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The Cistercians in Yorkshire title graphic

What moved men and women to become benefactors of Rievaulx?


A variety of reasons prompted men and women to become benefactors of Rievaulx, some of which were shared by those who gave to religious houses across Europe, others were peculiar to Rievaulx’s benefactors. The belief that prayers and masses celebrated on behalf of one who had died could quicken the soul’s passage to heaven, inspired a number of men and women across Western Christendom to make gifts to religious houses and was equally important in encouraging donations to Rievaulx. Robert de Lascelles, for example, gave meadow in Morton to the Yorkshire community on the understanding that he should be received into confraternity with the monks and receive spiritual benefits.(15) This probably included prayers and masses said on his behalf, perhaps the chance to take the monastic habit before death and to be buried within the precinct. These benefits were all thought to improve one’s chances of salvation. The appeal of spiritual benefits might work to the community’s advantage in legal disputes, such as in 1235 when Robert and Isabella de Everingham withdrew their challenge to Rievaulx’s right to land in Harden (Halton) in return for the monks’ prayers.(16)

The reputation of the Cistercian Order within Europe would have certainly added to the appeal of becoming a benefactor of Rievaulx and of being in some way linked to such a highly respected movement. However, men and women were also drawn to Rievaulx itself, on account of the high reputation of the monks as well as the renown of certain individuals. Abbot William, the founding abbot, and Abbot Aelred, the third to preside over the community, were particularly influential. Both men played prominent roles in ecclesiastical and political affairs in the twelfth century, and were celebrated as saints following their deaths. Hugh du Puiset’s grant of Cowton in the 1150s was made ‘for the special love’ Hugh had for the abbot, and is testimony to Aelred’s personal appeal. Hugh, who was bishop of Durham (1153-95), was received into the fraternity of Rievaulx as a special advocate, receiving prayers as for an abbot of the house; in return he promised to defend and protect the abbey.(17) Whilst Aelred’s figure now overshadows that of any who preceded or succeeded him in the abbacy others, who are less well-known to us today, were clearly renowned by their contemporaries. An example is the Maurice of Rievaulx who in 1162 received a letter from Thomas Becket requesting his prayers, for Thomas had just been promoted to the See of Canterbury. It is thought that this was Aelred’s predecessor, Maurice, the second abbot of Rievaulx.

Finally, men and women who were in some way connected with Rievaulx’s founder, Walter Espec, either as tenants or members of his family, might feel drawn or indeed compelled to become benefactors of the abbey.

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