The son of a priest of Hexham, Aelred was educated at Durham. Around 1130 he joined the household of David the First, king of Scotland and became his seneschal. In 1134 Aelred became a monk at the recently founded abbey of Rievaulx. In spite of delicate health, Aelred followed the austere regime of the community and became so esteemed by his brethren that he was chosen as their envoy to Rome in 1142 over the disputed election of William, archbishop of York. Soon afterwards he was chosen as master of novices for the abbey. In 1143 he was appointed abbot of Revesby in Lincolnshire, and only four years later he was recalled to Rievaulx to serve as abbot.
Under his rule the abbey prospered, increasing in numbers to 150 choir monks and 500 lay brothers, making the abbey the largest in England of its time. The abbey also established five daughter houses in England and Scotland.
Aelred’s discretion and gentle holiness, with a strong emphasis on charity inspired by the writings of Saint John and Saint Augustine of Hippo, humanized the severity of Cistercian monasticism and attracted men of similar temperament to his own. Through his many friends as well as through his writings, Aelred became a figure of national importance, demonstrated by his being chosen to preach at Westminster Abbey for the translation of the relics of Saint Edward the Confessor in 1163. This led to his writing a Life of Edward, having already written on Saint Ninian and on the saints of Hexham. His other writings included his treatise on Friendship, a spiritual meditation on Jesus at the Age of Twelve, Pastoral Prayer, the Speculum Caritatis (the Mirror of Charity), and sermons on Isaiah, often considered his finest work. A treatise that he began on the human soul was left unfinished.
In spite of his suffering from a kidney stone which obliged him to live in a hut near the abbey’s infirmary towards the end of the life, Aelred was sometimes well enough to travel. On the way to his Scottish foundations he would visit his friend Godric of Finchale. During the last year of his life he was no longer able to travel. He died at Rievaulx on January 12, 1167, and was buried in the chapter house. His relics were later translated to the abbey church. He was never formally canonized (by this time, canonization had become a formalized procedure that was reserved to the Pope), but local veneration grew up with the encouragement of the Cistercians, and the order promulgated his feast in 1476.
drawn from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
Almighty God, you endowed your servant Aelred with the gift of Christian friendship and the wisdom to lead others in the way of holiness: Grant us that same spirit of mutual affection, that, in loving one another, we may know the love of Christ and rejoice in the gift of your eternal goodness; through the same Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The propers for Aelred, Abbot of Rievaulx, are published on the Lectionary Page website.