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The Cistercians in Yorkshire title graphic

Consolidation: Rievaulx during William’s abbacy (1132-45)


Architect, founder, enlarger(1)

Abbot William's shrine
© Cistercians in Yorkshire Project
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Abbot William's shrine

As the founding abbot of Rievaulx it was William’s responsibility to settle the new community, to organise the construction of buildings and the cultivation of land. He had also to attract recruits and benefactors to support the expansion and self-sufficiency of the monastery.

William successfully fulfilled this role and by his death in 1145 he had laid the foundations for the community to prosper. William was not simply renowned for his administrative capabilities but was venerated for his holiness. His cult developed following his death in 1145, and in 1250 a fine shrine was built in the west wall of the chapter-house at Rievaulx to house William’s remains.

The early days at Rievaulx were extremely busy for the monks and lay-brothers had to work hard to prepare the site for monastic life and establish a self-sufficient community. According to Cistercian legislation an oratory for prayer, a shelter for the monks and another for any guests that might arrive were all meant to be constructed before any community arrived at its new site. These first buildings were probably built from wood by an advance party of monks and lay-brothers. The rest of the community would then have helped complete the remaining building work and also to clear land for cultivation.

It is thought that Geoffrey of Ainai, a senior monk of Clairvaux, probably visited Rievaulx at some point in 1133 to advise the community on the layout and design of the precinct, to ensure that this complied with the Cistercian ideals.(2) Geoffrey also supervised the construction of the site at Fountains. The layout of the precinct at Rievaulx was also affected by the landscape, for the community had chosen to settle on a terrace. As such the church could not be laid out in the usual fashion, running from north to south, but had instead to be built from east to west. Rebuilding in stone began c. 1140 with the abbey church, and this first phase continued until the 1180s.

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