Giant headless statue of King James and stones from a 12th century monastery: Rievaulx Abbey's stores set for May opening

By Ben Miller | 13 March 2016

Rievaulx Abbey's stores are the place for 12th century stones and a giant statue of King James, beheaded during the Dissolution of the Monasteries

A photo of a woman carrying out conservation work on a vouissoir at Rievaulx Abbey
Rachael Bowers, Collections Documentation Assistant at English Heritage, uses a specialist steam cleaner to gently clean the voussior which is due to go into the new museum at Rievaulx Abbey© Anthony Chappel-Ross
During the 1920s, war veterans excavated thousands of architectural stones at Rievaulx, the North Yorkshire abbey which became one of the richest in the land between being founded by a dozen monks in 1132 and its dissolution by Henry VIII more than 400 years later.

A lot of them were stored in the open at the site. But lichens and weather damage meant they were moved into a specialist storage facility during the early 1990s. Since then, conservators have been using them to work out what the abbey looked like when it was a working monastery.

A photo of a woman carrying out conservation work on a vouissoir at Rievaulx Abbey
© Anthony Chappel-Ross
“Rievaulx was built from a fine sandstone which is such a beautiful colour and texture,” says Caroline Rawson, the Collections Conservator preparing for the opening of a museum at the abbey this summer.

“These were soiled with dust, dirt and lichen which has built up over the hundreds of years since they formed part of the building.”

A photo of a woman carrying out conservation work on a vouissoir at Rievaulx Abbey
© Anthony Chappel-Ross
One of them, which has been the focus of curatorial attention recently, is a 12th century doorway arch-stone, once set between the original abbot’s house and the Chapter house. Also known as a voussoir, the stone has chevron moulding and used to adorn the doorway of the residence.

The lowest part of the door survives in the abbey today. It used to be a small lean-to porch forming the entrance to the parlour and the Abbot's residence, with much of the early Cistercian order architecture designed to be plain and austere in order to avoid distracting the senses from the worship of God.

A photo of Susan Harrison, Collections Curator at English Heritage, with a statue of St James the Great
Susan Harrison, Collections Curator at English Heritage with a statue of St James the Great© English Heritage
“It has been very rewarding to clean some of the architectural fragments,” reflects Rawson, who says the piece is one of the earliest decorated examples to demonstrate how, over time, limited decoration was permitted.

“Visitors will be able to get close enough to really appreciate the skill and artistry of the masons who built the Abbey.”

A photo of Susan Harrison, Collections Curator at English Heritage, with a statue of St James the Great
© English Heritage
Rawson says the lives of the monks who once wandered around them and the grandeur of the building are better told through the stones. The team has also been working on a 14th century statue of St James the Great holding a book, left headless by damage during the dissolution and now cared for at English Heritage’s archaeology store in the county.

Despite the destruction – one of a series of attacks on monastic sites and religious items, aimed at rendering them unusable – the beheaded giant of the patron saint of pilgrims still weighs 120kg, showing him in a buttoned sleeveless overcoat bearing a symbol of a staff.

A photo of Susan Harrison, Collections Curator at English Heritage, with a statue of St James the Great
© English Heritage
The sculpture is so intricate that it even contains the pages and metal book clasps accompanying parchment books during medieval times.

“The library at Rievaulx once contained over 200 books,” says Susan Harrison, a curator who spent World Book Day with the “fascinating” statue.

© English Heritage
“Time was set aside each day by the choir monks for reading and study. Little evidence of these books remains from the site apart from some of the metal book fittings lost during use or prised off at the Dissolution.

"This object is another piece of history which helps us to tell the story of the lives of the monks at Rievaulx Abbey and the dissolution of the first Cistercian abbey established in the north of England. It’s wonderful to see this representation of a medieval book in stone.”

Originally and previously unseen objects are planned for the new museum when it opens on May 28 2016.


What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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