Houses of Cistercian monks: Rievaulx

A History of the County of York: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1974.

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'Houses of Cistercian monks: Rievaulx', in A History of the County of York: Volume 3, (London, 1974) pp. 149-153. British History Online [accessed 1 March 2024]

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The abbey of Rievaulx, the earliest Cistercian monastery in the county, was founded in 1131 by Walter Espec, (fn. 1) who gave to certain of the monks sent to England about 1128 by St. Bernard from Citeaux land near Helmsley, in the valley of the Rye, on the north side of which the monastery was built. From its position it received the name of Ryevale, or Rievaulx.

Although the house was meagrely endowed by the founder, it speedily received other donations of land of considerable extent and value, so that within probably half a century from the foundation of the abbey it had acquired possession of no less than 50 carucates of land besides other property; all are fully described in alphabetical order by Burton. (fn. 2)

It has been suggested that the mission of monks sent to England by St. Bernard from Citeaux was largely directed to Yorkshire, through the influence of Archbishop Thurstan. (fn. 3) Not only did Rievaulx send out a detachment of monks to people the abbey of Warden in Bedfordshire, founded by Walter Espec in 1135, almost before the settlement at Rievaulx itself can have been fairly established, but in the year following another colony went to inhabit the abbey of Melrose, founded by David I in 1136; and in 1142 yet a third body of monks left Rievaulx for the abbey of Revesby in Lincolnshire, founded by William de Roumare, Earl of Lincoln, and in 1146 or 1148 another draft of monks went to Rufford.

All this points to the fact that the number of monks who first came to Rievaulx must have largely exceeded the number usually sent to form a new convent, and it implies that Rievaulx was regarded as the source from which other Cistercian monasteries might be peopled. This may explain Walter de Gant's gift of Stainton as the site of an abbey to be founded (ad abbathiam construendam ibi) by Rievaulx, (fn. 4) as well as the gift by Olaf, king of Man, of land in that island, for the foundation of an abbey at Rushen. The strain on their numbers in founding the abbeys already mentioned perhaps exhausted the power of the monks of Rievaulx to undertake the work proposed to them by King Olaf, and his gift was afterwards transferred to Furness, the abbey of Rushen being colonized from that house. (fn. 5)

As to Stainton, the same reason may have prevented the monks of Rievaulx from establishing a monastery there, and so led them to exchange Walter de Gant's land with Henry II for other land nearer Rievaulx than Stainton, which was in the parish of Downholme, not very far from Richmond. (fn. 6)

Having founded the abbey of Warden, Walter Espec entered the abbey of Rievaulx as a monk, and died and was buried there. (fn. 7)

Quite early in the history of the house a strange agreement was entered into between the monks of Rievaulx and the canons of Kirkham, (fn. 8) whereby the latter were to cede to Rievaulx the whole of Kirkham, with its church and the canons' buildings, gardens, and mills, as well as Whitwell and Westow, and 4 carucates of land in Thixendale, and of their stock a wagon and 100 sheep, on condition that the patron would give them the whole of Linton and ' Hwersletorp.' Their prior and his assistants (sui auxilarii) were to build them a church and other monastic offices. It seems that there must have been a proposal that Kirkham should become Cistercian (a proposal which caused a division in that house), and that it was intended that Rievaulx should take over Kirkham as a Cistercian monastery, the dissentient canons having a new house built for them elsewhere. It is clear that Walter Espec was living (fn. 9) when the agreement was drawn up, and his preference for the Cistercian order as evidenced by his entry as a monk at Rievaulx, may have made him wish that his three foundations, Kirkham, Rievaulx, and Warden should be of the Cistercian order; the agreement, however, fell through.

Another incident in the early history of the house is also difficult to understand. It is revealed in a rescript from Pope Alexander III (1159-81) (fn. 10) to the Bishop of Exeter, the Abbot of St. Mary, York, and the Dean of York directing them to see that amends were made for the spoliation of the property of the abbey of Rievaulx by certain persons named, and the strange thing is that the offenders were some of the chief benefactors of the abbey. Robert and William de Stuteville had been guilty of various acts of depredation, and the pope ordered that within thirty days they were to make restitution, under pain of excommunication. Seven other offenders are named, including Roger de Mowbray and his son Nigel.

In 1143 Roger de Mowbray granted Old Byland to the convent of monks who had left Calder, intending that they should build their monastery on the south side of the River Rye, but the site was too near Rievaulx, and each house heard the bells of the other. In consequence of this the monks of Byland moved further off, but the lands of the two houses were coterminous, and to avoid possible disputes an agreement was entered into between Aelred, Abbot of Rievaulx, and Roger, Abbot of Byland, about 1154. (fn. 11) This agreement began by a mutual engagement of masses and prayers for deceased brothers of the two houses and a combined action against oppression or misfortune by fire or otherwise, and then defined the relations of the two houses as to their adjoining lands, both the homeland of the two houses and their properties at a distance, where they adjoined each other. As to the homelands, the Byland monks conceded to their brethren of Rievaulx that they should have their bridge so constructed that it should hold back the wood they conveyed by the River Rye, and also a road from the bridge through the wood and field of Byland to a place called Hestelsceit, 18 ft. in width, which the monks of Byland were to keep in repair. They were to have mutual rights on each others' banks of the river. The monks of Byland should peaceably retain the house they had built at Deepdale (near Cayton), and all that they possessed or might obtain in Gristhorpe, Falsgrave, Seamer, Irton and West Ayton, except the meadowland of the last-named, none of which they were to hold except with the consent of the monks of Rievaulx. In Hutton and Brompton neither house was to accept anything for the purpose of building without the consent of the other. The beasts of the grange of Griff (belonging to Rievaulx) were to have pasturage within the wood of Scawton only from Burnsdale to Sproxton, the rest of Scawton was to remain the property of the Byland monks. Then followed in the agreement a description of the boundaries between other of their properties both at hand and in the West Riding. This conventio karitatis was in 1170 again confirmed with certain additions, Sylvanus being then Abbot of Rievaulx and Roger still holding office at Byland.

A very severe rebuke was addressed by Alexander III to Archbishop Roger Pont 1'Eveque (fn. 12) for placing Rievaulx under an interdict and threatening the monks with excommunication until they should pay his clerk the tithes from which they had been exempted by papal authority. Another letter (fn. 13) from the same pope rebuked Bishop Hugh and the Prior of Durham for extortion in the matter of the annual payment to be made by the abbey in consideration of the tithes of Cottam. In 1243 (fn. 14) Innocent IV extended a papal grant to the Abbot and convent of Rievaulx, exempting them from payment of tithes of property acquired after the said indult in regard to which they were being molested by prelates and clerks of the diocese of York.

Rievaulx being a Cistercian abbey and so exempt from episcopal visitation, very little is known of its internal affairs or history. One incident of interest is recorded in 1279. William de Aketon, a monk of Rievaulx, evidently wishing to abandon monastic life, came to the prior, Nicholas of York, and said that he was a leper and could no longer dwell with the brethren, and therefore begged leave to depart. Another monk, Jordan de Normanton, came up and wished to examine William to see if he really was leprous, whereupon the malingerer drew his knife and stabbed him in the hand and fled into the woods. Abbot William de Daneby was at once told, and he immediately sent two of the monks to pursue him. The fugitive was caught in the woods and so severely beaten that he died a few days after he had been brought back to the monastery. (fn. 15) William de Daneby seems to have succeeded another Abbot William, who had apparently been deposed and banished, as in 1279 it was reported that certain lay brethren of Rievaulx who had been concerned in the murder of John de Slarebrond had been sheltered by 'William, then Abbot of Rievaulx, now a monk of Byland.' (fn. 16) In 1380-1 (fn. 17) besides the abbot and prior, John de Layton (or Lanton), there were thirteen other monks and three conversi.

In 1406 (fn. 18) a glimpse of the inside life of the abbey is afforded, with one of those little touches which give life to a picture, by a mandate of Pope Innocent VII, which states that each monk in priest's orders was bound in turn for a week at a time to sing mass solemnly (alta voce ad notam) at the high altar, and to say the invitatory, such monks being called ebdomadarii, but that Thomas Beverley had an impediment of tongue, on account of which he could not do this becomingly, so he was granted a dispensation from performing the office.

What is generally known as the battle of Byland took place in October 1322, and must have greatly affected the two abbeys of Rievaulx and Byland, but nothing certainly is known as to what happened to Rievaulx in consequence of it. The encounter between the English and the Scots took place on the high ground between the two houses and near Byland, but according to the most trustworthy accounts the English king was at Rievaulx and not Byland Abbey when he received news of the defeat of his army. (fn. 19) He fled at once to York for safety, leaving, according to the chronicler of Lanercost, his silver plate and a great treasure behind him at Rievaulx. This fell into the hands of the Scots, and we are left to realize the sinister significance of the words et monasterium spoliaverunt without being told any details of the spoliation.

The concluding years of Rievaulx were stormy, and it is clear that the abbot, Edward Kirkby, was ill affected towards the impending religious charges. It was desirable, therefore, to get him out of the way. On 1 September 1533 (fn. 20) the king's commissioners complained that Abbot Kirkby had written a letter ' to the slaundare of the kinges heygnes, and after the kynges lettars receivyed, dyd imprison and otharways punyche divers of hys brethren whyche ware ayenst him and hys dissolute liwing; also dyd take from one of the same, being a very agyd man, all hys money.' Further they complained that 'all the cuntre makythe exclamations of this Abbot of Rywax, uppon hys abhomynable liwing and extortions by hym commyttyd, also many wronges to divers myserable persens don, whyche evidently duthe apere by bylles corroboratt to be trwe with ther othes corporal, in the presens of the commissionars and the said abbott takyn, and opon the same xvi witnessys examynyd, affermyng ther exclamations to be trwe.' The commissioners concluded by stating that they had ' remowyed hym from the rewlle of hys abbacie and admynistration of the same.'

The convent refused to accept the deprivation as canonical, and did not proceed to elect a successor. On 13 September (fn. 21) another commission was issued, addressed to the Abbots of Fountains and Byland, recounting that the abbacy of Rievaulx was vacant owing to the deposition of the late abbot by four of the royal commissioners, and that the licence of the Earl of Rutland, the patron, had been given for the election of a new abbot. The commissioners were ordered 'to repaire unto the sayd monasterie to procure, by all the lawfull means and ways ye can, the convent of the same to proceed with the licence of our sayd cousin, theyr patron, to the election of a new abbote, and to certifie unto us all that ye and the sayd convent shall have doon therein, for that we moche desyre the goode establishement of the sayd monasterye as we doo of all others.'

The Abbot of Fountains being engaged on a mission to Cockersand Abbey, the Abbot of Byland reported that on 15 October, (fn. 22) accom panied by Brian Lewty, notary, Dan Robert Harom, Prior of Byland, and Dan Thomas Wenesley ' my chapleyn,' he had visited Rievaulx, ' and did procure by all the lawfull means and wayes I couth the convent of the same to proceed to the election of a new abbcte, and theym beyng in nombre xxiijth secretly and oon by oon, did call before me, the abbote beyng absent, and then examynyng by inquisicion according to the statutes of my religion, exortyd, aduertysed, and induced as byfore to proceed to election according to the tenor and effect of youre sayd grace is commission, soo that none of theym did know what was the answer of the other.' Only seven of the twenty-three monks would consent to a fresh election or. admit that Abbot Kirkby had been duly deprived. The detailed answers of each of the monks are given in the Abbot of Byland's report, (fn. 23) and they evince the courage and constancy of monks.

Abbot Kirkby, without admitting the validity of his deprivation, appears to have acquiesced in his forcible removal, and even went so far as to precent the Te Deum at the installation of Robert Blyton, Abbot of Rufford, as Abbot of Rievaulx. (fn. 24) This forcible intrusion of Abbot Blyton was only effected after a further letter had been sent to the Abbots of Fountains and Byland ordering them to procure the election of a new Abbot of Rievaulx at once. (fn. 25)

A yearly pension of £44 was confirmed to Abbot Kirkby by the convent on 7 May 1534, but from two letters written by him to Cromwell (fn. 26) it appears that Abbot Blyton refused to pay the pension, and endeavoured to excuse the convent from an obligation to pay more than half the promised sum. In these letters Abbot Kirkby speaks of himself as ' Abbott of Rievall' (one indeed being signed 'Edward Abbott of Rievall'), and of Blyton as ' the Incumbent Abbott at Rievall.' Inclosed in the second letter is a transcript of a letter which Cromwell had previously written to Blyton, and which Abbot Kirkby asked him to enforce. In this letter Cromwell is made to say that if Blyton continued to withhold the appointed pension, ' and handle your saide predecessour after such extreme fascion then vpon hys forther complaint to the Kynge and hys cowncell of his iniuryes and wronges end also iniuste depriving from hys saide Abbaye I assure youe I can no less doo of good conscience and equitie then to fynde some meanes to restore hym to hys abbaye agayne like as I have heretofore written to youe in that behalfe.' It has been commonly believed that Abbot Kirkby suffered death at Tyburn for complicity in the Pilgrimage of Grace, and it is pleasant to find that this was not the case. His later history is unknown.

The value of the temporalities in 1291 was £241 10s., (fn. 27) and in 1535 (fn. 28) the gross income amounted to £351 14s. 6d., the clear annual value being £278 10s. 2d. The house was surrendered on 3 December 1538. (fn. 29) At the suppression there were twenty-one monks in addition to the abbot who received yearly pensions, varying from £7 13s. 4d. to £4, the abbot's pension being 100 marks. (fn. 30) At the inquiry (fn. 31) as to the payment of pensions in the North Riding thirteen names are entered. Of one (Richard Jenkynson) it is said ' is dead, how long of goo it is to be inquired, he died at London ut dicitur.' Three others appeared with their patents and were seriously behind, ' and did axe it and cold not gett it.' Six others appeared, and three did not.

Although there is no record of any indult to the Abbots of Rievaulx to wear the mitre, there is an indication that they possessed this privilege. In an account of the plate possessed by the abbey at the Dissolution is included not only a 'crouche' of silver, but also a 'mitour of paest set with perles.' (fn. 32)

Abbots Of Rievaulx (fn. 33)

William I, 1131, died 1145

Maurice, 1145

[Waltheof] (fn. 34)

Aelred, 1147, 1160, 1164, died 1167

Sylvanus, (fn. 35) occurs 1170

Ernald, 1192, resigned 1199

William Punchard, occurs 1201-2, died 1203

Geoffrey (or perhaps Godfrey), 1204

Warin, occurs 1208, died 1211

Helyas, resigned 1215 (Abbot of Melrose 1216)

Henry, 1215, died 1216

William III, 1216, died 1223

Roger, 1224 to 1235, resigned 1239

Leonias, 1239, died 1240

Adam de Tilletai, 1240-60.

Thomas Stangrief, occurs 1268 (fn. 36)

William IV (de Ellerbeck), (fn. 37) 1268-75 (fn. 38)

William Daneby, 1275-85 (fn. 39)

Thomas I, 1286-91

Henry II, 1301

Robert, 1303

Peter, 1307

Henry, occurs 1307 (fn. 40)

Thomas II, 1315

Richard, occurs 3 June 1317 (fn. 41)

William VI, 1318

William de Inggleby, occurs 1322 (fn. 42)

John I, 1327

William VIII (de Langton), 1332-4

Richard, 1349

John II, occurs 1363 (fn. 43)

William IX, 1369-80

John III, occurs 1380 (fn. 44)

William X, 1409

John IV, occurs 1417 (fn. 45)

William (XI) Brymley, 1419

Henry (III) Burton, (fn. 46) 1423-29

William (XII) Spenser, 1436-49

John (V) Inkeley, 1449 (fn. 47)

William (XIII) Spenser, 1471, 1487 (fn. 48)

John (VI) Burton, (fn. 49) 1489-1510 (fn. 50)

William (XIV) Helmesley, (fn. 51) 1513-28

Edward Kirkby, (fn. 52) 1530-1533

Rowland Blyton (fn. 53) 1533-8

The 12th-century (fn. 54) seal is a vesica with the abbot seated receiving a confession from one of his monks. Of the legend there only remains:

✠. . . N . . ERTI A TEGO . . . . . CLAVSA REVELO

An abbot's seal (fn. 55) in use at the end of the 12th century is a vesica, 1½ in. by 1 in., with the abbot seated reading at a lectern and holding his crozier. The legend is:


A 13th-century abbot's seal (fn. 56) has a fulllength figure of the abbot holding his crozier and a book. The legend is:



  • 1. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 274.
  • 2. Burton, Mon. Ebor. 358.
  • 3. Chartul. of Rievaulx (Surt. Soc.), Introd. p. xxxvii.
  • 4. Ibid. 261.
  • 5. Ibid. Introd. p. liv.
  • 6. Chartul. of Rievaulx (Surt. Soc), Introd. p. lviii.
  • 7. Ibid. 264.
  • 8. Ibid. 108.
  • 9. Ibid. Introd. p. xxiv.
  • 10. Ibid. 194, no. cclxii.
  • 11. Ibid. 176, no. ccxliii.
  • 12. Ibid. 191.
  • 13. Ibid. 192.
  • 14. Cal. of Papal Letters, i, 199.
  • 15. Assize R. 1064, m. 27.
  • 16. Ibid. m. 28.
  • 17. Subs. R. 63, no. 12. In 1318, the king, on petition of the Abbots of Rievaulx and Byland, had directed the archbishop to make a new taxation of those abbeys and other benefices wasted by the incursions of the Scots. That was of course before what is known as the Battle of Byland, when still further destruction was made. Rievaulx Chartul. (Surt. Soc.), 426.
  • 18. Cal. of Papal Letters, vi, 176. In 1402 Boniface IX granted a faculty to John de Firthby, Monk of Rievaulx and papal chaplain, to dispose of his books and certain other movables for the expenses of his funeral, and the remuneration of his servants or kinsmen and others, and after deducting his debts, to convert them to other pious and lawful uses. He was to be liberal to his monastery. Ibid. v, 546.
  • 19. Rievaulx Chartul. (Surt. Soc.), Introd. p. lxxxi.
  • 20. Ibid. Introd. pp. ciii-ix.
  • 21. Yorks. Star Chamb. Proc. (Yorks. Rec. Ser,), 48.
  • 22. Ibid. 49.
  • 23. Yorks Star Chamb. Proc. (Yorks. Rec. Ser.), 49-51.
  • 24. Rievaulx Chartul. (Surt. Soc.), Introd. pp. ciii-ix.
  • 25. Ibid.
  • 26. Misc. Letters, temp. Henry VIII (Ser. 2), xxxv, 76-8. The letters are undated and are placed in the Calendar under the year 1534, but must have been written a year or two later.
  • 27. Dugdale, Mon. Angl. v, 277.
  • 28. Valor Eccl. v, 144.
  • 29. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiii (2), 983.
  • 30. Ibid. xlv (1), 67.
  • 31. Exch. K.R. Accts. bdle. 76, no. 24. The return for the North Riding is dated 20 Feb. 1553.
  • 32. L. and P. Hen. VIII, xiii (2), 1172.
  • 33. This list is that compiled by Dr. Atkinson, Rievaulx Chartul. (Surt. Soc.) pp. lxxxvii, cix. Any alteration is indicated in the notes.
  • 34. Dr. Atkinson throws considerable doubt on the statement that Waltheof could ever have been Abbot of Rievaulx. Ibid. p. lxxxix.
  • 35. After Aelred, and before Sylvanus, the lists of abbots usually include a Roger and a Bernard, both of whom Dr. Atkinson seems rightly to reject. Ibid. p. xci.
  • 36. Baildon's MS. Notes.
  • 37. a William de Ellerbeck was abbot before 1305 (Baildon, Mon. Notes, i, 179) and contemporary with Adam de Hustwayt, Abbot of Byland (c. 127083); Egerton MS. 2823, fol. 104.
  • 38. Apparently deposed; see above.
  • 39. Abbot in 1279 (see above); presumably the Abbot William who made his profession of obedience in 1275; Chartul. of Rievaulx, no. xcvii.
  • 40. Baildon's MS. Notes.
  • 41. Cal. Pat. 1313-17, p. 697 (omitted by Dr. Atkinson).
  • 42. Baildon's MS. Notes.
  • 43. Ibid.
  • 44. Ibid.
  • 45. Ibid.
  • 46. Dr. Atkinson inserts an Abbot John between these, but the Archiepiscopal Register (sed. vac. fol. 321) is definite. A commission was issued, 10 Nov. 1423, to Nicholas, Bishop of Dromore, to bless Brother Henry Burton, monk of Sawley of the Cistercian order, elected Abbot of Rievaulx, vacant by the free resignation of William Brymley (sic) late abbot.
  • 47. Commission to John, Bishop of Philippopolis, 8 April 1449, to bless John Ingkelay vice William Spenser, resigned; York Archiepis. Reg. Kemp, fol. 420b.
  • 48. The question whether he was the same person as Abbot William XII is discussed by Dr. Atkinson (Rievaulx Chartul. Introd. p. cii), and decided by him in the negative, but not altogether conclusively.
  • 49. Commission to William, Bishop of Dromore, to bless John Burton, 29 Jan. 1489-90; York Archiepis. Reg. Rotherham, i, fol. 62b.
  • 50. Test. Ebor. v, 21.
  • 51. Commission to John, Bishop of Negropont, to bless William Hemsley, 18 Nov. 1513; York Archiepis. Reg. Bainbridge.
  • 52. Deprived 1533; Yorks. Star Chamb. Proc. (Yorks. Rec. Ser.), 48-51. See also Rievaulx Chartul. (Surt. Soc.), Introd. pp. ciii-ix.
  • 53. Formerly Abbot of Rufford.
  • 54. Cat. of Seals, B.M. 3905, lxxv, 1.
  • 55. Ibid. 3906; Cott. Chart. v, 13.
  • 56. Ibid. 3909, xlvii, 675.