York Minster is a beautiful and imposing Gothic cathedral in York, northern England. It is the seat of an archbishop second in rank only to that of Canterbury and boasts a huge collection of medieval stained glass.
York has had a Christian presence since the 300s AD. The first church on the site was a wooden structure built hurriedly in 627 to provide a place to baptise Edwin, King of Northumbria.
Moves toward a more substantial stone building began in the 630s and a new church dedicated to St. Peter was completed in 637 by Oswald.
The church soon fell into disrepair and was dilapidated by 670 when Saint Wilfred ascended to the see of York; he put in place efforts to repair and renew the structure. The attached school and library were established and by the 8th century were some of the most substantial in northern Europe.
In 741 York Minster was destroyed in a fire. It was rebuilt as a more impressive structure, containing 30 altars. The church and the entire area then passed through the hands of numerous invaders, and its history is obscure until the 10th century. There was a series of Benedictine archbishops, including Saint Oswald, Wulfstan, and Ealdred, who travelled to Westminster to crown William in 1066. Ealdred died in 1069 and was buried in the church.
The church was damaged in 1069, but the first Norman archbishop, arriving in 1070, organised repairs. The Danes destroyed the church in 1075, but it was again rebuilt from 1080. Built in the Norman style, it was 365 feet long and rendered in white and red lines. The new structure was damaged by fire in 1137 but was soon repaired. The choir and crypt were remodelled in 1154, and a new chapel was built, all in the Norman style.
The Gothic style of cathedrals had arrived in the mid-12th century. Walter de Gray was made archbishop in 1215 and ordered the construction of a Gothic structure to compare to Canterbury; building began in 1220. The north and south transepts were the first new structures; completed in the 1250s, both were built in the Early English Gothic style but had markedly different walls. A substantial central tower was also completed, with a wooden spire. Building continued into the 15th century; the cathedral was declared complete in 1472.
The Reformation led to the first Protestant archbishop, the looting of much of the cathedral's treasures, and the loss of much of the church lands. Under Elizabeth I there was a concerted effort to remove all traces of Catholicism from the cathedral, leading to much destruction of tombs, windows, and altars. In the English Civil War York was besieged and fell to the forces of Cromwell in 1644, but Thomas Fairfax prevented any further damage to the cathedral.
Following the easing of religious tensions there was some work to restore the cathedral. From 1730 to 1736 the whole floor of the Minster was relaid in patterned marble, and from 1802 there was a major restoration. However, in 1829 an arson attack inflicted heavy damage on the east arm, and a fire in 1840 left the nave, south west tower, and south aisle roofless, blackened shells. The cathedral slumped deeply into debt, and in the 1850s services were suspended. From 1858, Augustus Duncome worked successfully to revive the cathedral.
The 20th century saw a great deal of preservation work, especially after a 1967 survey revealed the building was close to collapse. £2 million was raised and spent by 1972 to reinforce and strengthen the building foundations and roof. A fire in 1984 destroyed the roof in the south transept, and around £2.5 million was spent on repairs. Restoration work was completed in 1988, and includes new roof bosses based on designs by schoolchildren who entered a competition organised by BBC Television.
What to See at York Minster
York Minster incorporates all the major stages of Gothic architectural development in England. It has an extra-wide Decorated Gothic nave (1275-1290), a Decorated Gothic chapter house (1275-1290), a Perpendicular Gothic choir and east end, and Early English north and south transepts (1220-1255). The west towers, west front and central tower were built in the Perpendicular style (1470-1472).
The nave is extra wide and tall, and is roofed in wood made to look like stone. At the west end is the Great West Window, constructed in 1338, which featuring delicate stone tracery that forms a heart in the top center. There are several other fine windows along the nave walls, dating from the early 14th century.
Facing east towards the center of the cathedral, look up to your left and notice the dragon's head protruding from the wall. Its original purpose is not known for certain, but it is generally thought it functioned as a crane to lift a heavy font cover.
The Great East Window (1408) towers over the Lady Chapel in the east end. At 23.7m by 9.4m — the size of a tennis court — it is the largest medieval stained glass window in the world. Its colorful panes depict biblical scenes from Genesis and Revelation: the beginning and end of the world.
In the north transept is the Five Sisters Window, with five sections over 16 meters high. Most of the glass dates from about 1250. The window has recently been designated a memorial to all the women who lost their lives in the two world wars.
The Rose Window, over the entrance in the south transept, commemorates the union of the houses of Lancaster and York through the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, which ended the War of the Roses (1455-85) and began the Tudor dynasty. The stonework is older than the glass, dating from 1250.
The choir screen or pulpitum contains expressive sculptures of the 15 kings from William I to Henry VI. The organ in the choir has been destroyed by fire on two occasions; the current device dates from 1829 and was substantially restored in 1993.
The 13th-century chapter house is considered an excellent example of the Decorated style. It contains no central pillar, and beneath great stained glass windows are more than 200 carved heads and figures — including humans, animals and foliage. A small carving of the Virgin and Child escaped notice during the Reformation and can still be seen (on the right side after you enter).
From the south transept, you can pay an additional fee to climb 275 narrow steps to the central tower, or descend a few steps to the undercroft. The undercroft displays archaeological finds from the 1967 repair of the Minster's foundations, including both Roman and Norman ruins. Also down here is the treasury, featuring 11th-century artifacts and relics from the graves of medieval archbishops, and the crypt, with the cathedral's only font and numerous medieval stone carvings.
Quick Facts on York Minster
|Categories:||cathedrals; minsters; Grade I listed buildings|
|Styles:||Perpendicular Gothic style; Gothic|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||53.962373° N, 1.082110° W|
|Address:||North Yorkshire, England|
|Phone:||0844 939 0011|
|Lodging:||View hotels near York Minster|
- Personal visit (May 2006).
- York Minster - official website
- York Minster: An Ancient Center of Worship - Salvonet
- Lonely Planet Great Britain, 6th ed.
Map of York Minster, North Yorkshire
Below is a location map and aerial view of York Minster. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.