Monday, April 16, 2007

Yorkshire Holiday, Part 4: Helmsley and Rievaulx

On the Cleveland Way between Whitby and Robin Hood's Bay.

We visited Whitby twice—once with Will and Peter, and once with my mother. On the first occasion, we left Whitby Abbey and headed south along the Cleveland Way, the long distance footpath that runs for over a hundred miles through the North York Moors and down the coast from Saltburn-by-the-Sea to Filey. We walked a dramatic eight-mile section along the clifftops from Whitby to the picturesque fishing village of Robin Hood’s Bay.

Entering Helmsley Castle.

The following day, we drove to the western terminus of the Cleveland Way, in Helmsley, to visit the ruins of Helmsley Castle, the medieval seat of the powerful de Ros family—and another keep slighted by the Parliamentarians in the Civil War. Everywhere in England there are reminders of those two catastrophic events in English history—the dissolution of the monasteries and the Civil War. From Helmsley Castle, we walked three miles along the Cleveland Way to visit one of the most famous of the dissolved monasteries, the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx in the peaceful Rye valley.

Rievaulx Abbey from Rievaulx Terrace.

In the early sixteenth century, Yorkshire was home to more monasteries than any other county in England. Among these were weathly houses like Rievaulx, Whitby, and Fountains Abbey. For the profligate King Henry VIII, who had squandered most of his inheritance, these houses represented an amazing source of untapped wealth. In 1535, he began to dissolve the monasteries and confiscate their wealth, selling off their land to the highest bidder. In Yorkshire, there was a rebellion, and a man named Robert Aske raised an army of 40,000 men to defend the monasteries in what became known as “the Pilgrimage of Grace.” The king sent the Duke of Norfolk to negotiate, and Aske extracted a promise that the Yorkshire monasteries would be exempt from dissolution. As soon as the army disbanded, the king broke his promise, executed the rebels (including the abbots of Rievaulx and Fountains), and dissolved the Yorkshire monasteries. Rievaulx was bought by the Duncombe family, who began to dismantle it to build a new stately home. Astonishingly, the shells of not only the grand church, but of many of the monastic buildings remained—the cloister, the chapter house, the refectory, the infirmary. Rievaulx gives a remarkable and, in its ruined state, poignant suggestion of what the great monastic community must have been like.

The Ionic temple, Rievaulx Terrace.

In the mid-eighteenth century, as the picturesque came into fashion, Thomas Duncombe built a neoclassical terrace on the hill overlooking Rievaulx, complete with a Tuscan and an Ionic temple. From Rievaulx Terrace, connoisseurs of the picturesque have remarkable views of the ruined abbey in the valley below.

Beatrice de Ros, in the St. William window, York Minster.

After a stroll around Rievaulx Abbey and a steep climb up to the terrace, we walked back to Helmsley for one last look at the slighted keep. The castle was besieged in the autumn of 1644 by Parliamentary troops led by Sir Thomas Fairfax. Fairfax was fresh from successfully laying siege to the walled city of York, which had been a Royalist stronghold. Fairfax was a native of Yorkshire, and when York surrendered, he did a remarkable thing—he insisted that the city’s medieval stained glass be spared. Thanks to Fairfax’s intervention, York is England’s great treasure trove of medieval glass. Among the windows spared was a window donated by Beatrice de Ros, daughter of the lord of Helmsley Castle.

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