A Gothic masterpiece – Whitby Abbey

Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes, and which is the scene of part of “Marmion,” where the girl was built up in the wall. It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits. (Quote from Dracula. Nina Murrays Diary. Chapter Six.)

Whitby abbey looms on the cliff looking down at the seaside town of Whitby. Today it is a picturesque gothic ruins with associations of vampires and ghosts but it was not always this way. It was once a thriving abbey in the north, famous throughout the country until it was surrendered to Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539.

The Abbeys origins lie not in the name of Whitby but of Streaneshalch (possible translation – Streanes headland). A monastery was founded there around 657 by a woman name Hild. She was the Abbess of the monastery, which was home for both men and women. Under her guidance, the Abbey would become one of the most important religious centres of the Anglos Saxon World.

“Bede praised Hild for implementing a monastic regime that required strict observance of ‘justice piety, chastity’ and ‘particularly of peace and charity’.”

While under Hilds leadership, the Abbey would be the location for an event, which would affect English Christianity forever. In the 7th century, the Northumbrians had been christened by two different groups of missionaries, those from Rome, and those of the Celtic tradition who came from the island of Iona. Both had differing traditions in Christian practices including the way they calculated when Easter was held. Easter being such an important date in the Christian calendar, the date it was celebrated should have been on the same day for both groups. However, sometimes the dates would be up to four weeks apart. Therefore, it was decided to hold a meeting between the two to decide who was right, the location of the meeting – Whitby Abbey, this meeting is known as the Synod of Whitby.

King Oswiu, in 664 summoned leaders from each group to try to resolve the conflict. Each side put their case before the King. The Rome group was chosen as they stated their followed the word of St Peter, rather than St John. St Peter was the gatekeeper of Heaven. The King answered –

Then, I tell you … I shall not contradict him. I shall obey his commands in everything … otherwise, when I come to the gates of heaven, there may be no one to open them, because he who holds the keys has turned away.

Hild died at the age of 66 in 680 and was buried at Whitby. Her remains were later moved. As for the monastery, it was laid to waste by the Danes in a number of raids between 867 and 870. It was left ruinous for another 200 years.

The Abbey we know today as Whitby was founded about 1078 by a monk names Reinfrid. The Anglican town and monastery was abandoned, and the Benedictian abbey was begun (for more information on Benedictine monks see my post …). Reinfrid approached William de Percy, a lord and landowner in the area, for a grant of land to build a new monastery on. Percy gave him the land of the ruined monastery and along with Percy’s brother Serlo de Percy; Reinfrid began building a new religious house.

The buildings would be built in the Romanesque style (thick walls, round arches, groin vaults, and large towers) which was popular at the time with a stone church being built around 1100, most likely replacing a timber one.

There was a major building campaign about 1225-50 when the monastery church was rebuilt in the Gothic style; the whole site underwent major landscaping. The work would be a stop start venture due to insufficient funds; it was not completed until the 15th century.

This Gothic style, known at the time as modern allowed the buildings of the time to be more airy and pleasant. Bigger windows allowed more light and vaulted undercrofts gave spaces that are more open. The rooms would stand tall, reaching high with decorate columns and pillars. Outside would be flying buttresses, which would assist with the weight bearing of the walls. The arches were now pointed which was not only more visually pleasing but allowed the vaulted ceilings to be secure and better supported. To complete the gothic characteristic were the gargoyles, a feature that is said to induce fear into the peasants of the area to attend church.

Parts of this era of the Abbey remain today. The foundations of the eastern arm and transepts, which were found during excavations in the 1920’s. There is also some masonry visible in the doorway to the south of the west end of the church. The height of presbytery stands to nearly their original height.

The Cholmely family demolished most of the monastic buildings, which would accompany a monastery, in the 16th and 17th Centuries and not much is known of them. It is thought that they would have followed the normal layout of most monasteries with the layout around a square cloister and the church being located on the north side.

Whitby would be one of the first monastic foundations built after the conquest of 1066. It was part of a plan to re-establish monastic life in the North of England after it had declined during the Danish rule of the 9th Century.

Today evidence of both the Romanesque style and gothic architecture can be seen. In some places side by side. Showing Whitby in its various changes still inspire awe and wonderment.

King Henry VIII took Whitby Abbey during the dissolution of the monasteries Sir Richard Cholmely brought the land and its buildings. The Cholmley’s were major landowners in Yorkshire who originated from Cheshire. Sir Richard would be the first to sit in Parliament. He would adapt part of the abbot’s lodgings into a house. In 1634, Sir Hugh Cholmely would add a grand new wing to the house known as the Banqueting House; he also had a new entrance to the place with a formal approach. Sir Hugh would go on to play a notable part during the Civil War, siding at first with Parliament before switching sides and supporting the King. During 1645, the Parliamentarians would capture and loot the Abbey House at Whitby.

The Chomleys would eventually move away from Whitby in the 18th Century. The South wing is the only part of their house, which remains standing and is the core of the present house, which is now a museum and information centre for the Abbey.

I cannot speak about Whitby and not mention one of my favourite books Dracula and its author Bram Stocker who have links to the town and Abbey. Stocker visited Whitby in 1890 and while staying there was inspired to create his gothic horror, a story, which is as popular today as it, was then. As well as the gothic setting of the Abbey, Stoker also visited the library while at Whitby and it was hear that he found a book which mentioned a 15th century villain in Romania known as Dracula – and the legend was born and will go on to live forever.

What of the Abbey during the time of Stockers visit? Well up until 1736, the shell of the abbey remained but its time was limited. Through years of erosion from the wind and rain parts were weakened the south transect collapsed along with the nave in 1763. Just under a century later, the central tower fell and the south side of the prebesary would follow in 1839.

The Abbey, well what remained, stood strong and still enticed many. The coastal town of Whitby in the 19th central became a popular resort for holiday makes and so the ruinous picturesque abbey become a popular tourist destination. It became all the more popular with Dracula being published in 1897.

What of its ownership once the Chomleys left it? The Abbey passed to the Strickland family who were descendants of the Chomley’s. Sir Charles Strickland would add a wing to the surviving part of the Abbey house and it was mainly used as a holiday residence for the family.

During 1914, German Bombers in the First World War would shell the Abbey. The Germans were aiming for the Coastguard station nearby. The attack only lasted for 10 minutes but it would sustain considerable damage, which can still be seen today.

In 1920, the Strickland family would hand the abbey over to the Ministry of Works, where it underwent some major excavations at the site. English Heritage would carry out more excavation work between 1993 and 2008, which gave more of an understanding of the site and its history along with the construction of the new visitor centre and to rescue some archaeological remains.

Today the Abbey is open to the public and looked after by English Heritage. Michael Carter (Senior Curator for English Heritage) said ‘When I was a boy I used to visit the great monasteries in the northeast. I found them places of wonder. They touched my soul and they stir me to this day.’ This is exactly what Whitby does to one when you visit. It is a beautiful ruinous gothic building, which oozes this atmosphere of times gone by and of the great abbey, which once stood there. Visit it you must.


Brindle, S (2016) Guidebook: Whitby Abbey. London: English Heritage

Anon (nd) Whitby Abbey. Available from: https://www.thewhitbyguide.co.uk/whitby-abbey/ [accessed 15/5/2019]

Healy, S (nd) Sir Richard Cholmely. Available from:  https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1604-1629/member/cholmley-sir-richard-1580-1631 [Accessed 27/5/19]

Mason, R and Arkle, R (nd) Whitby Abbey: Bombardment and Restoration. Available from: https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/BgKC7oNyuTe3Jg [Accessed 16/5/2019]

Morris, E (nd) Characteristics of gothic architecture. Available from: https://www.exploring-castles.com/castle_designs/characteristics_gothic_architecture_2/ [Accessed 25/5/2019]

Morris, S (2019) Whitby Abbey is at the heart of Britain’s spiritual and literacy history. Available from: https://www.spectator.co.uk/2019/04/whitby-abbey-is-at-the-heart-of-britains-spiritual-and-literary-history/ [accessed 16/5/19]

Quittel-Keller, E (nd) Basic layout of a Benedictine monastery. Available from: http://emilykq.weebly.com/blog/basic-layout-of-a-benedictine-monastery [accessed 20/5/19[

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