This blog is adapted from an ‘on-location’ interview for my podcast, The Tudor History & Travel Show, recorded at Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire. Our guide is Michael Carter, a senior properties curator at English Heritage. He specialises in English Monasticism and the Cistercian order. Read through to the end to find out Michael’s top recommendations for the best monastic ruins to visit in England, as well as where to see the few treasures which survive from the great age of medieval monasticism. If you wish to listen to the podcast, you can do so by listening here or via most of the major podcast platforms, including Spotify, Apple Music, Podbean or Google Podcasts.
Show Notes: Introduction
In 1132, a pioneering fraternity of Cistercian monks arrived in an isolated valley, deep in the heart of the Yorkshire countryside. Their arrival, and the subsequent founding of the abbey close to the River Rye, would send shockwaves around the monasteries of Northern England and set off a chain of events that would lead to the foundation of the mighty Fountains Abbey. This latter abbey was sited only some 25 miles to the south of Rievaulx and would ultimately become the largest Cistercian Abbey in England.
The Cistercians led an austere, back-to-basics life, wearing white habits to symbolise poverty. This distinguished them from the Benedictine order, which hitherto had been the dominant form of monastic life in Europe. However, the Cistercians believed that their Benedictine brothers had become increasingly lax in their religious observances. Through their adherence to austerity and poverty, the Cistercians aimed to revive a purer interpretation of the rule of St. Benedict. The abbey at Rievaulx would be the first Cistercian monastery founded in Northern England, spearheading the establishment of the order across Northern England and Scotland.
The Founding of Rievaulx Abbey
Even today, the position of Rievaulx Abbey is utterly enchanting. It is arguably the most important Cistercian monastery in England, both architecturally and spiritually. Dating back to the twelfth-century, Abbot Aelred built a complex of buildings and founded a vision of monasticism based upon love and inclusion. Tenably the most famous and important man to be associated with Rievaulx, he was venerated here as a saint after his death in 1167.
Locally, Rievaulx Abbey was a very important monastery, with an incredible reputation for holiness. Like many abbeys, it was deeply embedded in the local economy. At its height in the late middle ages, there was a community of around 640 people, but by the 1500s, only 30 monks lived here, a respectable number for a mid-ranking monastery like Rievaulx. However, this seemingly low number was a reflection of the changes in the monastic economy rather than any lack of monastic vocation. The monastery had moved from farming of their own lands by the Lay Brotherhood to the land being managed by tenant farmers. This drastically reduced the income of the abbey, reflecting a typical picture from around the country at that time.
Understandably, the ruins depict Cistercian monastic life. They also allow us to see the substantial changes that this living monastery went through in the run-up to what became known as the ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’. For example, the dormitory which extended southward from the south transept of the abbey church once accommodated 140 monks; by the sixteenth-century, this had been was sectioned into private cells, reflecting improved living standards at the monastery. Even at this stage, contrary to Tudor propaganda, Rievaulx was thriving religiously, economically, and politically with its leaders being held in high regard in the Papal courts of Rome and the royal courts of England, France and Scotland.
The visitations which heralded the onset of the Dissolution were nothing new. Monasteries had always been subjected to periodical ‘visitations’ by other Abbots or Bishops, who were there to ensure that the rules of St Benedict or St Augustine were being followed according to doctrine. Furthermore, monasteries had been dissolved for a variety of reasons as far back as the thirteenth-century. In the early sixteenth-century, Thomas Wolsey had even closed a variety of lesser monasteries. The Cardinal made use of the masterful legal work of Thomas Cromwell, then in Wolsey’s service, to accomplish his aims. It would be a useful training ground for the man whose name would eventually be synonymous with the ‘Dissolution’. (If you wish to read more about Cromwell’s London home, Austin Friars, click here).
Today, the abbey’s chapter house, which dates to Aelred’s Abbotcy, is reduced to foundation level. It is built in a characteristic horseshoe shape, with the tombs of various Abbots of Rievaulx embedded within the footprint of the house. Abbot William, the founding Abbot, was venerated here at Rievaulx as a saint and a plaque on the wall tells us this was the shrine of Albert William from 1131-45. Aelred was also buried here, although later his remains were moved to the church.
The chapter house was a place of sanctity. Every morning the monks would gather to listen to a reading of the chapter of the rule of St. Benedict. However, it also served as an administrative centre for the Abbey. It was here that the Abbot and his brethren conducted the business of the abbey, such as the signing of contracts between the monastery and its landowners. As we shall hear shortly, it was also the place in which the papers sealing the surrender of the abbey were signed in 1538.
The chapter house also where the election of Abbots took place. In 1533, there was a much-disputed election, when the patron of the monastery and the descendant of the founder, Thomas Manners, accused the Office of Abbots, Edward Kirby, of maladministration of the house. An inquiry was convened involving other local Cistercian Abbots and Thomas Cromwell. Edward Kirby later resigned, being given a pension of £44 a year, a substantial sum for the time! The Abbot of Rufford in Nottinghamshire, a daughter house of Rievaulx, was imposed on the abbey and Roland Blyton became the Abbot of Rievaulx. The community was bitterly divided, with only eight members consenting to the legality of the election.
The timing of this debacle in 1533 and the meddling of Thomas Cromwell is significant. It is played out against the backdrop of the King seeking to end his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and the rising influence of early protestants, or Evangelicals, at court. Such Evangelicals fed Henry with the notion that monasteries were dens of papist loyalty and corruption. Although Henry remained a committed Catholic, certain aspects of the new religion suited his cause, allowing the King to free himself from the jurisdiction of the Pope and dissolve his marriage to Katherine. Despite the majority of the country being fervent Catholics, a small number of powerful influencers close to the King, such as Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, were able to ignite the Reformation. The winds of religious change began to blow, signifying an entirely new era or a middle road, a combination of old ways and new.
As we have already heard, monasteries like Rievaulx Abbey were deeply integrated into local society. For example, the Abbey was a big employer in the local economy. It even served as a retirement home for those who could afford the board and lodgings. Yet, momentously, on 3 December 1538, in the chapterhouse, the paperwork that would formally dissolve Rievaulx Abbey was signed by Abbot Blyton and his 29 monks; legally, Rievaulx ceased to exist.
This turn of events was the culmination of the reform that began with the lesser monasteries in the mid-1530s when an Act of Parliament to suppress the smaller monasteries was passed. This meant that those with fewer than 12 inmates, or an income of below £200 a year, were forcibly disbanded. This led to a substantial rebellion from the northern counties; incensed by the religious policies of Henry VIII, large parts of the north of England rose up against the Crown. However, the rebellion was soon put down through a combination of subversion and downright lies on behalf of the King. Crucially, though, as far as the monasteries were concerned, the involvement of a number of Abbotts from various Northern monasteries gave the King grounds to deal with the ringleaders harshly. The first ‘victim’ was Furness Abbey. Here, the Abbott, afraid for his life and those of his monks, voluntarily surrendered the monastery to the Crown. This act set a legal precedent for the Dissolution of other, larger monasteries and sealed the fate for Rievaulx.
The Dissolution was a savage and brutal process. Many intransigent Abbotts and monks who refused to bend to the will of the Crown were put to death in unspeakable ways. But it was not just the inhabitants of the monasteries who suffered. The monasteries themselves were savaged, stripped of their intrinsic cultural and spiritual value; treasures were looted and the buildings pulled down. Even John Bale, a former Carmelite monk turned devout protestant, remarked on the Dissolution era as a ‘wicked age, much given to the destruction of things memorable.’ The violence surrounding the Dissolution of the Monasteries can be seen in the scars left behind on the stone ruins at abbeys like Rievaulx.
The Church at Rievaulx Abbey
Rievaulx conforms to the layout of any Cistercian monastery, with the church being the scared heart of the monastery. The entrance from the main cloister on its south side is paved with tombstones from high society locals. In return for their generosity as benefactors of the abbey, they sought burial within the abbey in the hope that their good deeds and burial within such a sacred place would expedite their journey to heaven.
There is a surviving description of the church from just after the suppression. This gives us a real sense of what the buildings, fixtures and fittings looked like and how the abbey functioned as a Cistercian monastery. The doorway from the night stairs, still surviving in the wall of south transept, shows where the monks would process to the church from their dormitory to sing the first service of the day at an ungodly 2 am!
The soaring architecture of the church is befitting one of the most important religious buildings in Northern England. The magnificent thirteenth-century extension to the church is often said to symbolise Cistercian decadence and decline from their original austerity into the base trappings of lavish architecture. However, for the monks at Rievaulx, this was no gaudy whim; it was built to house the relics of Aelred, placed above the high altar. This shrine was put in the centre of the monastic church to display the most important churchman of the twelfth-century. Indeed, his feast day on the 12 January still remains part of the Roman Catholic Anglican calendar today.
To the right of the high altar, down 2-3 shallow steps, is the outline of an extension to the chancel. This room was once the abbey’s sacristy, where the monastery’s sacred vessels were housed; this included the altar plate, processional crosses, chalices and theroables for the incense and vestments. There are no records which survive from Rievaulx that could speak directly to the treasures housed in its sacristy. However, surviving documents from comparable monasteries indicate that there would have been a wealth of precious metal plate and ornately embroidered cloaks and vestments worn by the officiating clergy. There is a remarkable set of liturgical vestments that survive from Whalley Abbey in Lancashire. These hint at the richness of monasteries like Rievaulx Abbey. Sadly, most monastic wealth was destroyed at the Dissolution. Objects were either sold or melted down, with very little surviving to this day.
Alongside the High Altar are the tombs of local aristocrats, including members of the De Ross family, descendants of Rievaulx Abbey’s founder. The battered altar slab, restored to its original place by English Heritage and reconsecrated in 2015, bears the scars of the violence inflicted during the destruction of the Abbey.
The Museum at Rievaulx Abbey: Artefacts from the Dissolution of the Monasteries
The museum houses a variety of shattered remains, salvaged from the Abbey ruins. These include an image of Christ the Saviour. The seated figure is a treasure of medieval sculpture but shows the unceremonious hacking and decapitation of the holy deity. Other fragments of statues and the heraldic badge of the De Ross family speak of the ferocity of the sacking of the Abbey; even the expensive and intricately hand-crafted stained glass is wrecked and remnants left behind as it was ripped from its casing to be sold or stripped for the lead.
Within the museum is a large slab of melted lead. Emblazoned on it is a Tudor rose with a crown above (see below). No one could be under any illusion that this lead, stolen from monasteries, symbolises what lay beneath the Dissolution – greed and the King’s desire for total dominance of the Tudor crown above all else.
The Epilogue: Rievaulx Abbey after the Dissolution
In the space of 4 years, all monasteries across England were dissolved. It was an act of unbelievable vandalism and a deeply traumatic experience for all those involved. Perhaps characteristically of the brotherhood of the monks, many kept in touch after the Dissolution and remembered each other in their wills. One monk’s will read, ‘I leave to every one of my brothers who was with me at Rievaulx Abbey on the day of its disillusion [six pounds]’. Some who survived the trauma sought to continue their aesthetic lives. They tried to live out their days in small communities, including in manor houses of sympathetic aristocrats; such was the case at Coughton Court in Warwickshire.
The ascension of Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter, Queen Mary I, to the throne in 1553, brought a glimmer of hope to those who remained committed to the Catholic faith. Many former monks and nuns believed that they were going to be restored to their former status and that their homes would be rebuilt. But with Mary’s reign cut short by her death in 1558, and with Elizabeth I’s ascension to the throne, the Dissolution of the Monasteries as a fait accompli was sealed once and for all.
The violence carved in Abbey ruins and the stories of the people who suffered this incredible fate endures. The tumult and ferocity of the change are borne out by the fact that more people were killed for their religious beliefs in the sixteenth century – both catholic and protestant – than in the entire history of the Spanish Inquisition. The brutal dissolution of the monasteries, and what took place at Rievaulx Abbey, makes this period of history forever woven into the fabric of our country’s jaded journey to religious freedom, borne out of the ashes of the men and women devoted to God and their community and one man’s determination to marry the woman he loved.
Michael’s Top 5 Abbeys:
- Rievaulx Abbey, one of the great Cistercian Abbeys of England, situated near Helmsley in the North York Moors National Park, North Yorkshire.
- Fountains Abbey, one of the largest and best-preserved ruined Cistercian monasteries in England. Near Ripon in North Yorkshire.
- Blackfriars in Gloucester founded about 1239, is one of the most complete, surviving Dominican black friaries.
- Lacock Abbey in the village of Lacock, Wiltshire, England, was founded in the early thirteenth-century by Ela, Countess of Salisbury, as a nunnery of the Augustinian order.
- Gloucester Abbey was a Benedictine abbey in the city of Gloucester, England. Since 1541 it has been Gloucester Cathedral.
Best places to see monastic artefacts
- British Library is a great resource for some beautiful books and manuscripts, including the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Sherborne Missile.
- Towneley Hall, in Barnsley, houses two magnificent fifteenth-century vestments from Whalley Abbey
- British Museum, house three fourteenth-century ornamental roundels called the Warden Abbey Morses
- Victoria and Albert Museum, lent from a Benedictine monastery and possibly from the great Benedictine monastery at Bury St. Edmonds, is a relic tablet complete with saint’s bones and heraldry. There is also the only surviving silver medieval monastic metalwork.
Bio: Michael Carter
Michael Carter is a senior properties historian at English Heritage. A monastic expert, he holds a doctorate from the Courtauld Institute of Art and since joining English Heritage in 2015 has worked on reinterpretation projects at Battle, Hailes, Rievaulx and Whitby. Michael’s publications include The Architecture of the Cistercians in Northern England, c.1300-1540 and he has an especial interest in English monasticism on the eve of the Reformation. He is currently books on monasteries and saints’ relics in the late Middle Ages and monastic ghost story writing.
‘It would have pitied any heart to see’: Destruction and Survival at Cistercian Monasteries in Northern England at the Dissolution by Michael Carter can be viewed online here.
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