This month we’re visiting Jervaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire. Jervaulx is one of the few privately-owned Cistercian monasteries in the UK, and it’s one of those places you stumble over on a random Sunday afternoon drive. The abbey ruins are slap-bang in the middle of a field for grazing sheep, and the effect is very picturesque—which was the intention of Jervaulx’s 19th century owners, the Earls of Ailesbury. The first earl imagined the ruins as the setting for a romantic (and indeed Romantic) garden, and the proliferation of undergrowth climbing over the stonework has actually preserved rather than damaged it over the years.
The lay brothers’ night doorway into the church. This is the oldest part of the abbey, dating from the mid-12th century.
Jervaulx was founded in 1156 when a community of monks moved from Fors (near Aysgarth), although it seems that the lay brothers’ quarters had already been constructed by the time the monks arrived. As with the other great northern houses, Jervaulx grew wealthy from its lands and sheep. In October 1536, Abbot Adam Sedbar joined the Pilgrimage of Grace as one of its leaders (some accounts claim he was coerced into the role). When the rebellion failed, Abbot Sedbar was executed and his property made forfeit to the Crown—in this case, his property was taken to mean the abbey he administered, and so Jervaulx fell to the King rather than to the Court of Augmentation which had been set up to manage ecclesiastical reform.
Though the ruins of Jervaulx are extensive, the abbey church was razed to the ground following Abbot Sedbar’s execution. Many of the great Yorkshire abbeys such as Fountains and Rievaulx managed to survive with their churches partially intact, but at Jervaulx very little remains. The lead was stripped from the roof in 1537, and the church was blown up with gunpowder. The King’s agent wrote to Thomas Cromwell that the roads around Jervaulx were so appalling that the lead ingots cast from the destroyed roof couldn’t be moved during the winter. 400 years later, the lead ingots were discovered by the west wall of the church and were used to restore the windows of York Minster.
The infirmary buildings at Jervaulx are extensive. Constructed in the late 13th century, the infirmary contained its own kitchen, dorter, undercroft, lodgings, and chapel. The wing was remodelled a century later due to a decline in the number of monks within the house and a change in status of the abbot. As the abbot’s power and prestige increased, the infirmary buildings became an extension of the abbot’s private quarters.
The archway on the right had a fireplace built into it for the comfort of sick and elderly monks. According to the rule of Cistercian houses, fires were permitted only in the warming room (in which a fire burned during the coldest months of the year), the kitchens, and the infirmary, though this rule was not strictly followed (see below).
Jervaulx’s cloister is quite small. To the right, the remains of the church. On the left, the surviving walls of the outer parlour and cellarium situated beneath the lay brothers’ dorter (dormitory block).
The Chapter House, constructed in the early 13th century, is set a few feet lower than the surrounding buildings. The stone seats where the monks sat are visible running around the lower part of the walls; the photograph is taken looking towards where the Abbot’s chair would have been, sited directly opposite the entrance. The graves of four abbots can be seen between the furthest columns.
The monks’ dorter survives to much of its original height. This is the west wall, which contains nine lancet windows where the dormitory used to be, along with the doorway to the night stairs into the church at the south end. In the 15th century, the dorter was remodelled to give access to the warming room below and the misericord, a place where the monks could eat meat (generally only the infirm and elderly were permitted to eat meat, but by the 15th century there was a much more relaxed attitude in religious houses and all monks were allowed to eat meat three times a week when not fasting).
Jervaulx has one of the best preserved meat kitchens in the UK. It dates from the 15th century when the regulations governing the eating of meat and lighting fires had been relaxed. The meat kitchen has two huge fireplaces, two ovens, a laver (sink) for washing up, and serving hatches. Here you can see one of the fireplaces with a serving hatch to the far right.
One of Jervaulx’s most interesting features is this embalming slab, where the dead monks were washed and then embalmed prior to burial. Originally this slab would have been situated in the monastic infirmary buildings, but it’s been moved to form part of a wall in the ruins of the lay brothers’ reredorter.
Location: Halfway between Masham and Leyburn on the A6108. On Googlemaps here
Entrance: Small charge (honesty box)
Opening hours: Any time, dawn-dusk
Parking: Car park and tea rooms on opposite side of the road.