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The Cistercians in Yorkshire title graphic

The arrival of the Cistercians in Yorkshire


In 1131 Bernard of Clairvaux sent a letter to Henry I telling him of his intention to found Clairvaux’s first daughter-house in Britain. He wished to establish an abbey in the North of England, where the wild, desolate landscape was well-suited to Cistercian expansion. Bernard’s choice of location was probably also influenced by his familiarity with this area, for he had contacts in the North, and several of his key monks at Clairvaux came from Yorkshire. Bernard’s letter to King Henry is characteristically dynamic and fused with military imagery. He presents the venture as a carefully orchestrated military campaign: monks of Clairvaux were to suss out the area and report back; he would then send an army of monks to occupy the outpost, and from there infiltrate the country.

The abbey church at Rievaulx
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The first colony from Clairvaux arrived at Rievaulx, Yorkshire, in 1132. On their way to Rievaulx they passed through York, where they made a deep impression on a group of Benedictine monks of St Mary's, York, who were dissatisfied with the state of monastic life in their abbey. The sight of the Cistercians inspired them actively to seek the reform of their house. This led to a dramatic confrontation between the reforming party and the abbot, which led to the group's hasty departure from the abbey, and the eventual foundation of a new Cistercian community at Fountains.

The foundation of Rievaulx was a carefully planned operation: the location was vetted by Bernard’s monks; Walter Espec, the founder, provided a site and endowment; a group of monks from Clairvaux colonised the house. Under the direction of Abbot William (1132-44), Bernard’s former secretary, the abbey flourished. It attracted a number of recruits and donors, and within three years was ready to expand and found its first daughter-house at Warden, Bedfordshire.

Such was the appeal of Rievaulx that following his visit to the abbey, David of Scotland’s steward, Aelred, exchanged his life at the royal court for the Cistercian habit. Others were equally drawn to the monastic life at Rievaulx, and some abandoned Benedictine or Augustinian houses in the region to join the Cistercian community. Numbers soared and by the end of William’s abbacy, in 1144, they had risen from twenty-five to three hundred. Rievaulx remained a prominent house until the Dissolution, and founded a total of eleven daughter-houses.

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