The majestic ruins of Rievaulx Abbey rising from the depths of the narrow valley of the river Rye, serves to illustrate the power, wealth and importance that these monastic communities held in medieval England. Rievaulx Abbey was founded in 1132 and was the first Cistercian abbey in the North of England. The Abbey’s period of greatest prosperity and importance came during the rule of its third abbot, St. Aelred 1147-1167, when many of the buildings surviving today were constructed. At this time the community peaked at 140 choir monks and 500 lay-brothers and servants, when the abbey was suppressed in 1538 under the reign of King Henry VIII, there were only 22 monks but still 102 paid servants. Small wonder that the King saw a need for the reform and ultimate destruction of monastic institutions.
The Cistercian order originated in France about 1098. The centre of the monastic philosophy was an uncompromising insistence on poverty, simplicity of life and the need to separate the communities physically from the outside world. With this in mind the Cistercians positioned their monasteries away from other settlements and insisted that they be self sufficient, renouncing all cash revenues and feudal ties. They introduced a system of lay-brothers who would work their estates and be bound by monastic discipline.