New Discoveries at Rievaulx Abbey

Thanks to a chance in a thousand, curators from English Heritage have finally been able to identify the original location of stained glass excavated at one of North Yorkshire’s most famous abbeys in the 1920s.

Rievaulx Abbey © English Heritage

Fig. 1. Rievaulx Abbey © English Heritage

Rievaulx Abbey, approximately thirty miles north of York, was founded in 1131 by Walter Espec. It was intended to be a Cistercian mission centre from which Cistercian colonies were sent out to found daughter houses throughout the north of England and Scotland. By the early thirteenth century the abbey was one of the wealthiest in England with 140 monks. Its ruins are now a major tourist attraction. The site is in the care of English Heritage [Fig. 1]. 

The abbey was dissolved in 1538 and its fittings stripped. An inventory compiled in early Spring 1539 specified that the glass was to be ‘layd up under lok and key and kept out of danger’ before being categorised as to be kept, sold or melted down for lead. 

Clearing the site, c1920 © English Heritage

Fig. 2. Clearing the site, c1920 © English Heritage

The chapter house after clearance, c1920.

Fig. 3. The chapter house after clearance, c1920.

The site was excavated in the 1920s when de-mobbed servicemen were put to work clearing centuries of accumulated rubble. The project was led by Sir Charles Peers (1868-1952), an eminent archaeologist [Figs 2 and 3]. 

Thousands of fragments were recovered during the clear-up but for many years it proved impossible to say whereabouts in the abbey the glass came from as researchers were unsure which fragments had been found where. 

Recently, however, while flicking through eleven folios of colour drawings made in 1920-21 which illustrated some of these fragments at the time of their discovery, Susan Harrison, an English Heritage curator, struck gold [Figs 4 and 5]. The picture on the page was identical to the fragment of glass she was holding in her hand – literally a one in a thousand chance!  


Paintings of the glass c1920 © English Heritage

Fig. 4. Paintings of the glass c1920 © English Heritage

Curator Susan Harrison examines the abbey glass © English Heritage

Fig. 5. Curator Susan Harrison examines the abbey glass © English Heritage

The paintings described the fragment as having been found in the ruins of the former chapter house. Dr Pam Graves, of Durham University, has dated the glass to the thirteenth century. 


Susan told Vidimus, “We have now matched fifty-six fragments with the 1920s paintings. We are very grateful to Dr Pam Graves for her help with this project”. 

Some of the historic glass has now been returned to Rievaulx Abbey and put on display in the site’s museum, along with copies of the 1920s paintings and other finds. 

For information about visiting Rievaulx Abbey, see the English Heritage website.


G. Coppack, ‘Some descriptions of Rievaulx Abbey in 1538-9: the disposition of a major Cistercian precinct in the early 16th century’, in Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 129 (1986), pp. 100–33 

P. Fergusson and S. Harrison, Rievaulx Abbey. Community, Architecture, Memory, New Haven and London, 2000 

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