Rievaulx Abbey was founded in 1132 by twelve monks who were sent from Clairvaux Abbey, France in a mission to start the colonization of the north of England and of Scotland with Cistercian monks. It was the first abbey of the Cistercian Order to be established in the north of England and quickly became one of the most powerful and spiritually renowned centres of monasticism in Britain, housing a 650-strong community at its peak in the 1160s under its most famous abbot, Aelred.
Aelred was born in Hexham, Northumbria in 1110, one of three sons to Eilaf, the priest of St Andrews at Hexham. Hexham Abbey is at end of stage 7 of the St. Aelred's Way. From 1142–3, Aelred became the novice master at Rievaulx and in 1143 he became the first abbot of a new daughter house of Rievaulx at Revesby in Lincolnshire. Three years later, in 1147, he was elected abbot of Rievaulx Abbey, a position he was to hold until his death in 1167. During his life St. Aelred was known as a prolific writer, traveler and was widely involved in political affairs.
The role of abbot required considerable travel with an expectation to make annual visits to the mother abbey's daughter-houses of which Rievaulx had five in England and Scotland. There was also the expectation to make the long journey to the annual General Chapter of the Cistercian Order at Citeaux Abbey, Dijon, France.
Describing the lives of his brethren, St. Aelred recorded that they drank nothing but water, ate little, laboured hard, slept little - and on hard boards - never spoke, except to their superiors on necessary occasions, and loved prayer.