09 October 2023

Visiting York Minster,
the second largest
Gothic cathedral in
Northern Europe

York Minster is the largest cathedral completed during the Gothic period of architecture and the second largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During our recent visits to York, I have visited York Minster each time, and I have been there for the Sung Eucharist on Sundays, and I have sat in the Choir at Choral Evensong on weekday evenings.

York Minister, formally the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter, is one of the largest cathedrals in Northern Europe. It is the seat of the Archbishop of York and the ‘mother church’ of the Diocese of York and the Province of York in the Church of England. The title ‘minster’ is given to churches established in the Anglo-Saxon period as missionary teaching churches.

York Minster is the largest cathedral completed during the Gothic period of architecture and the second largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. The present building was begun ca 1230 and completed in 1472, while Cologne Cathedral remained incomplete for 350 years and was only completed in 1880.

The architecture of York Minster reflects the development of English Gothic architecture from Early English through to the Perpendicular Period. It has a cruciform plan with an octagonal chapter house attached to the north transept, a central tower and two towers at the west front. It has a very wide Decorated Gothic nave and a chapter house, a Perpendicular Gothic quire and east end and Early English north and south transepts. The minster is 160 metres (524.5 ft) long, the central tower has a height of 72 m (235 ft), and the choir has an interior height of 31 metres (102 ft).

Inside York Minster on a Sunday morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Archaeological evidence for Christianity in Roman York is limited, but a Bishop of York was present at the Council of Arles in 314. The first known church on the site of York Minister was a wooden structure built hurriedly in 627 to provide a place to baptise King Edwin of Northumbria. Work on building a more substantial church began in the 630s, and in 637 Oswald completed a stone structure that was dedicated to Saint Peter.

However, the church soon fell into disrepair and it was dilapidated by 670 when Saint Wilfrid became Bishop of York. He repaired and renewed the building. A school and library were established and by the eighth century they were among the most substantial in Northern Europe.

The church was destroyed by fire in 741. When Albert became Bishop of York in 767, he started rebuilding the cathedral, with the assistance of the scholar Alcuin. Bishop Eanbald, who succeeded Albert, continued the building programme, and it was finished by 790, when Alcuin returned from France.

The history of York Minister is obscure until the 10th century. A series of Benedictine archbishops included Saint Oswald, Wulfstan and Ealdred, who crowned William the Conqueror in Westminster in 1066. However, the church was damaged three years later during William the Conqueror’s ‘Harrying of the North’ in 1069.

Inside York Minster, looking towards the east end … the nave is the widest Gothic nave in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The first Norman archbishop, Thomas of Bayeux, arrived in 1070 and organised repairs. The Danes destroyed the church in 1075, but it was rebuilt in the Norman style from 1080. The new cathedral was damaged by fire in 1137, but was soon repaired in the Norman style.

Saint William of York was twice Archbishop of York, and died in 1154 shortly after his return, allegedly from poison in the chalice he used to celebrate Mass. His story attracted pilgrims to York. But after Saint Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170, Canterbury became a rival to York as a destination for pilgrims.

In response, Archbishop Walter de Gray, who became Archbishop of York in 1215, petitioned the Pope to add the name of Archbishop William Fitzherbert of York to ‘the catalogue of the Saints of the Church Militant.’

Inside York Minster looking west … Archbishop Walter de Gray began building the cathedral in the Gothic style in 1220 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Archbishop Walter de Gray began building a cathedral in the Gothic style in York in 1220 to rival Canterbury Cathedral. The north and south transepts were the first parts of the cathedral to be built, and were completed in the Early English Gothic style in the 1250s. These transepts have simple lancet windows.

The ‘Five Sisters’ in the north transept are five lancets, each 16.3 metres (53 ft) high and 5 ft wide and glazed with grey (grisaille) glass.

A substantial central tower was also built at this time, and the remains of Saint William of York were moved to a shrine behind the High Altar in 1279.

The octagonal Chapter House was begun in the 1260s and was completed by 1296 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Meanwhile, the Chapter House was begun in the 1260s and was completed by 1296. It is in the style of the early Decorated Period, with geometric patterns in the tracery of the windows.

Like many cathedrals, the chapter house is octagonal, but it has no central column supporting the roof. Instead, the wooden roof, which was of an innovative design, is light enough to be supported by the buttressed walls.

The chapter house has many sculptured heads representing some of the finest Gothic sculpture in England. They include human heads, no two alike, and some pulling faces; angels; animals and grotesques.

The Great West Window has a heart-shaped design and is known as the ‘Heart of Yorkshire’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The nave was built in 1291-1350 in the decorated Gothic style. The outer roof was completed in the 1330s, and the vaulting was finished in 1360. The nave is the widest Gothic nave in England and has a wooden roof, painted to look like stone. The aisles have vaulted stone roofs.

The Great West Window at the end of the nave has a heart-shaped design known as the ‘Heart of Yorkshire.’

It was built in 1338 and is the second-largest of the 128 windows in the cathedral. This window was designed and built along with the rest of the west front by the master mason Ivo de Raghton in 1338-1339.

The Great East Window was finished in 1408 … it is the largest expanse of mediaeval stained glass in the world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The eastern arm and chapels followed. The east end was built in 1361-1405 in the Perpendicular Gothic style. It has a four-bay choir, a second set of transepts projecting only above half-height, and the Lady Chapel.

The Great East Window in the Lady Chapel was finished in 1408 and is the largest expanse of mediaeval stained glass in the world. It was created by John Thornton and depicts scenes from the Book of Revelation. Thornton may have been influenced by earlier illuminated manuscripts on the subject. The work was conceived by Archbishop John of Thoresby in the mid 14th century, but the window itself was only completed thanks to funding by Bishop Walter Skirlaw and Archbishop Richard Scrope.

The central tower collapsed in 1407, and a new central tower was built in 1407-1472 in the Perpendicular style. The western towers were added in 1433-1472. In contrast to the Central Tower, they are heavily decorated and are topped with battlements and eight pinnacles each, again in the Perpendicular style.

The cathedral was deemed completed in 1472 and was consecrated on 3 July 1472.

The central tower was built in 1407-1472 in the Perpendicular style (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Rose Window in the south transept has glass dating from about 1500 and is said to commemorate the union of the royal houses of York and Lancaster.

During the Reformation, the cathedral treasures in York were looted and church lands were lost. The shrines of Saint William of York were taken apart and buried at Precentor’s Court. During the reign of Elizabeth I, tombs, windows and altars were destroyed. The city was besieged during the English Civil War and fell to the Cromwellians in 1644, but Thomas Fairfax prevented the Puritans wreaking any further damage on the cathedral.

When religious tensions eased, some work was done to restore the cathedral. The minster floor was re-laid in patterned marble in 1730-1736, and there was a major restoration from 1802. However, an arson attack in 1829 caused heavy damage, and a fire in 1840 left the nave, south-west tower and south aisle roofless, blackened shells.

The 15th-century choir screen separates the choir from the crossing and nave (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The cathedral fell deeply into debt in the 19th century, and services were suspended in the 1850s. But from 1858 the Dean of York, Augustus Duncombe, worked successfully to revive the cathedral.

The striking 15th-century choir screen separates the choir from the crossing and nave. It displays sculptures of the kings of England from William the Conqueror to Henry VI, with stone and gilded canopies set against a red background.

Above the screen is the organ, dating from 1832. The notable organists of York Minster include four members of the Camidge family, who were the cathedral’s organists for over 100 years, and a number of composers including John Naylor, T Tertius Noble, Edward Bairstow, Francis Jackson and Philip Moore.

The ‘Five Sisters’ were removed in 1916 because of the fear of bombing during World War I and were was restored in 1925, only to be removed again during World War II.

The 18th century Hindley Clock in the North Transept (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

There are two quite different, contrasting timepieces in the North Transept. The 18th century Hindley Clock, with Latin inscriptions and the IHS Christogram, is one of several clocks by Henry Hindley (1701-1771) still running in some of York’s historic buildings. Some of these clocks run over a year on a single winding.

The astronomical clock in the north transept is a memorial to the airmen based in Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland who were killed in action during World War II. It was designed by the astronomer Robert d’Escourt Atkinson (1898-1982), and installed in York Minster in 1955.

A survey in 1967 revealed York Minster, in particular the central tower, was close to collapse. £2 million was raised and spent by 1972 to reinforce and strengthen the foundations and roof.

The atronomical clock in the North Transept was designed by the astronomer Robert d’Escourt Atkinson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

A serious fire broke out in the south transept when a lightning strike hit a metal electrical box on the rooftop in the early hours of 9 July 1984. The fire was contained by 114 firefighters from across North Yorkshire as York Minster’s staff and clergy rushed to preserve sacred and historical objects.

Firefighters decided to deliberately collapse the roof of the south transept by pouring tens of thousands of gallons of water onto to save the rest of the building. The glass of the Rose Window in the south transept was shattered by the heat, but the lead held it together, so it could be taken down for restoration.

Some superstitious traditionalists suggested the fire was a divine response to the consecration of David Jenkins as Bishop of Durham and his controversial theological views.

A repair and restoration project was completed in 1988 at a cost of £2.25 million. It included new roof bosses designed in a children’s competition as part of BBC’s Blue Peter programme.

The Rose Window in the South Transept was restored after the fire in 1984 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Renovation began on the Great East Window and the east front in 2007 at a cost of £23 million. The 311 glass panels from the East Window were removed in 2008 for conservation, and the project was completed in 2018.

The two west towers of the minster hold bells, clock chimes and a concert carillon, including Great Peter weighing 10.8 tons. The clock bells ring every quarter of an hour during the day and Great Peter strikes the hour.

The carvings around the great west door had become severely weathered and were replaced in 2002 with new sculptures carved by minster masons to designs by the sculptor Rory Young, telling the Genesis story.

King Charles III unveiled a statue of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, in a niche on the west fa├žade of York Minster on 9 November 2022.

The remains of Saint William of York are now held in a shrine in the crypt at York Minster.

The statue of Queen Elizabeth II was unveiled by King Charles III (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Most Revd Stephen Cottrell has been the Archbishop of York since 2020. The Very Revd Dominic Barrington has been the Dean of York Minster since 2022, succeeding Bishop Jonathan Frost, now the Bishop of Portsmouth.

• The Eucharist is celebrated in York Minster every Sunday at 11 am and Evensong is at 4 pm every Sunday.

The West Door of York Minster (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

See also:

The Libraries at York Minster (7 October 2023)

The ‘Five Sisters’ window (6 October 2023)

Saint William’s College, York Minster (5 October 2023)

Philip Jackson’s statue of the Emperor Constantine at York Minster (1 October 2023)

The Eucharist is celebrated in York Minster every Sunday at 11 am and Evensong is at 4 pm every Sunday (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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