Anyone who visits the wonderful ruins of the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx is looking up and around – far less down. Let’s start by enjoying a few photographs of the ruins taken on a recent visit.

 

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Hence the funerary dimensions of the medieval religious house and its traces are easily missed for visitors.

The guidebook makes the following references to funerary monuments, graves and skeletons:

  • The galilee porch contained the remains of 8 graves, one bearing the name Isabel do Ros (d. 1264), another slope-covered tomb beaing HIC IACET JORDANUS (‘here lies Jordan’). In other words, the porch was a favoured burial place for patrons at Cistercian monasteries since it didn’t constitute the church itself;
  • The early 15th-century tomb of Abbot Henry Burton is described as being situated ‘in the eastern chapel on the south side’ of the nave. I’m a little confused by this description and what it means on the ground;
  • in the presbytery, one is told about some of the mortuary dimensions:
    • The shrine of the abbey’s third abbot, St Aelred (abbot from 1147-67) may have motivated the elaborate 7-bay presbytery;
    • From the late 14th century, patrons would be buried outside the screen framing the sanctuary – the base of the double grave of John de Ros (d. 1393) is south of the high altar;
    • fragments of effigies were found in 1919, linked to tombs in the presbytery;
  • in the chapter house there was a shrine to the first abbot, William. There seem to be other grave-shaped features that aren’t explained, however (see below);
  • two skeletons found in the chapter house might have been part of the Dissolution demolition crew killed when masonry fell on them.

Notwithstanding the presence of funerary sculpture in the fabulous museum (more on that in another post), there is remarkably little within the space that is signposted and explicitly funerary. It is not only a challenge to image the ruins enclosed and populated with the living, the dead are absent – or at least difficult to apprehend – from these paces.

There are the fragments of coped gravestones and other monuments in the galilee chapel.

There are also various tombs in the nave and presbytery.

and graves in the chapter house, although the pairing are presumably 20th-century markers, perhaps of the 16th-century skeletons?

The only explicitly funerary signage I observed is this broken and old sign in the crossing:

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Rievaulx is far removed from the ‘death-denying’ ruins I’ve observed elsewhere. Still, I would reiterate a critique I’ve made of other English Heritage, Cadw and National Trust monastic ruins: death, the dead and shrines are difficult to apprehend and understand as an integral part of medieval monasteries. See my discussion of Fountains Abbey, for example. This is not only because of the difficulty of discerning the surviving fragments of funerary monuments, many of which have been dislocated and lost together with their skeletal contents. It is also because of a persistent and pervasive heritage narrative focused on monastic life and the building history.

Reference

Fergusson, P., Coppack, G. Harrison, S. and Carter, M. 2016. Rievaulx Abbey. London: English Heritage

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