The first monastery here was founded in AD 657 by King Oswy of Northumbria. An Anglo-Saxon style 'double monastery' for men and women, its first ruler was the formidable royal princess Abbess Hild. Here, Caedmon the cowherd was miraculously transformed into an inspired poet; here, the future of the English church was decided by the Synod of Whitby in 664; and here the relics of Northumbrian kings and saints were enshrined.
Though many intriguing excavated finds from it are displayed in the visitor centre, nothing survives above ground of this Anglo-Saxon monastery. The imposing ruins belong to the church of the Benedictine abbey refounded on its site by the Normans. Begun in about 1220 in the Early English style of Gothic, the pinnacled east end and north transept still stand high, richly carved with characteristic 'dog's tooth' embellishment. Time, war and nature have left their marks. Parts of the church collapsed during storms, its west front was hit by German naval shelling in 1914, and centuries of wind and rain have added their own etched and pitted decoration.
These supremely romantic ruins enjoy panoramic views over the town and coastline, and literary renown as the backdrop to Bram Stoker's Dracula, the Victorian novel which has made Whitby the 'Goth' capital of Britain. More recently the site has inspired Shadowmancer and other best-selling children's novels by ex-vicar, ex-policeman and exorcist GP Taylor. The ruins share the headland with the Cholmley family mansion, begun after Henry VIII's suppression of the abbey. Its impressive Classical façade of 1672 is fronted by a restoration of the 'hard garden' courtyard rediscovered during English Heritage excavations. The courtyard's centrepiece is a specially-commissioned bronze copy of the famous 'Borghese Gladiator' statue. The Roman marble original of this spectacular life-sized statue, now in the Paris Louvre, dates from the 1st century BC: it was found in 1611 in Italy, and bronze casts were made for King Charles I. Copies graced many great English houses and gardens, including the Cholmleys' Whitby mansion, recalling the family's-eventual-Civil War support for the Royalist cause.
The mansion now houses the highly imaginative and award-winning visitor centre. Displaying fascinating finds from the Anglo-Saxon, medieval and Cholmley periods, this is packed with computer-generated images and entertaining interactives: touch screens allow visitors to question Whitby personalities, from Abbess Hild via a medieval monk and the Civil War Cholmleys to Bram Stoker.
Please note: from the Whitby harbour area, the abbey can only be directly reached on foot via the 199 'abbey steps'. Well-equipped with halting places and benches, these pass the parish church of St Mary, with its delightful box-pewed interior [Not managed by English Heritage]. Alternatively, a well-signposted road leads from the town outskirts to the cliff-top abbey.