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Walter Espec, founder of Rievaulx abbey

An old man and full of days, quick-witted, prudent in council,
moderate in peace, circumspect in war, a true friend and a loyal
subject. His stature was passing tall, his limbs all of a size as not
to exceed their just proportions, and yet to be well matched with
his great height. His hair was still black, his beard long and flowing,
his forehead wide and noble, his eyes large and bright, his face
broad but well featured, his voice like the sound of a trumpet,
setting off his natural eloquence of speech with a certain majesty
of sound.

Walter Espec was one of the ‘new men’ raised by Henry I (1100-1135). He officiated as a royal justice of forests and an itinerant justice of the North, which meant that he oversaw the king’s rights here. Walter may have been associated with the d’Aubigny family and come from St Martin of d’Aubigny.(2) The head of his honour was at Helmsley, and his castle once stood on the site of the present thirteenth-century remains (see photo). It was here that Walter entertained King David’s steward, Aelred, whom he introduced to the community in 1134 and who later became abbot of Rievaulx and the most prominent theologian in the country.

Walter was an enthusiastic supporter of religious reform and founded an Augustinian priory at Kirkham in 1122, before founding the first Cistercian abbey in Yorkshire, at Rievaulx; he also founded Rievaulx’s daughter-house at Warden, Bedfordshire.(3)

Walter was in some way associated with Geoffrey Gaimar, who composed the first known romance history in the vernacular, the ‘L’Estoire des Engleis’, c. 1140. Gaimar evidently obtained Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History from Walter – albeit in a rather indirect way – and in his own work refers to a Nicholas de Trailli, who was Walter’s brother-in-law or nephew.

Espec led the Yorkshire barons against King David of Scotland in 1138 at the Battle of the Standard, which was fought at Northallerton, Yorkshire, following the Scots’ incursion into the North of England. Aelred, who wrote on the battle, knew both sides and attributed blame on the Picts of Galloway. His account underlines the futility of war.

Walter took an active interest in his community and was evidently highly regarded by the monks of Rievaulx. He entered the community shortly before his death and burial there c. 1153/5, but died leaving no male heirs.(4) His inheritance was divided and patronage of Rievaulx passed to the Ros family.