York Minster

Anybody who has visited York will be impressed by the magnificence of York Minster which (as we see it today) took around 250 years to build.  It is the largest medieval Gothic cathedral in Europe.  Within and beneath the Minster are traces of every age from the Roman occupancy onwards.  The Minster was originally Roman Catholic but converted to the Church of England after the break from Rome, which was initiated by Henry VIII in 1534.  Mynster was the Anglo Saxon name for a missionary church, a church built as new centre for Christian worship.  In addition to being a Minster the church at York is a Cathedral.  A cathedral is the church within a diocese which houses the “cathedra” or ‘chair’ of the bishop.

The first Minster was wooden and built for the christening of the Anglo Saxon King Edwin of Northumbria in 627.  A few years after his christening Edwin ordered that the church be rebuilt in stone.  A small stone church was erected on the site of the original wooden structure, which over time was enlarged.  The new structure managed to survive the Viking age only to be damaged by fire in 1069 when the Normans took control of the city.

The Normans decided to build a new Minster in a different location.  In 1080 Thomas of Bayeaux became Archbishop and started to build a cathedral which was completed after his death in around 1100.  The columns from this structure can be seen today in the undercroft beneath the current Minster.  I will come back to the undercroft later.

During the mid twelfth century the Norman church was enlarged to the East and the West.  Walter Gray became Archbishop in 1215 and was responsible for transforming the Norman church into today’s Minster and over time the nave, Lady Chapel and quire were added.

The central tower collapsed in 1407 and was not completely rebuilt until 1433.  Following the rebuilding of the tower the western towers were added, completing the Minster in 1472.

The Minster has suffered other damage over the years.  In February 1829, Jonathan Martin deliberately set fire to the quire.  The fire destroyed the east end roof and timber vault and also all of the wooden furniture within the quire.  Then, just eleven years later and accidental fire destroyed the nave and roof vault.  In more recent times (1984) another fire broke out in the south transept.  This time it was natural causes; a lightning strike.  It took 4 years to repair the damage.

The Minster is currently part way through the five-year ‘York Minster Revealed‘ project.  The Heritage Lottery Fund has issued a grant to enable expansion of training in the specialist skills of stone-masonry and stained glass conservation.  These skills are being used to repair and restore the stonework and stained glass on the east front of the Minster.

When I visited the Minster recently I was able to see the stonemasons working away at their craft, outside the Minster in the stone yard.  On my previous visit last year there was a display of some of their detailed work within the Minster.  I am sure by now this has been incorporated into the newly repaired parts of the Minster’s stonework.

There are many stained glass windows within the Minster.  The oldest complete one dates back to around 1260.  The great east window which has been removed as part of the current restoration is the world’s largest area of medieval stained glass in a single window.  It depicts the beginning and the end of the world using scenes from the biblical books of Genesis and Revelation.  Whilst it is being restored it has been replaced by a nearly full-sized digital photograph which is the largest of its kind in the world.

I mentioned that I would talk more about the undercroft, which has some fascinating historical displays.  In the 1960s the central tower was in danger of collapse and required work to shore up the foundations.  The workers carrying out excavations in the undercroft found remains of the buildings that had previously existed on the site, along with artefacts, which are now on display alongside the archaeological remains of both the Roman principia building and the Norman cathedral.  The undercroft also houses the treasures and jewels of the archbishops.  The crypt is still used occasionally for special church services.