compiled at the time of the Dissolution that parts of the precinct were given over to agricultural and industrial use including a complex of terraced platforms and enclosures surviving as earthworks inside the precinct on the east side of the valley.

These comprise three terraces, now split between two fields, stepping down the hillside. The gradient is quite steep in places so these terraces were obviously laid out on a common axis to create more level space by cutting into the uphill side while building up the land below sometimes employing a stone wall as a revetment. These terraces probably continued towards the abbey, although the ground is now built over or landscaped as gardens, leaving no visible evidence.

Water supply

Various ‘ings’ or meadows are recorded at the Dissolution on the low-lying ground of the valley floor and the main archaeological features of note here are connected with the supply of water to the abbey.

The monks used water from the Rye to flush the abbey drains and for industrial processes, but their drinking water came from springs closeby on the hillside to the east of the abbey.

The river water was directed towards the abbey from the north along a narrow embanked leat or channel that survives at the foot of the slope on the east side of the valley. There are no surface traces of this leat close to the abbey but it is likely that the flow divided, with one arm carrying straight on to eventually flush the latrines in the reredorter (the communal latrine building) to the south east of the abbey church while the second arm took a slightly more westerly course to supply the monastic fulling mill and tannery.

The two arms reunited south of the abbey to create a long, linear pond down the east side of the valley as far as the south precinct boundary. From there the water drained directly back into the river along a deep ‘u’- shaped outfall channel crossing the valley floor.

The remains of the monastic water supply have sometimes been interpreted as an old course of the Rye left high and dry after the monks moved the river to the west side of the valley to free up land for building. However the survey established through accurate height measurement that the west side of the valley is lower than the east thus confirming that the river has not been engineered but is following its natural course.

The iron industry

After the Dissolution, an embanked channel over 200 metres long was constructed to direct water from the monastic pond on the east side of the valley further south to an iron forge on the site of Forge Farm. Apart from this, the post-Dissolution iron industry at Rievaulx has left few other traces in the landscape.

At the blast furnace site near the abbey church the only visible indication is that waste from the workings is thought to account for the build-up of the ground below parts of the village where fragments of slag can be seen in some of the gardens. With the demise of the industry the village expanded and the valley reverted to agriculture to create the landscape so much admired for the last 250 years.

This study has enhanced interpretation of the landscape and the new knowledge will be disseminated to increase public awareness and enjoyment of the abbey, as well as to inform management and protection. The survey also showed how useful drones are for recording archaeological landscapes.

About the author

Trevor Pearson

In 2016 Trevor retired as head of the graphics team in Historic England, having worked previously as a landscape archaeologist for the RCHME and English Heritage.

Further information

Pearson T, 2019 Rievaulx Abbey, Helmsley, North Yorkshire: Archaeological Survey and Investigation of the Precinct. The full report on the survey is available at Historic England Research Report 7/2019

English Heritage property web page for visitors

Download as PDF magazine

You can download this article in PDF format as part of Historic England Research magazine Issue 16.

Historic England Research Issue 16

Published 17 July 2020

Keep up-to-date with projects and activities involving applied research into the historic environment.

Learn more
Was this page helpful?