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Discovering Whitby Abbey

by John Ravenscroft

The magnificent ruins of Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire, are set on a headland that projects into the North Sea, and they dominate the town below -- a town that Bram Stoker knew well and used as a backdrop for parts of his famous Gothic novel, Dracula.

Whitby AbbeyThere are two ways to approach the Abbey: from the car park to the south, or from Whitby town itself via 199 winding (and rather steep!) stone steps. Unless you're feeling particularly energetic, the route from the car park is the best option.

Following that path, you'll pass by the Abbey Pond and find yourself facing an impressive stone façade. This is the eastern wall of the church choir.

Work probably began on this building in the 1220s, but there was an earlier, much smaller, church on the site, dating from about 1090. The foundation lines of the older building are still visible in the grass.

When the monks of Whitby decided to build their new abbey it seems they wanted to substantially improve upon what had gone before, and clearly no expense was spared. The result was an impressive piece of early Gothic architecture with a design similar to other ambitious constructions of the time, such as the choirs of Glasgow Cathedral and Rievaulx Abbey, and the transepts of York Minster.

In the Middle Ages the interior of the choir would have been richly painted and the windows glazed with colored glass. According to John Leland, a 16th-century recorder, one of the stained-glass windows here showed William the Conqueror punishing the Scots for indulging in a dubious habit -- they were believed to be cannibals! The elaborate stone carving on the walls is all that remains of that rich pictorial history now, but it is still possible to imagine what a glorious sight this building must have been in its heyday.

Looking down the length of the abbey, past the north and south transepts and along the nave, you can see the west front, which was originally as impressive as the façade of the choir. Much of it collapsed in the late 1700s, and in 1914 it suffered further damage when a raiding force of German Navy ships shelled Whitby. There was outrage throughout Britain at the time because of this needless attack on a civilian target.

Near the nave you can find several tombstones. These were excavated in the 1920s, and some of them are ancient indeed. They date back to Anglo-Saxon times, and are remnants of the first abbey that was erected on this site, founded by the formidable St Hild in the year 657.

St Hild

St Hild was a Saxon princess -- daughter of Prince Hereric and sister-in-law to Aethelhere, King of East Anglia -- and she seems to have been a remarkable character. She was born in 614, and baptized by the missionary Paulinus, but lived a secular life for 33 years before she felt called upon to renounce the world and become an abbess, first at the monastery of Hartleypool, and later at Whitby. The Venerable Bede, the famous 8th-century monk who wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, notes that, "she taught the observance of righteousness, mercy, purity and other virtues, but especially of peace and charity."

Whitby Abbey

The monastery she founded at Whitby was mixed, housing both monks and nuns, and under Hild's guidance it became a flourishing community. Five future bishops were associated with it, as was the first known English poet, Caedmon.

During Hild's time as abbess, Christianity was spreading throughout England, but there was conflict between the two factions responsible for spreading it -- Celtic monks from the north, and monks influenced by Rome from the south. They may have shared the same faith, but they disagreed about details such as clerical dress, the date on which Easter should be celebrated, and the distinctive monastic hairstyle known as the tonsure. Such differences may seem unimportant to us, but at the time they were matters of fierce contention. The tonsure, for example, was not just a fashion issue. Male slaves in ancient Roman had their heads shaved to indicate their master's power, and to both Greeks and Romans the shaved head had long been a symbol of ownership and slavery.

When monks began to shave their heads to indicate they too were slaves -- "slaves of Christ" -- the tonsure became an important sign of holy subservience, but as the Roman clergy gained in status, many of them abandoned the practice and chose to wear their hair in the same fashion as members of the ruling classes. Celtic monks were unhappy about this, feeling that their humility to Christ should continue to be symbolized through their hairstyle.

Finally, in 664, a synod was held at Whitby Abbey where representatives of both sides came to argue their case. After much heated debate it was decided that all monks would in future follow the Roman conventions, both in hairstyles and in matters of the calendar.

The Death of Hild

Whitby AbbeyWhen Abbess Hild died in 680, a nun in the monastery of Hackness, thirteen miles away, was said to have had a vision of her being carried aloft by angels. Bede maintains that a messenger who was sent from Whitby with the sorry news was shocked and confused to find the monks and nuns at Hackness already mourning her passing.

After her death, Hild was granted sainthood. Her relics, along with those of King Oswy and King Edwin, attracted many pilgrims, and the financial donations these pilgrims brought to the abbey were used to fund further building work.

We know that a certain Princess Aelfled became the next abbess, but from the mid-8th century the fate of the monastery St Hild established is uncertain. Any historical records that may once have existed have been lost, but it seems likely that the monastery was attacked by Viking raiders in about 867 and all but destroyed. The ruins the visitor can see today date from long after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Around 1070 a Norman soldier called Reinfrid stopped at Whitby and saw the architectural remains of the previous buildings. Some years later, having taken holy vows and became a Benedictine monk, he returned to Whitby with a group of followers and set about re-establishing the monastic community. Reinfrid was subsequently killed in an unfortunate accident whilst helping workmen build a bridge sometime around 1087.

By the year 1220, Whitby Abbey had become one of the wealthiest monasteries in the country, housing dozens of monks. Much of its wealth vanished over the next few decades because of the huge costs of building work. It took about sixty years to complete the choir and the transepts, and by that time the monastic purse was empty. In 1320 an inspection of the abbey revealed that it was deeply in debt, and in 1334 a fundraising campaign was given the go-ahead by the Archbishop of York. Even so, there are indications that it took until the late 15th century to complete the nave.

On the 14th December, 1539 William Davell, the last abbot of Whitby, gave the abbey to Henry VIII's commissioners under the Dissolution of the Monasteries Act. Official records show that there were 22 members of the abbey community at that time, and the annual income from the monastic estates was £437 -- a tidy sum for the 1500s.

The Cholmley Family

Whitby AbbeyJust three months later, the buildings and land on which the abbey stood were leased to a certain Richard Cholmley, known as "the great blacke knight of the North" who later bought them. His son, Francis Cholmley, subsequently made substantial changes to the old abbot's lodging, and it became Cholmley House.

In the 17th century, the Cholmley family created landscaped gardens and added a new wing to the house which they used for entertaining guests. This lost its roof during a violent storm, was neglected, and fell into decay. The ancient abbey church also suffered. Its roof was stripped of lead and it was left at the mercy of the elements, which resulted in two major collapses. The nave fell in 1762 and the tower crumbled in 1830, leaving the abbey much as it appears today.

The shells fired by the German navy in WWI further damaged the west front of the abbey church, and in 1920 the abbey ruins, then owned by the Strickland family, were handed over to the Ministry of Works. The ruins were cleared up and the area around the church was excavated. In 1984 English Heritage took on the care of the abbey and has made major improvements, including the creation of an impressive new Visitor's Center in the former Cholmley House. Here you can discover more about the history of the site, and see some of the archaeological finds that have helped bring that history to life. These include an Anglo-Saxon key, painted glass from the windows, an ancient bone comb and other intimate artifacts.

My first glimpse of Whitby Abbey was late one evening, under a full moon. I already knew of the Dracula connection, and it was easy to imagine Bram Stoker looking up at the ruins on the headland, and that sight feeding his inspiration. However, there is far more to this fascinating monument than its fame as a backdrop to a horror novel. If you get chance to visit, I strongly urge you to do so.

Abbey Opening Times

1st October - 31st October: 10am - 5pm (Mon Tue Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun)
1st November - 19th March: 10am - 4pm (Mon Thur Fri Sat Sun)
24-26 December and 1st January: Closed
1st April - 31st October: 10am - 5pm (Mon Tue Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun)
1st November - 31st March: 10am - 4pm (Mon Thur Fri Sat Sun)
24-26 December and 1st January: Closed

Related Articles:

Whitby: Town of Voyagers and Vampires, by Jane Gilbert

Cook's Tour: Exploring "Captain Cook" Country, by Keith Kellett

More Information:

Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey Virtual Tour

Whitby Abbey Home


The Whitby Graveyard

Whitby Abbey (Mysterious Britain)

The Whitby Guide

John Ravenscroft is a teacher-turned-writer who lives in Lincolnshire, England. He spends much of his time struggling to write fiction and co-editing Cadenza Magazine. His short stories have won prizes in various literary competitions and been published in numerous magazines, and his work has also been broadcast on the BBC. Visit his website at http://www.johnravenscroft.co.uk.
Article © 2006 John Ravenscroft; photos © Astra Ravenscroft
Bottom photo courtesy of Britainonview.com


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