Monday, September 15, 2014

Monday Exposure: Rievaulx Abbey

Rievaulx Abbey's crossing and presbytery
The crossing and presbytery of Rievaulx Abbey.
They didn't survive the second wave.

Truth be told, Rievaulx Abbey had been declining for centuries. Its founding was directed by the famous French monk Bernard of Clairvaux. Though St. Bernard was not the founder of the Cistercian Order -- a medieval religious order seeking to reform monastic life by strictly following the austere Rule of St. Benedict -- he was its genius expander and proliferator. Under his direction, the Cistercian movement exploded from France into Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Eastern Europe.

In 1132, twelve of his monks founded Rievaulx in the north of England. Within a few decades their numbers had swollen to more than 140, and an additional 500 lay brothers worked the surrounding land. The abbey reared vast numbers of sheep and made a profitable trade in wool throughout Europe. They were skilled in mining iron and lead. To make better use of the surrounding countryside, they redirected the course of a nearby river three times. By 1200, Rievaulx Abbey was the preeminent Cistercian abbey in England, and one of the country's wealthiest monastic communities.

But the vast program of building a massive church and abbey complex had left them in enormous debt. Moreover, Rievaulx had devoted resources to establishing daughter abbeys in Scotland (e.g., the great Melrose Abbey) and the north of England, eventually numbering nineteen daughter houses. Such expansion by Rievaulx cost not only money. It also inevitably created a brain drain as the abbey sent many of its ambitious young monks away to found the new abbeys. As the 1200s went on, taxation and duties to the Crown, to the Church, to the Cistercian Order, and even to local lords, all increased dramatically. Then a sheep disease in the 1270s and 1280s ruined the abbey's flock. In the 1320s, conflicts between England and Scotland resulted in multiple invasions from the Scots, who nearly captured England's king Edward II at Rievaulx. Extreme weather, crop failures, and cattle diseases weakened the populace in the first half of the 1300s. Most gruesomely, the Black Death struck in 1349.

By 1381, the Rievaulx and its dozens of surrounding buildings were occupied by only 15 monks and three lay brothers. Their numbers improved a bit over the next 150 years, but never approached the previous height. Some of the growth was due to a significant decline in the abbey's discipline toward following the Rule of St. Benedict, allowing the monks to live in private quarters, to eat meat, and to fraternize more with the outside world.

The beginning of the end came in 1535. The king, Henry VIII, had already split with Rome and declared himself the head of the Church in England. He now set about dissolving the monasteries around England, partly as a movement of reform -- the relative wealth, landholdings, usefulness, and godliness of monastic communities were questioned throughout Europe -- but also partly as a means for enhancing the Crown's revenues. Henry had sent harsh inquisitors across the realm to delve into the running of the monastic communities, examining their finances and seeking confessions about moral failings within the abbeys. In 1535, Parliament passed the Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries, which dissolved any monasteries, priories, abbeys, or other religious communities whose income was less than £200 per year.

Rievaulx escaped dissolution -- its 1535 income was £351 and 14 shillings -- but closure of the lesser houses caused a popular revolt in the north of England which was put down by force. The royal commissioners returned for further inquisition. On 3 December 1538, armed with the power of the King to convince, cajole, or use force, the commissioners obtained the "voluntary surrender" of the abbey to the Crown. The abbot and 22 monks were granted pensions and the 102 lay brothers were sent away.

Then the abbey was stripped of any valuables and its physical structure given over to a local earl for destruction. Of the 72 buildings connected to the abbey and its surrounding lands, more than half were destroyed and no trace can be found. The remainder were torn down and dismembered, most left in piles of stone rubble.

Excavations in the twentieth century found two skeletons amidst the rubble, crushed in the spasm of destruction. Fitting symbols for the decay and dissolution of Rievaulx Abbey.

Ruins of Rievaulx Abbey
The ruins of Rievaulx Abbey.

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