18 May 2023

Saint Mary’s Church, Whitby,
is filled with box pews and
has never had electricity

Saint Mary’s Church in Whitby stands beside the ruins of Whitby Abbey, at the top of the 199 steps from the harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Mary’s Church in Whitby stands beside the ruins of Whitby Abbey, sharing the East Cliff at the top of the 199 steps leading from the harbour and the town up to the top of the North Yorkshire headland.

The 199 steps were first referred to in 1340. However, it is said the steps were made long before this. One legend says Saint Hilda used the steps to test the faith of her followers The steps were originally made of wood and stood that way for hundreds of years until 1774, when the steps were replaced with Sneaton Stone.

Last week, two of us climbed the 199 steps, also known as the Church Stairs, from the Old Town up to Saint Mary’s and the ruins of Whitby Abbey.

The abbey’s minster church may have stood on the site of Saint Mary’s Church, but Danish raids in the ninth century destroyed the monastery and the minster. When Benedictine monks re-founded the abbey, they rebuilt the church for the parishioners of the town below. This means church is older than the surviving 13th century abbey ruins.

Saint Mary’s Church was founded around 1110, but the interior furnishings of the church are Georgian and date mainly from the late 18th century. The church is known for its links to seafarers, including Captain Cook who worshipped there, and the churchyard was a setting for Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897).

Inside Saint Mary’s Church, Whitby, facing east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

We entered the church through a small low ceiling area, and double doors opened into a building that took my breath away. The church never had electricity and is lit only by candles on sconces and a large brass chandelier. A Victorian cast-iron stove provides the only form of heating inside the church.

A Norman church was built on the site around 1110 and added to and altered over the centuries. The tower and transepts are from the 12th and 13th centuries. The nave, chancel and west tower date from the 12th century, the north and south transepts were added in the 13th and 14th centuries, while battlements were added around the roofline in the Tudor period.

The nave is largely Georgian, but the chancel has been relatively untouched, with three round-headed Norman windows and stonework, and three aumbries, including one with a small piscina. The side walls originally had three bays with similar windows, but they have been altered. The altar is Tudor, but the Victorian stained glass windows are by Charles Eamer Kempe.

The chancel has been relatively untouched, with three round-headed Norman windows and stonework (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The nave has five bays and is contemporary with the quire. Its south wall is much altered but three external buttresses remain.

The transept was built in the 13th century and has three altered lancet windows in its northern arm while its southern arm is considerably changed and its windows all replaced. A squint cuts through from the south transept to the quire.

The three-decker pulpit was installed in 1778 and altered in 1847. No matter where someone sits in the church, they can be seen by the preacher in the top level of the three-decker pulpit. A set of hearing trumpets at the back of the pulpit are said to have been used by the wife of a former rector because she was hard of hearing.

The poet C├Ždmon and Saint Coleman in window by Charles Eamer Kempe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The interior of the church is dominated by the 18th-century box pews and seem to be crammed into every corner. As a result, Saint Mary’s can seat 3,000 people.

Larger, more luxurious pews near the pulpit once went for a higher price. A few plain, unadorned pews at the back of the church were reserved for poor parishioners. These are marked ‘Free’ on the pew doors. Others were for strangers to the church and are marked ‘For Strangers Only.’

The pews on the north side were for people from nearby villages who did not have their own parish church and had to travel to Whitby to worship. Each of these pews is marked with a village name.

There was also a special pew for the Cholmley family, who bought the site of Whitby Abbey in the mid-16th century and built a large elegant mansion by the ruins. The Cholmley pew had a prominent position between the chancel arch and the nave, and blocked direct views of the high altar. It was supported on barley sugar columns and was reached by an external stair.

The three-decker pulpit was installed in 1778 and altered in 1847 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

There was a special pew for the church maid, whose duties included keeping the privately-owned pews clean. Because of the church’s position on the cliff above the town, smoke from the chimneys of houses near the harbour would rise up and settle on the pews, so that anyone sitting there would soon be covered in soot and dust. The church maid kept the pews covered before and after services.

The galleries were installed in the 19th century, but to create extra space the staircases to some of the galleries are on the outside.

When the church was enlarged in 1818, most of the north wall was removed and replaced by columns to accommodate an aisle. Four large square-headed windows were inserted on the south side, the south porch was built in 1823 and a north porch was built in the new annexe. The ceilings over the nave have several skylights.

The interior of the church is dominated by the 18th-century box pews (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

An 18th-century royal coat of arms sits above the chancel arch, and a second royal coat of arms is above the west door.

Painted boards against the north wall display the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. Other 18th century boards on the walls bear Biblical texts.

A studded oak chest for parish valuables dates from the 15th century or earlier. The chest was stolen in 1743 and thrown over the cliff by thieves. It was recovered from the base of the cliff but the church plate and parish records were never found.

Several carved mediaeval stones are on display in the church, as well as a broken section of the stone coffin of a Saxon child. A small cupboard was once used for loaves of bread given to the poor.

The three-stage west tower was originally taller, but the top stage was taken down in the 17th century. As a result, the low, squat tower looks oddly out of proportion to the rest of the church, its corners supported by flat buttresses. The embattled parapet is a 16th-century addition. There is a ring of eight bells: six are inscribed, ‘Whitby 1762 Lester and Pack of London fecit’; two were added in 1897.

The galleries were installed in the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Captain James Cook, the 18th-century seafaring explorer and cartographer was apprenticed to a shipowner in Whitby in 1746-1749. He lived in Whitby for another six years before joining the Royal Navy, and during those years went to church in Saint Mary’s.

Saint Mary’s churchyard provided Bram Stoker with a setting in his novel Dracula:

‘For a moment or two I could see nothing, as the shadow of a cloud obscured St. Mary's Church. Then as the cloud passed I could see the ruins of the Abbey coming into view; and as the edge of a narrow band of light as sharp as a sword-cut moved along, the church and churchyard became gradually visible ... It seemed to me as though something dark stood behind the seat where the white figure shone, and bent over it. What it was, whether man or beast, I could not tell.’

A broken section of the stone coffin of a Saxon child (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Many gravestones have the names of ships, trades or professions and name the place where people died or are buried. Several tombstones are engraved ‘in remembrance of’ rather than ‘here lies,’ for many sailors and fishermen were lost at sea and their bodies were never recovered.

Other graves include that of the Arctic explorer William Scoresby, who invented the crow’s nest for ships. But fact and fiction are mixed together in the churchyard: one stone is said to mark the grave of the original ‘Humpty Dumpty.’

Because of erosion and landslips, several graves have slipped off the cliffs, with bones later found below. Two significant recent landslips due to broken drainage and torrential rain have placed the churchyard and properties below the cliff in jeopardy, and pathways on the cliffside of the church have been closed.

The low, squat west tower was taller until the top stage was taken down in the 17th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Morning prayers in Easter
with USPG: (40) 18 May 2023,
Ascension Day

The Ascension Window by Sir Edward Burne-Jones in Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Ascension Day and this is the Sixth Week of Easter. Eastertide continues throughout this week and next week, until the Day of Pentecost.

Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection. As today Ascension Day (18 May 2023), I am reflecting each morning this week in these ways:

1, Looking at a depiction of the Ascension in images or stained glass windows in a church or cathedral I know;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The top half of the Ascension Window by Sir Edward Burne-Jones in Birmingham shows Christ surrounded by the heavenly host (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Ascension Window, Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham:

Four remarkable stained-glass windows in Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham, were designed by Birmingham born pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones. They depict: the Ascension (1885), with the Nativity (1887) and the Crucifixion (1887) at the east end, and the Last Judgement (1897) at the west end.

These four windows were manufactured by the firm of William Morris & Co. Burne-Jones and William Morris also created windows for Saint Martin in the Bullring and Saint Mary the Virgin, Acocks Green.

Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) was born in Birmingham on 28 August 1833 and baptised in Saint Philip’s. He once said he wanted to do ‘my best to illuminate the contemporary darkness’ of his home city.

Burne-Jones and William Morris (1834-1896) had together begun their studies at the University of Oxford with the intention of being ordained coming priests in the Church of England. This solid grounding in theology underpinned their designs for church decoration.

The stained-glass designs in Saint Philip’s Cathedral are extraordinary, unsurpassed in their scale as the images fill the huge arched windows, uninterrupted by tracery. They were the culmination of decades of experimentation, in Burne-Jones’s studio and in the Morris & Co. workshop, weaving together rich colours and the networks of leading.

These windows demonstrate immense skill and the fine craftsmanship of William Morris & Co. They are known for their vibrancy, the life-likeness of the figures, their ability to tell a story and their inspiring and dramatic qualities.

Burne-Jones’s visionary art flourished when he imagined angels and saints. He used his exceptional understanding of Byzantine and Gothic art to create works that transcended the naturalism of his contemporaries. He once said that he wanted to show ‘heaven beginning six inches over the tops of our heads, as it really does.’

The windows in the chancel were commissioned by Emma Chadwick Villiers-Wilkes in memory of her brother. Her family were successful brass-founders, she worshipped in Saint Philip’s and lived in nearby Old Square. She maintained a strong interest in their subject matter and design.

Burne-Jones records, ‘it was in the year 1885 that visiting my native city Birmingham I was so struck with admiration at one of my works in St Philips’s church [that] I undertook in a moment of enthusiasm to fill the windows on either side.’

These windows are characteristic of Burne-Jones’s later style, with elongated bodies that have small heads in relation to body length and designs that divide in two equal halves, horizontally. This technique separates heaven from earth in each of the windows.

The Ascension window depicts Christ parting with his followers and ascending into heaven 40 days after Easter. It was installed in 1885 and was intended to be the only stained-glass window in the Cathedral. But he later designed two more windows at the east end – the Nativity and the Crucifixion in 1887 – and subsequently added a fourth window at the west end depicting the Last Judgement (1897).

The top half of the Ascension Window displays Christ surrounded by the heavenly host. Six angels stand around him, three on each side, their hands clasped as if in prayer. They are draped in long flowing fabric in various pastel shades drapes that in some light appears almost neon.

Halos are visible among a mass of feathers above the heads of Christ and the angels. These feathers flood the top of the window with vibrant red. Like many of Burne-Jones’s figures, the angels who surround Christ have proportionally small heads and long bodies. This heightens the impression of the angels as other worldly beings. They have serene and placid expressions and appear two-dimensional.

Burne-Jones uses bold, vibrant tones to depict Christ’s disciples and followers. The deep blues of the sky that divide the two halves of the window emphasise this contrast, and symbolise the separation between the earthly and spiritual realms.

The disciples display evident emotion in their expressions and gestures as they look up to Christ. Gazing up at him, they are surrounded by the angels in heaven. Christ extends his left hand towards them – but his right hand points towards his heavenly destination.

Burne-Jones intended this to be the only stained-glass window in Saint Philip’s Cathedral. But, inspired by its beauty, he decided to design two more shortly afterwards: the Nativity and the Crucifixion.

The Last Judgement window, installed in the west end of the cathedral in 1897, is now regarded as his finest work in stained-glass.

Towards the end of his life, Sir Edward Burne-Jones was asked about the purpose of his work. He was surprisingly clear. Through his designs, he said, he was ‘making God manifest.’ He went on: ‘It is giving back her Child that was crucified to Our Lady of Sorrows.’ He died on 17 June 1898.

Saint Philip’s became the cathedral of the new diocese of Birmingham in 1905. There are Burne-Jones windows in Saint Martin’s-in-the-Bullring, Birmingham, as well as Saint Mary the Virgin, Acocks Green, and a posthumous crucifixion installed in Saint Bartholomew’s, Edgbaston.

His significant works in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery include a magnificent watercolour, ‘The Star of Bethlehem,’ more than 12 ft long. It shows the Adoration of the Magi set in an English woodland. Burne-Jones was working on it from 1887, at the same time as he was working with the cathedral windows.

His windows in Saint Philip’s were moved to a Welsh mine shaft for safe-keeping during World War II and they were returned in peacetime.

The cathedral has embarked on a project to conserve these windows, which are some of his last great works. The cleaning and repairs of the windows began next February. The final celebration of the revitalised windows, with a festival of voices and outreach art therapy, is planned for spring and summer next year (2024).

The disciples show emotion in their expressions and gestures as they look up to Christ in the Ascension Window in Saint Philip’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Acts 1: 1-11 (NRSVA):

1 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’

6 So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ 7 He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

Luke 24: 44-53 (NRSVA):

44 Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’

50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The Ascension Window by Sir Eward Burne-Jones in the chancel in Birmingham Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s prayer:

The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘The Ascension.’ USPG’s Global Theologian, the Revd Dr Peniel Rajkumar, reflected on the Ascension in the prayer diary on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer invites us to pray this morning (Thursday 18 May 2023, Ascension Day):

Let us pray for each other on our journeys of faith. May we let go of things that impede our growing in faith and open our hearts to receive Christ in unexpected people and places.


Grant, we pray, almighty God,
that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ
to have ascended into the heavens,
so we in heart and mind may also ascend
and with him continually dwell;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

God our Father,
you have raised our humanity in Christ
and have fed us with the bread of heaven:
mercifully grant that, nourished with such spiritual blessings,
we may set our hearts in the heavenly places;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Ascension window by Sir Eward Burne-Jones seen from inside the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org