History of Whitby Abbey

The ruins of Whitby Abbey, on the East Cliff above the harbour town, 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. Archaeological investigation has shed much light on this lost settlement. The headland is now dominated by the shell of the 13th-century church of the Benedictine abbey founded after the Norman Conquest. After the Suppression of the Monasteries the Cholmley family converted the abbot’s lodging into a grand private residence.

The ruins of the abbey church from the south

The ruins of the abbey church from the south

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.[1] 

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.[2] If so, the site of the signal station has probably long since fallen into the sea as the cliffs here have eroded steadily.

Fragment of an 8th-century stone cross with the inscription ‘orate pro’ (pray for), excavated at Whitby

Fragment of an 8th-century stone cross with the inscription ‘orate pro’ (pray for), excavated at Whitby

Anglian Whitby

Following the collapse of Roman rule Britain fragmented into a number of small kingdoms, and by the 7th century Northumbria – roughly covering what is now Northumberland and Yorkshire – was the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In the 7th and 8th centuries the headland at Whitby was occupied by a large Anglian[3] community, together with a celebrated monastery for both monks and nuns. Excavations here have revealed much evidence of Anglian life, including large quantities of pottery, household goods and fine metal objects.[4]

There are two main sources for the history of Streaneshalch (probably meaning ‘Streane’s headland’), as it was then known. These are the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed about 731 by the Venerable Bede, a monk from St Paul’s Monastery at Jarrow on the Tyne;[5] and a life of Pope Gregory the Great (d.604), by an anonymous monk of Streaneshalch.[6]

In 627 the Anglian King of Northumbria, Edwin, converted to Christianity and was baptised by the Roman missionary St Paulinus. The monastery at Streaneshalch was founded in about 657 by Hild (614–80), daughter of an Anglian nobleman, with the support of Oswiu (d.670), then ruler of Anglian Northumbria. Streaneshalch seems to have been of particular importance to the Northumbrian royal family, as a number of its members were buried there.

A scribe, thought to be Bede, who described the events of the Synod of Whitby in the early 8th century, depicted in a 12th-century manuscript

A scribe, thought to be Bede, who described the events of the Synod of Whitby in the early 8th century, depicted in a 12th-century manuscript
© British Library Board (Yates Thompson MS 26 fol 2)

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.[7] 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.

The parish church of St Mary, with the abbey ruins in the background

The parish church of St Mary, with the abbey ruins in the background. The church belonged to the abbey and was probably built in the early 12th century

Abandonment and Norman Renewal

The Anglian town and monastery were abandoned at some point in the 9th century. We do not know exactly when or how this happened, but it was probably as a result of raids by Vikings from Denmark, followed by permanent Danish settlement.[8] By the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 the headland seems to have been abandoned, although there was a substantial town called Whitby down by the harbour.

In about 1078 a monk called Reinfrid founded a new monastic community at Whitby.[9] At a very early stage in its history this community split and the two parts each developed into a fully fledged Benedictine monastery: one on the headland at Whitby and the other at St Mary’s Abbey, York.[10]

The Benedictine monastery initially probably had timber buildings or reused the Anglian ruins on the headland. About 1100 a stone church and conventual buildings were built in the Romanesque style, as well as a large parish church close by.

The east end of the abbey ruins, seen from across the abbey pond

The east end of the abbey ruins, seen from across the abbey pond

Monastic Expansion

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.[11]

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).[12] 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.

Reconstruction of the ruins of the abbey (left) and the Abbey House (right) in about 1680, after Sir Hugh Cholmley II had added a grand new wing and entrance court to the house built by his father

Reconstruction of the ruins of the abbey (left) and the Abbey House (right) in about 1680, after Sir Hugh Cholmley II had added a grand new wing and entrance court to the house built by his father
© English Heritage (drawing by Liam Wales)

The Abbey and the Cholmleys

After the Suppression Sir Richard Cholmley (d.1578) bought the abbey’s buildings and the core of its estates. The Cholmley family adapted part of the abbot's lodgings into a house.

This was only one of the Cholmleys’ residences. Originally from Cheshire, they had already become major landowners in Yorkshire.[13] Sir Hugh Cholmley I (1600–57) played a notable part in the Civil War (1642–51), defending Scarborough Castle for the king before surrendering it in 1645, after which Parliamentarian troops captured and looted the Abbey House at Whitby.[14]

After the war Sir Hugh Cholmley II (1632–89) did much to restore the family estates and added a grand new wing (c 1672), known locally as the Banqueting House, to the Abbey House. He laid out a new entrance courtyard to provide a formal approach and setting.

In the 18th century the Cholmleys moved away, abandoning the Abbey House. The roof of the 1670s wing is said to have been removed after storm damage in the late 18th century.[15]

An engraving of the abbey from the west, made by Francis Grose in about 1790. It shows the church before the collapse of the central tower and the west front

An engraving of the abbey from the west, made by Francis Grose in about 1790. It shows the church before the collapse of the central tower and the west front
© English Heritage (courtesy of the Society of Antiquaries of London)

The 18th and 19th Centuries

The shell of the abbey church was substantially complete until the 18th century (see Description). 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.[16]

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.

Ownership of the ruins passed to the Strickland family, who were descendants of the Cholmleys.[17] 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.

A photograph taken in 1914 showing the final collapse of the west front of the abbey after the German bombardment

A photograph taken in 1914 showing the final collapse of the west front of the abbey after the German bombardment
© Historic England Archives

Whitby Abbey in the 20th Century

In 1914 the German High Seas Fleet shelled Whitby and struck the abbey ruins, causing considerable damage to the west front, though this was later repaired. In 1920 the Strickland family handed the abbey over to the Ministry of Works, and over the following decade Sir Charles Peers directed major excavations at the site, uncovering evidence of the Anglian settlement here.

Between 1993 and 2008 English Heritage carried out archaeological excavation and survey work, first in connection with the construction of the visitor centre, and secondly to rescue archaeological remains threatened by the steady erosion of the cliff. These excavations produced important evidence for all periods of the abbey’s history (see Research).[18]

 

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About the Authors

Steven Brindle, a Senior Properties Historian at English Heritage, is the author of the English Heritage Red Guide to Whitby Abbey. Tony Wilmott is a Senior Archaeologist at English Heritage, and is currently preparing the monograph on the English Heritage excavations at Whitby Abbey.

Footnotes

1. T Wilmott, The Whitby Headland Project, 1993–2013 (English Heritage, forthcoming).
2. T Bell, ‘A Roman signal station at Whitby’, Archaeological Journal, 155 (1998), 303–22.
3. ‘Anglian’ is used here rather than ‘Saxon’ or ‘Anglo-Saxon’, as the people who settled on the eastern seaboard of Britain in the 6th century called themselves ‘Angli’ or Angles, distinct from the Saxons who landed on the south-east and south coasts. 
4. C Peers and CAR Radford, ‘The Saxon monastery of Whitby’, Archaeologia, 89 (1943), 27–88; see R Cramp, ‘Monastic sites’, in The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England, ed DM Wilson (London, 1976), 223–9, for a discussion of the plan of the Anglian features published by Peers and Radford.
5. Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans and ed L Sherley-Price, rev RE Latham (London, 1990).
6. B Colgrave, The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great, by an Anonymous Monk of Whitby (Lawrence, Kansas, 1968; reprinted Cambridge, 1985).
7. Bede, op cit.  
8. W Page (ed), Victoria County History: A History of Yorkshire North Riding, vol 2 (London, 1923), 506 (accessed 14 Feb 2013); JC Atkinson (ed), Cartularium Abbathiae de Whiteby, vol 1, Surtees Society, 69 (Durham, London and Edinburgh, 1879), xxi (accessed 14 February 2013).
9. Atkinson, op cit, xxv–xxvii. 
10. Ibid, introduction; J Burton, The Monastic Order in Yorkshire, 1069–1215 (Cambridge, 1999), 36 (accessed 27 March 2013).
11. Page, op cit, 508–9.
12. British Library, Add MS 4715; Atkinson, op cit. 
13. J Binns, Sir Hugh Cholmley of Whitby, 1600–1657: Ancestry, Life and Legacy (Pickering, 2008).
14. Ibid; J Binns (ed), Memoirs and Memorials of Sir Hugh Cholmley of Whitby, 1600–1657, Yorkshire Archaeological Society Record Series 153 (Woodbridge, 2000).
15. L Charlton, History of Whitby and Whitby Abbey (York, 1779); Page, op cit, 510; R Lea, ‘Whitby Abbey Headland Project: conservation plan – supporting information, annex one: significance, part 1, the Banqueting Hall’, unpublished English Heritage report (1997).
16. Charlton, op cit, xvii; A White, A History of Whitby (Chichester, 1993), 23–6.
17. Page, op cit, 517. 
18. Wilmott, op cit.

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