Rievaulx Abbey & Rievaulx Terrace

Rievaulx Abbey & Rievaulx Terrace

In doing my research for our UK vacation, I ran across a lot of abbey ruins: Whitby, Fountains, Rievaulx, Guisborough, St. Mary’s, Bolton, and Tynemouth, just to name a few.

Why so many? I’m so glad that you asked!

Well, Henry VIII had been married to Queen Katherine of Aragon for over 20 years. However, for all that time, Katherine had been unable to provide him with a male heir. When the lovely Anne Boleyn caught his eye, he decided to divorce Katherine and marry Anne instead. The Catholic Church refused to allow a divorce. Henry’s spiritual advisers found a Biblical loophole for him in Leviticus 20:21 – “If a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonored his brother. They will be childless.” Katherine had previously been wed to Henry’s older brother, Arthur, who passed away at a young age.  Henry sought an annulment by claiming that his marriage to Katherine had never been valid.

The Catholic Church still said no, they would not dissolve the king’s marriage. Henry decided that if the church wouldn’t give him what he wanted, he would take it himself. So in 1531, he declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England. Prior to that time, the church functioned independently from the throne. By declaring himself Head of the Church, Henry VIII had a monopoly on all of the power in the land.

Henry ordered his investigators to evaluate the monasteries for necessary reform. Following reports of idleness, greed, and immorality, Parliament passed an act in 1536 to permit closing all monasteries with an income less than £200 (376 monasteries in total). Then, in 1539, larger monasteries were ordered to be dissolved – 645 in all. The monastery buildings were stripped of their doors, lead, timber, glass, art and literature, gold plate, silver, gold and jewelry. Livestock was seized. Land was sold to the wealthy. If buildings were not sold, they were used as quarries where individual stones were sold off to local builders. Truly, it’s a wonder that anything is left standing, yet there are monastery ruins all over Britain.

While I personally wouldn’t have minded visiting all of the monastery ruins within a 30 mile radius, I faced the all-too-familiar restrictions of time, money, and family members. So I resolved to visit just one and admire all the others from afar. The question was, which would be the best one to visit?

From the moment I first saw this breathtaking picture on Pinterest, I wanted to visit Rievaulx Abbey:

rievaulx abbey as seen from rievaulx terrace

But Fountains Abbey in Ripon – with the Studeley Water Gardens – sounded equally lovely. Rievaulx or Fountains? I can be pretty indecisive at times, and I was really having a hard time choosing one over the other. So I turned to my favorite Settler of Disputes, Google.

Other people had asked the same question, as it turned out, and many people had chimed in with a strong preference. The winner, with very few exceptions, was Fountains Abbey. I plugged Fountains Abbey into my itinerary and moved on to the deciding the next stop on our tour of northern England.

Except.  

As time passed, I felt a little resentful about not being able to see Rievaulx. As the date of our trip approached, the feelings grew. Until finally, I came to my senses and remembered my own advice to travelers:  don’t let conventional wisdom dictate what you do and see on your vacation.

I crossed off Fountains Abbey and replaced it with Rievaulx, and that’s where we went. Happily, I can say that I don’t regret it for a moment.

When approaching the Abbey, you drive through a great little town called Helmsley (more on that later), and you reach a fork in the road. One side leads to Rievaulx Terrace, the other to Rievaulx Abbey. Rievaulx Terrace provides amazing views of the Abbey (I got the shot above at Rievaulx Terrace). National Trust manages Rievaulx Terrace. English Heritage, on the other hand, manages the Abbey. It’s a bit inconvenient, having to go to two locations and pay two separate admission fees, but one could argue that you can’t fully appreciate the Abbey unless you see it from a distance, and hands down, the Terrace is the best place to do that.

We went to the Terrace first. I was there mainly just to take photographs, but it has some other interesting features as well. First, it’s important to note that the Terrace was built in 1758 for the specific purpose of showcasing the Abbey (and impressing guests, of course).

Guests would alight from their carriages at one end of the Terrace near the Doric Temple.  This structure resembles a scaled-down version of the mausoleum at Castle Howard, a few miles away. They would then walk about a half a mile across the lush green carpet of grass covering the promenade before reaching the Ionic Temple, inspired by the Temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome. That temple was actually a banqueting house, with facilities for food preparation in the basement.

We started at the banqueting house and the guide gave us a brief introduction to the property and its history. The interior consisted only of one large room, with the central table still set as if for a meal. It also featured elaborate ceiling paintings and ornate furniture.

rievaulx-terrace-banqueting-house abbey

From there, we strolled down the promenade. There were art installations along the way, which I thought were a bit out of place (very modern) and also completely unnecessary. When you have such a spectacular view, why bother with a statue of a horse made from wire?

wire-horse-sculpture at rievaulx terrace

I happily snapped pictures of the Abbey at each opening in the vegetation. The one at the top is by far my favorite as you can see most of the Abbey as well as the surrounding hillsides, sheep in a field, and the red roofs of some nearby houses. I just wish it had been a bit sunnier when we were there.

Finishing at the Terrace, we drove down to the Abbey. Oddly, you can’t see much of it from the car park and visitor center. But once you pay for your admission and go out onto the grounds, it dominates the scene.

Cistercian monks built Rievaulx Abbey in 1132.  The monks were ingenious in matters of farming and industry, and prospered there during the 12th and 13th centuries. In fact, Rievaulx Abbey became one of the greatest and wealthiest in England, with 140 monks and many more lay brothers.

However, they went through a rough spell in the late 13th to mid-14th century – sheep got mange, people got the Plague, and debts on their building projects began to build up. By 1381, there were only fourteen choir monks, three lay brothers and the abbot. By the 15th century, the monks were no longer the austere pious men from the early days of the Abbey. They had become privileged and self-indulgent.

Henry VIII order the destruction of Rievaulx Abbey in 1538. At that time the grounds held 72 buildings occupied by an abbot and 21 monks, attended by 102 servants, and an income of £351 a year. Henry ordered the buildings rendered uninhabitable and stripped of valuables such as lead. Today, all that remains are the stone walls.

rievaulx-abbey-2

rievaulx-abbey-6

rievaulx abbey 1.jpg

In addition to the massive ruins, you can tour a wonderful museum that contains some remnants of the Abbey. From gargoyles to stained glass fragments, they are on display in the museum, along with interesting information about the history of the Abbey.

rievaulx-abbey-stained glass fragments

rievaulx-abbey-gargoyle head museum

rievaulx-abbey-statues museum

There is so much history and beauty at this site – I highly recommend it for anyone with an appreciation of architecture or history. (Maybe I’ll visit Fountains Abbey the next time I’m in Yorkshire!)

Rievaulx Terrace is near the town of Helmsley, Yorkshire YO62 5LJ. It is open seasonally, so check to make sure it will be open when planning your visit.

Rievaulx Abbey is also close to Helmsley, with a postcode of YO62 5LB. Telephone 01439 798228. Days & hours vary by season, so check the website or call when planning your visit.

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