Abbey’s history brought to life

David Brown, Chairman, Geraldine MacDonald, the Speaker & Rev. Malcom Smalley.
David Brown, Chairman, Geraldine MacDonald, the Speaker & Rev. Malcom Smalley.

The Pocklington Probus Club club chairman, David Brown, opened the latest meeting by welcoming members and Mrs Geraldine Macdonald, the guest speaker.

After conducting a small amount of business, David asked Malcolm Smalley to introduce the speaker. In his remarks, Malcolm mentioned that Geraldine was his daughter and was to speak on ‘The Impact of Historical Changes on Rievaulx Abbey’.

Geraldine opened her well-illustrated talk by giving a brief description of the location of Rievaulx Abbey in a deep valley near Helmsley through which flows the river Rye. At the time of its foundation the Abbey met the criteria of its founders to be in a remote location away from worldly influences which might detract from the devout spiritual intentions of the French founding fathers.

At that time is was customary for persons to give to monasteries gifts of land and or money in order that the monks would be able to pray for the souls of the benefactors.

Consequently landowners, notably the owner of Helmsley Castle, gave the monastery tracts of land in the vicinity.

Because of the narrowness and steep sides of the valley, the church that was built as a centrepiece of the Abbey was not built on the customary East-West Axis.

A few years after its foundation the monks, who were skilled engineers and masons diverted the river into a new channel.

Initially the buildings were very simple and the living accommodation very spartan, in accordance with the tenets of the Carthusian monasteries.

However, within a century the Abbey was becoming very rich on the proceeds of the sheep farms that the monks established, whereby the lay brothers managed farms in the neighbourhood on behalf of the choir monks, who remained in the precincts of the Abbey.

The change in fortunes can be distinguished in what remains of the Abbey church, where the lower parts were built of undecorated stone, which had been quarried locally, whereas the upper parts were built from much more expensive decorated imported stone.

By 1370 the Abbey had become very prosperous with many resident monks, but then the Black Death came and did not spare the monks, resulting in considerable losses both in personnel and prosperity. Thereafter the numbers of monks varied widely until the final situation when Henry VIII commanded the destruction of the Abbey.

The lead roof was removed, melted and confiscated and the monks, then reduced to thirteen choir monks and three lay brothers were dispersed. Geraldine described this rise and fall of the fortunes of the Abbey with graphic illustrations and anecdotes derived from her close study of its history.

In his proposition of a vote of thanks Roy Howard indicated that, although many visits had made him familiar with the Abbey ruins now maintained by Heritage England, his eyes had been opened to much new information given by Geraldine.