History and Stories

Whitby Abbey: History and Stories

Set high on the clifftops overlooking the sea, the ruins of Whitby Abbey tell only part of the site’s incredible story. Communities have lived on this headland for over 3,000 years and it has long been an important holy place and seat of power. Buried beneath the soaring arches we see today are the remains of an earlier Anglo-Saxon monastery, whose tales of saints, poets and miracles still survive.

From its early, pivotal role in the history of Christianity in England to the arrival of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Whitby is a place where history and legend meet. Explore this page to discover the stories from the headland’s past. 

Key Facts

  • In AD 657 Abbess Hild founded a monastery for men and women at Whitby, on land given by King Oswiu. It was Whitby’s first monastic site and became one of the most important religious centres in the Anglo-Saxon world.
  • In 664 Whitby hosted a landmark meeting, known as a synod, to decide the date of Easter. By opting to follow the Roman Christian tradition rather than the Celtic one, it was crucial in determining the direction of the English church.
  • The monastery was abandoned following Danish raids in the 9th century but the Benedictine monk Reinfrid established a new community on the site in 1078.
  • The Benedictine monastery was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1539 and its ruins are the ones we see on Whitby headland today. The vast shell of the abbey church is a magnificent example of English Gothic architecture.
  • Whitby Abbey has inspired many artists and writers, including Cædmon, the first named poet in the English language, and Bram Stoker, who set part of Dracula here.
Read more about Whitby's history

Shaped by the Sea

The spectacular landscape of the Whitby headland is central to its history. It has never been an easy place to live, and yet there is something special about the high clifftops that has attracted people for centuries. Rising high over the North Sea, it is frequently buffeted by high winds and lacks a natural water source. Over the course of its human occupation, huge tracts of land have fallen into the sea as a result of erosion. But with far-reaching views in all directions and an easily defendable position, it has been seen as both a spiritual place and a seat of power.

Over time Whitby’s monastic buildings have become as much a part of the landscape as the cliffs themselves. Sailors used to navigate by the sight of the abbey, and today its clifftop ruins still form one of northern England’s most iconic landmarks.

Photo: © Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Discover Whitby’s History

  • History of Whitby Abbey

    Read a comprehensive overview of Whitby’s history, from its first settlers up to the excavations that have helped us to understand the site today.

  • St Hild

    As abbess of Whitby – a monastery for both men and women – Hild led one of the most important religious centres in the Anglo-Saxon world.

  • The Inspiration of Cædmon

    Discover how Cædmon’s poetic awakening, at the monastery that lies beneath the present day ruins, produced one of the first fragments of English verse.

  • How Dracula came to Whitby

    Find out how Bram Stoker’s visit to the town of Whitby provided him with atmospheric locations for a Gothic novel – and a name for his famous vampire.

  • The Synod Of Whitby and The Keys Of Heaven

    Discover how a meeting about calculating the date of Easter became a landmark in the history of Christianity in England.

  • The Bombardment and Restoration of Whitby Abbey

    Visit our online Google Arts and Culture exhibition to discover how Whitby’s west front was rebuilt after First World War bomb damage. 

Explore the Collection in 3D

Scroll through the images below to view the highlights of Whitby’s museum collection in 3D. Select the play button and use your cursor or touch screen to rotate the object and zoom in. For descriptions of each object, select the title in the top left of the image (opens in new window).

Models derived photogrammetrically by Jon Bedford of the Geospatial Imaging Team at Historic England on behalf of English Heritage.

Learn more about Whitby

  • Why Whitby matters

    Learn about the significance of Whitby's Gothic architecture and the Anglo-Saxon monastery's role as a major centre of religious learning.

  • Description of Whitby Abbey

    Discover what you’ll find on the Whitby headland today, and what the ruins reveal about Whitby Abbey’s appearance in its heyday.

  • Research

    Read about the excavations that helped reveal the centuries of history buried within Whitby's famous headland.

  • Sources for Whitby Abbey

    Continue exploring Whitby's history using this summary of the main written, material and visual sources for our knowledge and understanding of the abbey.

  • Download a Plan

    Download this PDF plan that shows how Whitby Abbey changed over time.

  • Buy the Guidebook

    This guidebook includes a tour of the site and a comprehensive history illustrated with historical photographs and drawings.

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