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  • Luke Morton Sharpe

Rievaulx Abbey : Pioneer National Monument

Updated: Jul 10, 2021

‘There is in your land a property belonging to your Lord and mine, for which He preferred to die rather than it should be lost. This I have formed a plan for recovering and am sending a party of my brave followers to seek, recover, and hold it with strong hand, if this does not displease you. Be so kind as to assist them as messengers of your Lord, and in their persons fulfil your feudal duty to Him.’

Extract from letter

to King Henry I of England from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, 1131

Above: Presbytery of Rievaulx Abbey by William Wastell (1781-1850).

Saint Bernard’s followers comprised around a dozen monks led by his secretary William. One of the King’s loyal men Walter Espec was a fan of Bernard’s reforming zeal and gave them land in a remote valley near his castle at Helmsley in Yorkshire, William’s home county. The Cistercians were at their peak and many were drawn to their brand of austere piety practiced in remote places away from the ‘tumult of the world’. By the end of the twelfth century there were over sixty houses in England and Wales alone. Rievaulx’s reputation and fortune grew under Abbots William (1131-45) and Ailred (1147-1167) both of whom were later canonised. During Ailred’s abbacy the number of choir monks reached one hundred and forty and lay brothers about five hundred. Amongst other improvements, he built a large, two storey Chapter House possibly inspired by mortuary basilicas he saw in Rome on a visit in 1142. These apsidal buildings were placed above martyr’s graves in the fourth century by the newly Christianised imperial family wanting to be buried close to the church’s founding saints. William and Ailred were both interred in the Chapter House but their increasing cult status in the thirteenth century led to grand re-burials – William in a tomb still extant in the cloister and Ailred in the new Presbytery built specifically to accommodate his shrine.

Rievaulx Abbey is considered one of the most spectacular medieval sites in the country. Its appearance today has been shaped during three separate phases following surrender. Firstly, it suffered significant demolition in 1538-39 when the new owner Thomas Manners, Earl of Rutland carried out Thomas Cromwell’s orders to prevent re-inhabitation in a very systematic fashion. However, three of the core structures – Abbot’s Lodgings, Refectory and Presbytery – survived for differing reasons. The Abbot’s Lodgings became a farmhouse and the Refectory was used to store raw materials for the Manners’ nearby iron works. The Earl’s ancestors (Ros) were early benefactors and some of them were still buried in the Presbytery. Hence, he may have spared its magnificent skeleton as a suitable mausoleum. Secondly, by the mid-eighteenth century the Abbey had become a romantic feature and could be viewed from the specially commissioned terrace above. Gothic was fashionable again at least as an ornament and the elevated prospect enhanced the elegant thirteenth century arcading and lancets windows thankfully saved by Manners. Writers and artists flocked to the location. Thirdly, in the early twentieth century the condition of this now famous site was causing concern amongst conservationists leading to its donation to the state and subsequent consolidation.

‘You look through the waving break in the shrubby wood, which grows upon the edge of a precipice, down immediately upon a large ruined abbey, in the midst…of a small but beautiful valley; scattered trees appearing among the ruins in a style too elegantly picturesque to admit description: it is a casual glance at a little paradise; which seems as it were in another region.’

Arthur Young from

‘A Six Months' Tour through the North of England’ 1771

Above: View of the Presbytery from Rievaulx Terrace. Thomas Duncombe laid out the terrace in 1758 mimicking another example in his garden at Duncombe Park three miles away. Both terraces gradually curve between two classical temples providing subtly changing views of their surroundings. At Rievaulx, (now owned by the National Trust) the west side drops precipitously to reveal the Abbey in the foreground with the River Rye running behind and Ashberry Hill completing the panorama on the other side of the valley. Ever changing perspectives of the spectacular remains emerge at various points along the half mile promenade between temples with vistas cut through the trees covering the slope. The Presbytery was built in the early thirteenth century to house the shrine of Rievaulx’s illustrious Abbot Ailred. Further rebuilding was curtailed when the Abbey faced financial ruin, the incumbent Abbot Roger forced to resign.

In July 1917 Rievaulx Abbey returned to state control three hundred and seventy-nine years since its last nationalisation. Nature and neglect threatened to complete the work of obliteration started by Thomas Manners in the late 1530s. For many years the latest landlords (the Fevershams) had been petitioned to carry out urgent repairs to little avail. In 1916, the incumbent Feversham was killed on the Somme and the trustees of his estate recognising the mammoth challenge of maintaining the abbey ruin gave it to the government, an early acquisition under the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act.

Over the next six years the remaining buildings were excavated and repaired under the aegis of the Office of Works led by Chief Inspector of Monuments, Charles Peers. He established a philosophy that underpinned the treatment of dozens of ruined buildings that came under state control in the early twentieth century: ‘Nothing should be added or taken away without absolute cause.’ and ‘Repair not restoration is the essence of the matter’.

Left: Office of Works drawing showing the first spandrel of the south choir arcade. This demonstrates the significant structural problems facing the new custodians after their acquisition of the site in 1917. Typical of Peers’ approach was the invisible repair of this section. The fractured core was removed and replaced by concrete and steel before the originally facing was restored. Peers undertook other interventions to prevent imminent collapse. A ferro-concrete beam was inserted down the length of the Presbytery’s south wall at clerestory height concealed behind reconstructed windows.

The techniques employed by Peers to address the serious structural issues drew criticism from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) whose origins lay in the Arts & Crafts world of ‘honest’ repairs. They described the Abbey’s treatment as ‘brutal’ an epithet applied to Cromwell’s men nearly four hundred years earlier although their intent was the opposite. The insertion of the concrete beam in the Presbytery was ‘an extravagant bid for safety’ and entrusting the consolidation of the buildings to engineers created ‘a sense of uniformity which the buildings themselves do not possess’.

Under SPAB’s methodology the original structure would have been preserved and additional components (e.g. buttresses) attached to keep it upright. Peers believed that this approach would ‘destroy the harmony of the structure and its context’. Ruins were seen as ‘dead’ buildings, their history had ended so their purpose was to be maintained as an ‘illustration of artistic and historic development’. Peers met with the SPAB Committee in November 1920 who thanked him for listening to their dissapproval but in the end they ‘agreed to differ’.

Peers’ critics also bemoaned the loss of the picturesque qualities of the state’s acquisitions through excessive re-pointing and removal of all vegetation. They ‘had not only been preserved but sterilised’. Some mourned the end of the ‘progressive’ ruin now replaced by the ‘static’ ruin. Ongoing decay may be more aesthetically pleasing in a ruined building but it would deny future generations the same enjoyment after its inevitable collapse. Of course, in myriads of cases we are among those future generations.

The objective of the Office of Works was to conserve the ‘beauty and the stability’ of the monuments in its charge, allowing them to ‘tell their own story without the intrusion of modern architectural design’. They wanted to avoid the fate that befell St. Alban’s Abbey where in the mid-nineteenth century an enthusiastic but amateurish benefactor had trashed much original detail to produce his vision of a gothic cathedral. For the Office of Works the architect should be ‘anonymous’, interventions should be ‘re-creative’ not ‘creative’. However, they were not above removing signs of the abbey’s post-dissolution usage. Their intent was to preserve and display a monastery, a ‘mono-period’ presentation where ‘the medieval fabric was sacrosanct’. Hence, much valuable information on the site’s subsequent history was lost.

Left: View from 1920 when the Office of Works excavation and consolidation was at its height. In the foreground is the apsidal end of the Chapter House with miniature railway running behind it. Scaffolding supports the Presbytery in the background. The Office of Works employed de-mobbed soldiers and war-surplus equipment to remove ninety thousand tons of spoil. No stratigraphy was carried out although a grid system was used to register finds and rewards given to workmen who recovered them. Among the debris from the Nave vault were four ingots cast from roof lead. These had lain unclaimed for nearly four hundred years. Three were donated to York Minster for the repair of the ‘Five Sisters’ window and the fourth is in Rievaulx’s site museum.

Reconstruction was also ‘anathema’ to Peers’ ideology as this would involve ‘speculation’ on its original design. During the excavation at Rievaulx some sections of the Nave piers were found lying alongside their bases but rather than attempt a reconstruction of these piers, the fragments were either reburied or used to consolidate the boundary wall instead.

Following the Ancient Monuments Act in 1913 the government acquired many ruins in imminent danger of collapse. Peers intended that his teams’ involvement would be ‘once in a lifetime’ unlike the SPAB methods which would require significant management of the continuing deterioration. His system became the standard, an established and proven process that saved many sites at reduced cost to the taxpayer.

Above: Remains of the thirteenth century Presbytery highlighting the Office of Works ethos of preservation and display still upheld by English Heritage. Unadulterated, vegetation-free, original medieval architecture (albeit consolidated with concrete beams) is presented above neatly trimmed lawns enabling ease of access for the public.

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