whitby abbey on a summer day

Whitby Abbey History

The ruins of Whitby Abbey stand watch over the town each day, just as it has since the 13th century. There has been a church on the site since the late Bronze Age and the headland may have been occupied by a Roman signal station in the 3rd century AD.

Let us take you on a journey through time and share some of the interesting facts about the history of our impressive Abbey.

7th and 8th century Whitby

Whitby was occupied by a large Anglican community, complete with monastery, in the 7th and 8th centuries. Streaneshalch, as Whitby was once known, was an important place for the Anglican King of Northumberland and many of the family were buried here.

With support of the Northumberland ruler, Hild, daughter of an Anglican nobleman, founded a monastery on the site in 657. Then in 664, the Synod of Whitby transformed the way worship took place in Whitby and all over England.

Clerics from different strands of English Christianity, Celtic and Roman, came together to debate key points of their shared religion. This included how the date of Easter should be calculated. The Roman strand prevailed and over time the Pope’s authority over the British Church became the dominant faith.

ruins telling some of the Whitby Abbey history

The Abbey in the 9th century

It’s not clear exactly when, but during the 9th century the Abbey was abandoned. This was probably thanks to raids from the Vikings and their settlement in England. The harbour town always seems to have existed in some form or another, but the Abbey was ignored until 1078.

A monk named Reinfrid founded a new monastic community at this time. This then split into two parts and each transformed into a Benedictine monastery. One worshiped at the Abbey on the headland, the other in St Mary’s Abbey in York.

13th century Abbey

The ruins you can see today show the remains of the Benedictine abbey that was founded after the Norman Conquest. In the 13th century the site was completely rebuilt in the Gothic style. The eastern arm, crossing and transepts, central tower and part of the nave were constructed between 1225 and 1250. That’s when money for the project appears to have run out.

Work started up again in the 14th century on the nave but wasn’t completed until the 15th century. A Whitby monk started a campaign in 1338 to raise funds for the building. We believe there were many more buildings south of the Abbey, but they were all demolished during the Suppression in 1539.

Whitby abbey arches

The Abbey after the Suppression

Sir Richard Cholmley bought the Abbey after the Suppression and the family adapted part of the abbot’s lodgings into a house. Sir Hugh Cholmley was a major Yorkshire landowner and played a significant role in the Civil War and the defence of Scarborough Castle.

Once the war ended, the family made many changes to estate, including a grand new wing. In the 18th century the Cholmleys abandoned the Abbey. Over the next few centuries, the Abbey fell into ruin. The south transept collapsed in 1736, the central tower came down in 1830, and the south side of the presbytery fell in 1839.

19th and 20th century Abbey

The ruins became a popular tourist hot spot in 19th century Whitby, and Bram Stoker used parts of the town for inspiration in his famous Dracula (you can find out more about this connection here). Ownership of the Abbey passed to the Strickland family who were descended from the Cholmleys. In 1914, the Abbey was badly damaged by the German High Seas Fleet, and the Strickland family transferred the care of the historic site over to the Ministry of Works in 1920.

Since then, major excavations have been conducted on the site to learn more about its history. English Heritage now maintains the site, sharing its story with Whitby’s tourists and working to protect the archaeological remains that are being threatened by cliff erosion.

This has been a whistle stop tour of the fascinating Whitby Abbey history. Make sure you visit the site and the English Heritage information centre to get a more complete view during your visit to Whitby.

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