The Cathedral and Metropolitican Church of St Peter in York

York Minster is the chief church of the northern province of the Church of England, and the seat of the Archbishop of York, the second-highest priest in the Church. Located in Deangate, within the walls of the old city, the Minster is the largest medieval gothic cathedral in northern Europe. Carefully restored after three disastrous fires in the past two centuries, the present buidling dates back to 1220. The foundation of the Minster is generally considered to have taken place in 627, since when there have been at least four buildings on two different sites. The stained glass and polychrome stonework is particularly celebrated.


In the third century AD, present-day York was the Roman city of Eboracum, an administrative centre for the north of England - the area immediately to the south of Hadrian's Wall. The military administration building stood on the site of the present church. In 306, the emperor Constantius Chlorus came to the city on a tour of inspection, and whilst there, he died. His son Constantine, who was with him, was proclaimed emperor first by the troops stationed at York. It is said that Constantius Chlorus is buried in the area, and remnants of early fourth-century tombs have been found, but no conclusive evidence as yet of an imperial mausoleum. (York seems to have been unlucky for emperors: Septimius Severus died there too.) Constantine went on to legalise Christianity throughout the empire in 312, and just two years later, records show that there was a bishop of York. It is almost certain, therefore, that there was a worshipping Christian community in the city at the time Constantine visited.

The Roman retreat from the British Isles a hundred years later led to the collapse of the church hierarchy in northern England, and the area is generally considered to have been entirely pagan for the next two centuries. Christianity returned to York in 625, when princess Ethelburga of Kent, a Christian, brought a bishop named Paulinus with her to the city when she came to marry King Edwin of Northumbria, a pagan. So impressed was Edwin with his wife's faith and her pious companions (and, no doubt, the political influence of her father, king Ethelbert of Kent) that he converted, and in 627 a wooden church was built for the baptism of Edwin and his courtiers. That church, and the ones that were to follow, was some distance from the present site. Some thirteen years later, a bishop Oswald constructed the first stone minster, and dedicated it to St Peter. The word 'minster' is from the Anglo-Saxon 'mynster', and the name indicates a monastic mission, and its retention indicates the strong relationship between the local Saxon settlers and the new church. In 685, St Cuthbert was consecrated bishop in the Minster. That church was partially destroyed by fire in the 730s, and rebuilt in 741. Also in the eighth century, the great scholar Alcuin of York, who was to work with the emperor Charlemagne, founded the Minster School. The following centuries saw York taken over by the vikings and the Danes as Jorvik, but the life of the cathedral appears to have continued without significant interruption. Indeed, during this period extensions and alterations were made to the church.

In 1066, the people of Yorkshire briefly saw hope of a respite from foreign aggression with the defeat and death of Harald Hardradi, last of the great viking warlords, at Stamford Bridge. But within weeks, the Saxon king Harold Godwinson had himself been defeated at the Battle of Hastings, and William the Conqueror, the Bastard of Normandy, had seized the throne. William, himself the son of an infamous viking dynasty, had little time for the welfare of his Saxon subjects. In 1069 his army arrived at York, and as part of the harrying of the north, William's infamous purge of the Saxon heartlands, they destroyed much of York, including the fine Saxon minster. William installed a Norman, Thomas of Bayeux, as archbishop, who decided to reconstruct the cathedral, moving it to its present site. Between 1080 and 1100, a new building was put up in the characteristically hard-edged Norman style.

In 1220, Archbishop Walter Gray decided that he should have a cathedral to rival the vast Canterbury Cathedral, and work began shortly afterwards on rebuilding the Minster piece by piece. This task was to take 250 years, and to result in the church that is seen today. The transepts were finished in 1253, the Chapter House (used by Edward I and Edward II as a parliament building) in 1290, and the nave in 1360. The quire was rebuilt from 1394 to 1420. During that phase of construction, an attempt was made to raise a new tower, with a bell-chamber and spire. In 1407, these attempts came to a disastrous end, with part of the tower collapsing and cracks appearing in the surrounding structure. The architects realised that the foundations were already under as much pressure as they could take, and the tower was capped off with a simple lantern roof, 197 feet high. In 1472, the new building was finally rededicated.

Although the Reformation left the structure of the Minster untouched, but led to the removal of the sixty chantry altars at which twenty priests had been paid to pray for the souls of the dead. Also removed was the shrine of St William, who was archbishop from 1140 to 1154. The shrine, which had stood near the present High Altar, had incorporated a Roman sarcophagus which was preserved and is presently on display in the Undercroft Museum. During the civil war, the cathedral was used for a service of thanksgiving for the Parliamentarian victory at nearby Marston Moor, and was spared from the scourge of iconoclasm by Cromwellian general Sir Thomas Fairfax, who was a Yorkshireman. From then until Victorian times, the life of the Minster went on without much interruption. In 1829, a fire started by a lunatic gutted the entire quire, destroying the stalls, the floor and the ornate roof. The damage was restored, although the replacement floor was not as grand as the original, which dated from 1730. Only a few years later, though, in 1840, the roof of the nave caught fire and burned down by accident. This blaze wiped out the eight great ceiling bosses, and damaged the famed Great West Window. The ceiling was swiftly rebuilt, and the bosses replaced with replicas, but it was not until 1930 that the great window was cleaned and restored.

The twentieth century saw a huge amount of restoration done. In 1938, a new high altar, designed by Sir Walter Tapper, was installed. In 1967, cracks appeared in parts of the structure which showed that the 1407 collapse was not entirely over. Enormous concrete collars were added to the foundations to counteract their movement, and the cathedral now appears to be firmly supported at last. The last great fire, which I remember clearly, took place in July 1984, and destroyed the roof of the south transept. In order to save the rest of the building, fire crews had to pull down many of the as yet unburned roof timbers into the transept. Of the seventy-four bosses on the transept ceiling, only six survived. Sixty-eight replacements were designed, carved and painted, before being installed in the rebuilt ceiling. Famously, six of the bosses were designed by young viewers of the BBC children's show Blue Peter, including one depicting the 1969 moon landings. In 1993, the lost floor of the quire, from 1730, was meticulously re-created. And in 1998, an entirely new set of carving were completed to replace the corroded medieval originals around the west door.

Plan and Guide
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1: West End: The West End is dominated by the Great West Window, which dates from 1339, when it was the largest window in the church. It was sculpted by Ivo de Raghtan and glazed by Robert Ketelbarn, under the direction of Archbishop William Melton. De Raghtan also carved the beautiful great east window of Carlisle Cathedral. The York West Window is famous for its distinctive pattern, featuring a huge heart-shaped panel in the top centre. In the 20th century this window gained the nicknames 'the Heart of Yorkshire', for the design, and 'the Bradford Window', after the people of Bradford paid for its restoration in 1930. In 1990, the entire original stonework was replaced with a new copy, and the original tracery buried in nearby Dean's Park.

Below the window is a variety of sculpture, including an image of Delilah cutting Samson's hair. Directly over the main West Door is a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. The outside of the West End was originally decorated with medieval figures telling stories from the book Genesis, but by the 20th century these had partly weathered away, and in 1998 the Minster Carvers, who furnish all the cathedral's stonework, produced an entirely new and original set. In among the serious images from scripture are scores of tiny monkeys and other comic figures. It is thought that there may once have been life-size human figures, probably of saints, flanking the window on the inside, but if there ever were, they were removed without trace at the Reformation.

2: Nave: The nave is the widest, and among the longest, in Britain. (St Albans has the longest nave, and Winchester, the longest cathedral overall, has a nave of comparable length to York's.) The architecture is in the style known as decorated, and dates from the first half of the fourteenth century. On the walls, above the arches, are shields bearing the coats of arms of followers of Edward I who attended his court here. Higher still, in the glass of the clerestory, Edward II's knights are similarly commemorated. Other panels from the original Norman glass of the nave windows are preserved in the north transept and the undercroft. The floor is set with geometric designs in black and white stone which dates from 1730, when Lord Burlington was in charge of the work; and a pulpit - not so large as that at Canterbury - stands on the north side, in the fifth bay.

The bay to the west of that one has a curious feature. At the level of the triforium - the walkway above the main arcade but below the clerestory - a gilded wooden head of a bearded dragon projects into the nave proper. The dragon wears a red collar, just below which a hole has been bored through from top to bottom. Stored in the triforium is the remains of a lifting mechanism which may once have enabled the head to be raised and lowered. There is no record of the original use of the dragon's head, but it has been plausibly conjectured that it held an ornamental font cover, which could be raised and lowered with the aid of the machinery in the triforium.

The nave roof, rebuilt in the Victorian era after the fire of 1840, bears eight major roof bosses, each about three feet wide, along with scores of lesser bosses, which are painted gold. The major bosses each bear carved images, depicting scenes from scripture and legend, depicting the lives of Jesus and Mary. From the west end, moving eastward, a visitor will see the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi (or Wise Men), the Resurrection, Pentecost, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and her Coronation in heaven. Only the Nativity boss is not an exact replica of the medieval original. Had the fire occurred a few years earlier, it is highly unlikely that such overtly Catholic themes would have been permitted in the replacement.

3: Crossing: The tower, a mere 197 feet high, is vaulted on the inside with interlocking oak beams. Gilded bosses bind the beams together, and in the very centre of the roof is the largest boss in the Minster, which depicts St Peter, holding his keys and a model of the church, and St Paul, holding a sword and a book. The boss is five feet wide and decorated in gold and silver. At the east side of the crossing stands the original stone quire screen, or pulpitum. This decorated stone screen dates from 1461, and niches in its outer face depict the kings of England from William I to Henry VI. From Henry VI's death in 1471, until 1810, his statue was kept in storage because the Yorkist locals failed to treat the image of the Lancastrian king with proper respect. For a small charge, one can climb the 275 steps to the top of the tower and look out over the city and the surrounding Vale of York. Below the tower is the rather undistinguished nave altar, used for everyday worship.

4: North Transept: The Minster's transept was completed in 1253, long before the collapse of the adjoining tower, and is Early English in style, with tall, narrow windows and vertical strips of Purbeck marble on the columns. The transept is the oldest part of the present building, except for parts of the undercroft, which belong to the original Norman church. The window at the north end of the transept is known as the Five Sisters window. There are various picturesque legends about origin of the name 'Five Sisters', but in all probability it is a simple reference to the window's five long, thin panels of 'grisaille' glass in green and grey, consisting of tens of thousands of tiny panes arranged in geometric patterns. The glass was installed in about 1250, when coloured glass would have been too expensive to import, and is the largest surviving grisaille window in the world. In the 1920s the lead was replaced which had been buried at Rievaulx Abbey in 1538 when that foundation was dissolved by Henry VIII. The window is now dedicated as a memorial to the women of the British Empire who lost their lives in the First World War.

Another unusual war memorial stands nearby - the astronomical clock. The clock, made in the workshops of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, comemmorates the 18 000 Allied airmen who died flying missions from bases in north east England. The face of the clock is a sort of planisphere, showing the positions of the constellations. Above the clock face is the inscription 'As dying and behold we live', a quotation from 2 Corinthians 6. Another clock, mounted on the east wall of the transept, has two oak figures, each four centuries old, which strike the hours and quarter-hours. This clock, known as the 'Striking Clock', has a mechanism dating from 1749. The western aisle of the transept contains a chapel dedicated to St John, and the eastern aisle one dedicated to St Nicholas.

5: South Transept: As mentioned in the History section above, the south transept was largely gutted by fire in July 1984. An appeal was launched to restore it, and the roof was eventually rebuilt with new bosses. The bulk of the replacement bosses illustrate the canticle known as the Benedicite and sung at the service of Matins or Morning Prayer. Six, however, were set aside to be designed by the young viewers of BBC TV's show Blue Peter. The six winning designs were meticulously hand-made by the Minster craftsmen, and their installation was broadcast on the show. Also damaged in the fire was the Rose Window over the south door. Originally built in 1240, the window was reglazed in the early 16th century with a pattern of Tudor roses to mark the end of the Wars of the Roses. A central sunflower design by local glazier William Peckitt, who also glazed the lancets of the south wall of the transept, was added in 1793. In 1970, the window was restored, and a few details added. That restoration proved critical fourteen years later, when the heat from the fire cracked the glass into 40 000 pieces. The newly-fitted lead did not melt, and every single fragment of glass stayed in place. The window was restored again after the fire.

As in the north transept, the side aisles hold chapels. The east side's chapel, dedicated to St Michael, is the burial place of three 13th century archbishops of York: Gray, de Ludham, and de Bovil. The west side aisle houses St George's Chapel, which is the regimental chapel of the Prince of Wales's Own Regiment of Yorkshire. Also on the west side are the steps down to the undercroft, treasury and crypt, which form a museum. In the crypt, evidence can be seen of the Roman headquarters and the Norman minster. Artefacts on display include painted Roman plasterwork, the Shrine of St William, and the Doomstone, which is a 12th century sculpture depicting the horrors of hell. Along with the church plate, the museum also holds the Horn of Ulph, which is a carved elephant tusk given as an acknowledgement of a gift of land in the late Saxon period to one Ulphus; and the Sicilian casket, whch is also made of ivory and is 12th century Moorish work.

6: Quire: The quire, quire aisles and Lady Chapel are the newest parts of the present minster, and were built in the late 14th and 15th centuries, in the perpendicular style. As at Carlisle, St Albans and many other cathedrals, the quire is separated from the rest of the church by carved wooden screens (indicated by dashed lines on the plan above). The screens are of an elaborate pierced gothic design, and date from after the fire of 1829. Three rows of seats run down each side of the quire. The front two pairs of rows are used by choristers, but the back row consists of the official seats of the chapter. Behind each of these seats is a coat of arms, associated with the prebendal stall in question. At the east end of the quire is the archbishop's throne, or cathedra, from which the word 'cathedral' is derived. At the west end, housed in a wooden case with ornate spires, is the organ, rebuilt in 1993. The organ has over 5 300 pipes, housed not only in the main upper casing, but also less obtrusively behind the stalls. The quire floor was rebuilt at the same time, following the 18th century designs of William Kent.

In the north quire aisle is the tomb of Prince William of Hatfield, son to Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, who were married in the minster in 1328. William died in infancy, and like his brother the Black Prince, never inherited the throne. The stone canopy of the tomb has recently been repainted to put back the original detail of broom plants. It was broom - planta genista - which gave its name to the Plantagenet dynasty. Otherwise known as Angevins (from Anjou), they adopted broom as their badge, and came to be named for it. Also in the north aisle is the tomb of the 16th century Archbishop Thomas Savage, which now features a reconstruction of its original chantry chapel, one of sixty swept away at the Reformation. Towards the east end of the same aisle is the Ingram family monument, which is a striking example of 17th century polychrome stonework, depicting the head of the household and his wife in striking black and white clothes, with naturalistic faces. Caryatid columns flank the memorial, and a tablet behind the main figures gives the monument's dedication. Windows in the quire aisles commemorate local heroes St William and St Cuthbert.

7: Chapter House: The chapter house, like many in England, is octagonal. This pattern is not as common in the rest of Europe - the Basilica St Remi at Reims has a square one, as do the Scottish border abbeys. Unusually for an octagonal house of its size, the building at York has no central column, the vault being entirely supported by the walls. It was finished in 1260, and put into use by 1286. Edward I and Edward II used it as a parliament house whilst campaigning in the north. 80% of the stone carvings on the walls are original 13th century work, whilst the remainder are by George Peter White and date from 1845. The chapter - the governing body of the minster - presently numbers 44, following the addition of lay canons in 2000. Among the images in the original carving are several of the pagan green man, and a Virgin and Child in which Mary is standing on a serpent. As in much of the rest of the cathedral, the glass is medieval.

8: High Altar: The High Altar stands on a three-stepped dais and was designed in 1938 by Sir Walter Tapper. Behind the altar is a pierced gothic screen in stone, which is an exact replica of one destroyed in the fire of 1829. This is the focus of major services in the minster, and the gates in the quire screen can be opened to give a clear line of sight right along the church's central axis. I'd hoped to have something more to say about this area of the church, seeing how important it is, but apparently not. Onward...

9: Lady Chapel and East End: The first Norman minster was based on the traditional French design, and had an apse at the east end. This style is still common in France, and a more modern example can be seen at the Anglican cathedral in Brisbane, Queensland. When the builders began to reconstruct this area in 1361, however, a square end was favoured, which is now the dominant design in England. The chapel here dedicated to Our Lady is flanked by others dedicated to St Stephen and to All Saints. All Saints' chapel is the regimental chapel of the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, and has a special altar frontal made in 1992 with the regiment's colours and badges on.

The East End is dominated by a huge window, rivalling the 'Heart of Yorkshire' at the other end. In fact, the Great East Window is said to be one of the largest areas of medieval stained glass in the world, comparable to the size of a tennis court. Two stone walkways run across the face of the window, joining together passages in the thickness of the east wall. The pointed top section of the design shows God (depicted as an interlinked Alpha and Omega) with the hierarchy of angels below him. The lower section of the window forms a regular grid of square panels, in thirteen rows of nine. The top three rows show the story of Genesis, and the next nine scenes from Revelation. At the bottom are a selection of bishops and kings. The figure in the middle of this row is Walter Skirlaw, the bishop of Durham who paid £58 for the window to be consturcted in about 1405.


Sources: The Pitkin Guide to York Minster, 2002; cathedral leaflets 'York Minster' and 'Welcome to York Minster'; the minster website; and the Venerable Bede's History of the English Church and People