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Tag: medieval

Rievaulx Abbey (1132) and Easby Abbey (1152)

The Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx (founded 1132) and Premonstratensian foundation of Easby (1152) lie thirty miles apart on an upland tract of North Yorkshire. The Orders closely shared constitutions and spiritual ideas, and these similarities are reflected in Easby’s main abbey complex, begun two decades after Rievaulx, which appears to follow developmental phases common to the Cistercian claustral plan, but with notable divergences. To what extent can these be explained by the Premonstratensian spiritual mission, or was Easby’s development influenced by other factors?

Figure 1: Plan of Rievaulx Abbey (founded 1132). Image: English Heritage

Rievaulx (Fig. 1) is considered a model for a Cistercian house as it was the first to be founded in the north under instruction from Clairvaux. Its plan developed in three broad phases but, as Fergusson notes, despite its innovations and the influence of its French mother house, architectural developments at Cistercian foundations were not always inevitable. The first, 12th century, phase saw the re-building of Rievaulx’s church and east and west ranges as statements of reform under Abbot Aelred. The nave had a nine-bay arcade added, with aisle barrel vaults at right-angles, betraying the influence of its Burgundian architectural model. Transepts, transept chapels and aisle chapels were also added – each square-ended – in a further move towards the ‘persistent simplification’ of Romanesque monastic architecture that better reflected values of simplicity and solitude of location. This approach was continued into the east range: the chapter house, though apsidal, featured a simplified Norman arcade supported by large, round piers. The other principle spaces, such as the day room and huge first-floor dormitory, were also similarly austere in execution.

The south range, however, began to signal a reorientation in Aelred’s planning. An earlier refectory, positioned east-west following Benedictine precedent, was replaced by a larger building erected perpendicular to the cloister. Thompson contends that this change of axis, similarly seen at Fountains and Kirkstall, was principally to allow for the expansion of the adjacent kitchen and warming house. The peak population of 650 religious and lay brothers at Rievaulx appears to support this need for expansion, though greater weight should be attached to the confluence of other theories that would later direct Rievaulx’s claustral plan. These include Aelred’s admiration for Durham’s refectory (also created as an upper hall over a vaulted undercroft), the inclusion of a large, south-facing, Early Gothic window, and the underpinning of these arrangements through scriptural justifications for first-floor dining. This reorganisation of the south range can be seen as a deliberate movement away from the stark simplicity of the earlier works in preparation for a fuller embrace of Early Gothic principles – principally in the greater use of light as a prism for spiritual reflection.

The second, early-13th century phase, saw the architectural realisation of Aelred’s ambitions, but carried an inherent tension. The nave was raised, the presbytery received a seven-bay extension and a reformed choir, and a shrine for Aelred (d.1167) was added behind the altar. The earlier architectural simplicity was now being further challenged by an Early Gothic trend for combining lighter walls and more expressive building techniques. This tension was also felt in the addition of five chapels to the church’s eastern wall. These were flat-ended, eschewing apsidal plans associated with ‘spiritual exhibition’, moving Rievaulx further towards a rectilinear plan that would become characteristically Cistercian. Morris notes, however, that chapels were connected with processional circulation which, while reflecting a 13th century trend for private masses, again signified a growing gap between the simplicity of earlier liturgical arrangements and the abbey’s more elaborate physical manifestation.

The 14th century saw the lay brothers depart Rievaulx, marking the third phase of claustral development. While some extant ruins of the west range pre-date Aelred’s administration, their later conversion to study/storage space, the inclusion of a parlour where monks could meet with family, and extra space in the western nave available for processional use, all signified an increasing semi-public function for the abbey that had moved beyond its founding, hermetic, intentions. Therefore, while Rievaulx is now seen as a model Cistercian claustral design, it was not planned as such. Moreover, it arrived at its plan though a conscious rejection of Norman expressive forms, followed by a dissonant accommodation of austere Cistercian principles with Early Gothic inspiration.

To what extent did Easby’s monastic plan (Fig. 2) follow a similar path? Proximity of founding date, location and shared spiritual ideals would suggest a degree of pragmatic architectural interchange, and evidence of Cistercian precedent is apparent in Easby’s plan. However, also like Rievaulx, architectural changes were reactive to wider forces.

Figure 2: Plan of Easy Abbey (founded 1152). Image: English Heritage.

Easby Abbey was similarly founded in a river valley for farming and drainage reasons, but of greater significance for its plan was the decision to position it on an existing ecclesiastical site. St. Agatha’s church was included within the abbey precinct, and the irregular quadrilateral shape of the abbey cloister seems to have been influenced by the need to accommodate the monastery within a defined ancient space. The claustral buildings, however, at first glance appear to conform to Cistercian convention: the church, north of the cloister, dates from the 12th century, and like Rievaulx had aisles added and its presbytery lengthened in the early-14th century. Flat-ended transept chapels and a sacristry south of the choir were also added in this phase, but were additions that, by this time (as seen earlier at sister houses such as Leiston and Talley), were already features of a typical Premonstratensian plan.

To understand why the layout of Easby’s other claustral buildings came to reflect characteristics of the Premonstratensian Order requires understanding of its spiritual mission and organisational structure. It was an expectation of White Canons that, unlike the White Monks, they would spend time in the community, preaching and carrying out charitable work in addition to managing their granges. A circary system of governance also evolved, detached from the mother house of Prémontré in France, that allowed for a wider variety of architectural solutions.

This free-thinking is evident in Easby’s east and west ranges. While the chapter house (again flat-ended) and its adjacent rooms are located below the south transept, there is no dormitory above (the upper-storey space appears to have been a grand apartment). Instead, the monks’ dormitory was located in the west range, conjoined with guest lodgings in a ‘exceptional and probably unique’ configuration. Colvin notes that little is known about the accommodation of Premonstratensian lay brothers within the monastic plan; as ordained priests, the White Canons had less time than the White Monks for manual labour, so it must be assumed that a larger proportion of Premonstratensian lay brothers were living out on their granges or elsewhere. Unlike at Rievaulx, the configuration of Easby’s west range is the product of a single phase of early-13th planning, so can therefore be attributed to reasons that are identifiably Premonstratensian in origin.

Easby’s south range, similarly built within the same 13th century phase, also  shows evidence of Premonstratensian assimilation of Cistercian precedent. The kitchen, warming house and refectory are in the same position as at Rievaulx, but with the refectory building situated east-to-west. The refectory itself, however, was also positioned on the first floor with a huge, east-facing window in the Decorative style – indicative of the works being carried out fifty years later than at Rievaulx. However, clear precedent of a similar dining arrangement can be seen at other Premonstratensian houses, including Tupholme (1155) and Eaglestone (late-12th century), suggesting two-storey refectories were already common practice for the White Canons by the time Easby was under construction.

Easby’s claustral plan, therefore, borrowed from the Cistercians but diverged significantly from it. That Easby was founded a year after the Cistercian general chapter of 1152, which halted further rapid Cistercian expansion, further suggests that the Premonstratensians took the opportunity to adapt an already highly appropriate Cistercian plan for their own spiritual duties. Rievaulx in the 12th and 13th centuries was largely the product of an abbot’s somewhat tentative ambition to combine Cistercian spiritual values with progressive Anglo-French architectural thinking. The claustral plan of Easby, conversely, reveals no individual guiding hand. Rather, the most significant developmental factor was an architectural confidence derived from a more autonomous circary system that better-suited the White Canons’ spiritual mission.


G. Coppack, P. Fergusson and S. Harrison, Rievaulx Abbey (London, 2006)

Fergusson, Architecture of Solitude: Cistercian Abbeys in Twelfth-Century England (Princeton, 1984)

P. Fergusson, ‘The Twelfth Century Refectories of Rievaulx and Byland Abbeys’, Cistercian Art and Architecture in the British Isles, C. Norton and D. Park (eds) (Cambridge, 1986)

J. Gribbin, The Premonstratensian Order in Late Medieval England (Woodbridge, 2000)

R. Morris, Cathedrals and Abbeys of England and Wales (London, 1979)

Rudolph, ‘Architectural Theory, the Sacred Economy, and the Public Presentation of Monastic Architecture: The Classic Cistercian Plan’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 78:3 (2019)

A. H. Thompson, English Monasteries (Cambridge, 1923)

Rievaulx Abbey (English Heritage)
Easby Abbey (English Heritage)

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