Whitby Abbey

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Things to do


Date of travel

February, 2016

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Travelled with

Adult family

Reasons for trip

The dramatic ruins of Whitby Abbey stand proud above the town, silhouetted against the sky.

The first monastery was founded by King Oswy of Northumbria. This housed both monks and nuns with Hilda, a Saxon princess, as Abbess. The monastery became on of the most important religious centres and hosted the Synod of Whitby in 664 intended to reconcile differences between the Roman and Celtic branches of Christianity and determine the future direction of the English Church. Nothing remains of the Saxon monastery which was destroyed by the Danes in the C10th, apart from some Saxon tombstones which have been reset in the grass on the seaward side of the abbey ruins.

The Abbey was re-established as a Benedictine Abbey in 1978 by Reinfrid, one of William the Conqueror’s knights who had become a monk. There is nothing left of Reinfrid’s original church, although St Mary’s Church built nearby as the parish church still survives and is older than the present abbey ruins.

Work on a new abbey church began in 1220, starting with at the east end. The north and south transepts followed along with the central tower. Money ran out during the building of the nave and this wasn’t finished until the C14th. The windows at the west end of the nave are Decorated in style rather than Early English. The great west window is C15th.

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, in 1539, the buildings and land were bought by Richard Cholmley, a major land owner in Yorkshire, whose family lived in the abbey house until the C18th. The house was rebuilt and extended using stones from the domestic buildings of the abbey. This is now the Visitor Centre with an exhibition about the abbey and artefacts found during work on the abbey.

The church was left standing as it served as a landmark to sailors. The elements attacked and weakened the stonework. The nave, south transept and the west front collapsed in the C18th. The tower collapsed in the C19th. There was further damage when the ruins were shelled by the German Navy in 1914.

In the C19th, the abbey ruins were the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Gothic novel ‘Dracula’.

Little remains of monastic buildings, apart from humps in the ground. The east end and north transept still stand to nearly their full height and are excellent examples of Early English Gothic architecture with their tall, thin lancet windows. The north transept has a small circular window at the top of the walls. Inside, there is blind arcading round the base of the walls. There is a small aumbry cupboard on the north wall for storing sacred vessels and a stairway in the corner turret gave access to the triforium round the top of the transept.

There is little left of the nave and west end, apart from the base of the pillars, although three arches from the nave had been rebuilt against the modern exterior wall of the site.

In many ways, there isn’t a lot to see inside the abbey and it is possible to get good views and take pictures without having to pay the entrance fee, particularly from the public car park. It was a cold and damp day in early February when we visited, which explains why the”pictures”:http://wasleys.org.uk/eleanor/churches/england/ruined_abbeys/north/whitby/index.html are disappointing.

The Abbey ruins are now in the care of English Heritage. It is open weekends in the winter months and all week during the rest of the year. There is a large public car park to the east of the ruins, or they can be approached from the town up the 199 steps.


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