The abbey was founded in 1132 by twelve monks from Clairvaux Abbey as a mission center for the colonization of northern England and Scotland, and grew quickly into one of the largest in Yorkshire, which could measure up to Fountains Abbey. 1142 lived there for over 300 monks. Especially under the abbot Aelred of Rievaulx, the number of monks grew very strong; at his death there were about 650 choir monks and brothers.
The Abbey lies in a wooded valley near the River Rye. To have enough flat land, the river in the 12th century was redirected three times. The monks understood it, the economic exploitation of their abbey: lead and iron were mined and sold the wool produced here all over Europe. With 24 km ² land, 140 monks and more lay brothers, the abbey became a powerful institution.
Nevertheless Riveaulx had at the end of the 13th century, high debt, on the one hand as a result of intensive construction activities, on the other hand after the loss of many sheep because of an epidemic. In the 14th century it also came to robberies. The recruitment of new lay monks became more difficult after the population was decimated by the plague. Finally, the monks remained only the possibility to lease their land. In 1381 there were only 14 monks and three lay brothers and the abbot, as a result, some buildings have been reduced.
The abbey was dissolved in 1538 by King Henry VIII. At that time there were 72 buildings for 21 monks, an abbot and 102 servants.