A chance discovery at Rievaulx Abbey

A chance discovery uncovers new details about one of Yorkshire's most treasured abbeys <br/>Photographs by Tony Bartholomew

Detective work and a slice of luck have put ancient glass back in its place at Rievaulx Abbey. The 900-year-old ruin is one of the most spectacular in England, with its soaring arches and pillars standing to their full height in the Rye Valley, near Helmsley, North Yorkshire.

English Heritage has thrown new light on the site’s once fabulous stained glass windows, much of it shattered during the abbey’s dissolution in 1538, or sold on to swell Henry VIII’s coffers.

Some fragments survived the upheaval – numbering in their thousands – and are now kept at English Heritage’s Helmsley archaeology store. They were recovered in the 1920s when de-mobbed servicemen were put to work clearing centuries of accumulated rubble overseen by Sir Charles Peers, an eminent archaeologist. A number of the original archives papers from these excavations have now emerged, including splendid colour depictions of a small number of Rievaulx’s glass fragments.  

And it was a one in a thousand chance that uncovered crucial new information among the papers. Susan Harrison, an English Heritage curator, was flicking through the folios while holding a random piece of glass when she realised the glass pictured on the page and the one in her hand were one in the same.

The full significance of the match is that the painting included details of where the glass was found in the abbey, meaning that it could be accurately dated for the first time to between 1275-1300; a good deal earlier than expected.

‘The 1920s dig uncovered a vast amount of material under three metres of rubble and the process of identifying all the pieces continues to this day,’ said Susan. ‘We know from the 1538 dissolution document that Rievaulx’s glass was categorised as either fair, in which case it was to be stored, a second type which was to be sold and a third which was melted down for lead.

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The glass we have identified came from the Chapter House – the abbey’s ‘board room’ where key decisions were made. It’s exciting being able to add a little story to an ancient piece of glass and we have now matched other fragments with the old paintings.’

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

Rievaulx Abbey is open 10am to 4pm daily except Tuesday and Wednesday. From April the site reverts to summer opening times of 10am to 6pm daily.

A print version of this article appeared in the July 2011 issue of Yorkshire Life 

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