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Spotlight on: Whitby Abbey

Looming high above the seaside town, Whitby Abbey has provided over a thousand years of inspiration from the earliest Anglo Saxon poet to the world’s most famous Gothic novel.

Climb the steps to the abbey from the town of Whitby to explore romantic ruins and take in incredible sea views. Behind the classical frontage of the Cholmley family’s mansion, discover fascinating finds from the abbey’s most important periods.

Stone head in Whitby Abbey museum

Discover Whitby Abbey

Founded in about 657 by Hild (614–80), daughter of an Anglian nobleman, the earliest religious institution on the site of Whitby Abbey was a monastery known as Streaneshalch. The Synod of Whitby was held here in 664, and tensions between two early strands of Christianity came to a head.

After centuries of plundering by the Danes the establishment was abandoned, but a Benedictine monastery was built on the site by the Normans. The ruined buildings you see today date from the 13th and 14th centuries, and these remained almost intact until the 18th century. At this point in the abbey's history, it was owned by the Cholmley family, who bought the buildings and estates following the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

As visitors to Whitby increased during the 18th and 19th centuries, so did interest in the abbey as a picturesque spot for tourists. Famously the town and abbey feature in the Gothic novel 'Dracula' - and to this day Whitby Abbey is an inspirational and atmospheric site to visit.

Explore Whitby Abbey

Why We Love Whitby Abbey

"Why do I love Whitby Abbey? I could write a novel about it – there are just so many things. This site touches on all the different periods of history that really mark this country. And you can enjoy the peace – the sea, the coastline. You can see far in the distance: it’s just a stunning site." – Delphine Jasmin-Belisle, Site Supervisor

"I like the variety of the site. The Vikings came and took over, there’s the Dracula plays and the goths who come too. It’s fascinating just meeting them, because everyone’s got a different story to tell. We move round every hour of the day, so I could be on one of the entrances, selling jewellery, doing admissions and memberships – or hosting the tasting table! Every day is different." – Gary Walker, Historic Properties Steward

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Illuminated Abbey

Every autumn Whitby Abbey is illuminated by coloured floodlights, an annual spectacle which coincides with the Whitby Goth Weekend and Halloween.

Here's how Delphine describes the event: "It's fantastic, beyond this world. We get all kinds of colourful people coming to see us, I'm always jealous of the Victorian dresses and top hats floating about. I think people like to come to Whitby because it's a town full of atmosphere and opening this site at night is such an opportunity."

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Lines from Cædmon's hymn, added at the bottom of a page in the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede
© Bodleian Libraries (Hatton MS 43 fol 129r)

Did You Know?

The first English poet that we know the name of was an Anglo Saxon layman at an earlier monastery on the site of Whitby Abbey known as Streaneshalch. The Venerable Bede tells us the man was called Cædmon, he lived here around 680 and learned to sing spontaneous verses in praise of God in a dream.

Discover Whitby Abbey's Inspirational Origins

Bloodshed In The Civil War

During the Civil War (1642-51), Whitby Abbey was owned by the Cholmley family who were major landowners in Yorkshire.

Sir Hugh Cholmley I (1600-57) who owned the property in this period played a notable part in the Civil War. Before the war as MP for Scarborough, Sir Hugh was one of the Yorkshire gentry who resisted Charles I ruling without Parliament. When the Civil War broke out, he fought and held nearby Scarborough Castle for Parliament.

But in 1643 when Queen Henrietta Maria returned from the Netherlands, he was persuaded to change sides and declared for the King. He defended Scarborough Castle as a Royalist base until he was forced to surrender in 1645 after a five month siege, one of the bloodiest of the conflict. Not long after this Parliamentarian troops captured and looted Abbey House at Whitby. Sir Hugh was exiled and later spent much of his time writing his memoirs.

Find out more about the history of Whitby Abbey

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