History of Whitby Abbey
The ruins of Whitby Abbey are among the most celebrated sights of North Yorkshire. The first monastery here, founded in about 657, became one of the most important religious centres in the Anglo-Saxon world. In 664 it was the setting for the Synod of Whitby, a landmark in the history of the Church in England. The headland is now dominated by the shell of the 13th-century church of the Benedictine abbey founded after the Norman Conquest.
Prehistoric and Roman Whitby
Recent excavations have shown that the Whitby headland was settled during the late Bronze Age. A round house within a ditched enclosure was found near the cliff edge, and a number of objects dating to this period have been recovered.
The Whitby headland may have been occupied by a Roman signal station in the 3rd century AD, as it is midway between known stations at Goldsborough and Ravenscar, and is in a strategic position at the mouth of the river Esk. If so, the site of the signal station has probably long since fallen into the sea as the cliffs here have eroded steadily.
The Synod of Whitby
The documentary sources only give a limited account of Streaneshalch’s history, but the most important event, the Synod of Whitby in 664, was described in some detail by Bede. Here, the rivalry between the two strands of Christianity in England, the Celtic and the Roman, came to a head.
Christianity had been brought to Northumbria not only by missionaries from Rome but by Celtic missionaries from Iona in Scotland. The two traditions differed over such issues as how priests and monks should dress and wear their hair, and, most notably, how the date of Easter should be calculated. Eventually King Oswiu decided that the Roman side should prevail, and the Pope’s authority was gradually established over the Church in the British Isles.
In the 13th century the monastery church was rebuilt in the Gothic style. This was a massive undertaking, including major landscaping of the whole site, though there is no documentary evidence for it. The first building campaign is dated on stylistic grounds to about 1225–50. The eastern arm, the crossing and transepts, a central tower, and part of the nave were built before funds seem to have run out.
Work appears to have been resumed on the nave in the 14th century, but it was not finished until the 15th century. The only documentary evidence is a grant of permission for a monk of Whitby to embark on a fundraising campaign in 1338, recorded in the Whitby Cartulary (a compilation of the charters by which the monastery had been given property and legal privileges). The remains of the nave have been loosely dated on the basis of architectural style.
There were doubtless extensive monastic buildings south of the abbey church, but they were almost completely demolished after the abbey’s suppression in 1539.
The 18th and 19th Centuries
The shell of the abbey church was substantially complete until the 18th century (see Description of Whitby Abbey). It was weakened, however, by erosion from wind and rain. The south transept collapsed in 1736, much of the nave in 1763, the central tower in 1830 and the south side of the presbytery in 1839.
From the early 19th century Whitby became a popular seaside resort, with new terraces laid out on the West Cliff. The abbey ruins became a tourist destination, and rising interest in the site was recorded in numerous engravings and paintings. The publication of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula in 1897 gave Whitby a major literary association, ensuring that the sinister count would forever be associated with the town.
Ownership of the abbey ruins passed to the Strickland family, who were descendants of the Cholmleys. About 1880 Charles (later Sir Charles) Strickland added a wing to the surviving part of the Abbey House, to adapt it for occasional use as a holiday residence.