17 May 2023
Whitby Abbey, the scene of
the Synod of Whitby, and its
many literary associations
Whitby Abbey, overlooking the North Sea on the East Cliff above Whitby in North Yorkshire, is associated most popularly with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But, for me, the most important reason for two of us climbing the 199 steps from Whitby to visit the abbey last week lies in its crucial role in church history as the venue for the Synod of Whitby in the year 664.
Whitby is also important in church history as the monastic centre of Saint Hilda and for the role of the Northumbrian kingdom in spreading Christianity to Mercia and other parts of England in the seventh century. In literary and church history, Whitby is also important as the home of the Northumbrian poet Cædmon (614-680).
For seafarers, Whitby Abbey has long been a distinctive landmark on the Yorkshire coast.
The monastery at Whitby was first founded by Oswy (Oswiu), the Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria, at a place named Streoneshalh in the year 657. The name Streoneshalh may signify Fort Bay or Tower Bay and refer to an earlier Roman settlement on the site.
Recent excavations have shown that the headland was settled during the late Bronze Age. A round house within a ditched enclosure was found near the cliff edge, and a number of Bronze Age objects have been recovered.
The headland may have been occupied by a Roman signal station in the 3rd century AD. After the collapse of Roman rule, Britain fragmented into a number of small kingdoms. By the seventh century Northumbria – corresponding to Northumberland and Yorkshire – was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
Edwin, the Anglian King of Northumbria, converted to Christianity in 627 and was baptised by the Roman missionary Saint Paulinus of York. King Oswy appointed Saint Hilda (614-680) of Hartlepool as the founding Abbess of Whitby in 657. She was a daughter of Hereric, a nephew of Edwin, the first Christian king of Northumbria.
The double monastery of monks and nuns was home to the Northumbrian poet Cædmon (ca 657-684).
Cædmon was a monk who cared for the animals at the monastery when Saint Hilda was the abbot. He was originally ignorant of ‘the art of song’ but learned to compose one night in the course of a dream, according to the eighth century historian Bede.
His only known surviving work is Cædmon's Hymn a nine-line alliterative vernacular praise poem in honour of God. The poem is one of the earliest attested examples of Old English, making Cædmon the first English poet whose name is known.
And so, Whitby claims to be the birthplace of English literature. Cædmon is commemorated with a cross in Saint Mary’s churchyard.
Christianity had been brought to Northumbria by both missionaries from Rome and by Celtic missionaries from Iona in Scotland. The Synod of Whitby was called in 664 to resolve their differences on the calculation of the date of Easter, the style of monastic clothing, and the shape of monastic tonsures.
Some historians see the Synod of Whitby as early evidence of a clash between the centralising, authoritarian papacy in Rome and an independent native ‘Celtic’ or British Church. They see the debates in seventh century Northumbria foreshadowing the Reformation in the 16th century and rejection of papal authority.
However, Irish and Roman missionaries shared the same fundamental beliefs. By the time of the synod, the southern Irish had already adopted the Roman calculation of Easter, and this was being followed by the monks of Iona by the early eighth century.
Eventually, King Oswiu decided that the Roman side should prevail, and the Pope’s authority was gradually established over the Church in these islands.
The monastery was laid waste by Danes in successive raids from 867 to 870. The Anglian town and monastery were abandoned at some point in the ninth century, probably as a result of the Viking raids, and it remained desolate for more than 200 years.
By the time of the Norman Conquest, the headland seems to have been abandoned, although there was a substantial town down by the harbour called Whitby or Hwitebi, the ‘white settlement’ in Old Norse. An area named ‘Prestebi’ was recorded in the Domesday Survey, which may indicate religious life was revived in some form after the Danish raids.
Reinfrid, a former soldier, became a monk and travelled to Whitby, then known as Prestebi or Hwitebi. There, William de Percy granted him the ruined monastery of Saint Peter to found a new monastery in 1078.
The original grant included Saint Peter’s Monastery and the town and Port of Whitby, with its parish church of Saint Mary and six dependent chapels at Fyling, Hawsker, Sneaton, Ugglebarnby, Dunsley, and Aislaby; five mills including Ruswarp; the village of Hackness with two mills and Saint Mary’s Church; and Saint Peter’s Church in Hackness, ‘where our monks served God, died, and were buried.’
William de Percy’s brother, Serlo de Percy, joined the new monastery, which adopted the Benedictine rule. Reinfrid was the prior for many years until he died in an accident. He was buried at Saint Peter’s in Hackness, and was succeeded as prior by Serlo de Percy.
At an early stage, this community split and the two parts each developed into a fully-fledged Benedictine monastery: one on the headland at Whitby and the other at Saint Mary’s Abbey in York.
The Benedictine monastery at Whitby initially had timber buildings or reused the Anglian ruins on the headland. A stone church and conventual buildings were built ca 1100 in the Romanesque style, as well as a large parish church close by.
The monastery was rebuilt on a larger scale ca 1225-1250, when the monastery church was rebuilt in the Gothic style. The eastern arm, the crossing and the transepts, a central tower, and part of the nave were built before funds seem to have run out.
Work resumed on the nave in the 14th century, but it was not finished until the 15th century. Its architecture closely resembles other great churches in Yorkshire, including York Minister and Rievaulx Abbey. There were extensive monastic buildings south of the abbey church too.
Sir Walter Scott sets part of his epic poem ‘Marmion’ (1808) in Whitby Abbey during the early years of the reign of Henry VIII. The poem tells how Lord Marmion lusts for Clara de Clare, a rich woman. He and his mistress, Constance de Beverley, forge a letter implicating Clare’s fiancé, Sir Ralph de Wilton, in treason. Constance, a dishonest nun, hopes that her aid will restore her to favour with Marmion.
When de Wilton loses the duel he claims to defend his honour against Marmion, he goes into exile, and Clare enters a convent rather than risk Marmion’s attentions.
In Canto 2 (‘The Convent’), the Abbess of Whitby, with a party of nuns including a novice Sister Clare, journeys by sea to Lindisfarne, where she forms one of a tribunal in sentencing Constance de Beverly to be immured alive together with an accomplice in the planned murder of Clare.
In her final speech, Constance tells how she had escaped from a convent to join Marmion who had then abandoned her for the wealthy Clare, charging Clare’s fiancé with treason and defeating him in armed combat.
Whitby Abbey was suppressed in 1539 at the dissolution of the monastic houses during the Tudor Reformation. Whitby Abbey was stripped of all the fixtures and fittings of value, including glass from the windows and lead from the roof, and it was left to decay. The roof of the great church and the central tower all eventually fell leaving behind the ruins.
After the suppression, Sir Richard Cholmley (died 1578) bought the abbey buildings and the core of its estates. These remained in the Cholmley family and their descendants in the Strickland family for generations.
The Cholmley family built an impressive private house beside the Abbey, and plundered the abbey ruins heavily in building their grand residence. Local people wreaked further damage, scavenging material for their own building projects and gardens.
The Cholmley family was originally from Cheshire, but already were major landowners in Yorkshire. Sir Hugh Cholmley I (1600-1657) played a notable part in the Civil War (1642-1651), defending Scarborough Castle for the king before surrendering it in 1645. Parliamentarian troops later captured and looted the Abbey House at Whitby.
After the Civil War, Sir Hugh Cholmley II (1632-1689) restored the family estates and he added a grand new wing, known locally as the Banqueting House, to the Abbey House around 1672. He laid out a new entrance courtyard to provide a formal approach and setting. The Cholmley family moved away in the 18th century, abandoning the Abbey House. The roof of the 1670s wing was removed after storm damage in the late 18th century.
The shell of the abbey church was substantially complete until the 18th century. It was weakened, however, by erosion from wind and rain. The south transept collapsed in 1736, much of the nave in 1763, the central tower in 1830 and the south side of the presbytery in 1839.
Whitby became a popular seaside resort in the 19th century, with new terraces laid out on the West Cliff. The abbey ruins became a tourist destination, and a rising interest in the site is shown in numerous engravings and paintings.
In Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Mina Harker describes the abbey in her diary: ‘Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes, and which is the scene of part of Marmion, where the girl was built up in the wall. It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows.’
During World War I, Whitby Abbey was shelled from the North Sea in December 1914, by the German battlecruisers Von der Tann and Derfflinger, whose crews ‘were aiming for the Coastguard Station on the end of the headland.’ Scarborough and Hartlepool were also attacked. The abbey buildings, including the west wall and nave, sustained considerable damage during the 10-minute attack.
The Strickland family handed over the abbey to the government by in 1920. The ruins have since been declared a Grade I listed building and are maintained by English Heritage. The site museum is housed in Cholmley House.
English Heritage carried out archaeological excavation and survey work in 1993 and 2008, in connection with the construction of the visitor centre and to rescue archaeological remains threatened by the steady erosion of the cliff. Whitby Abbey reopened in 2019 after a major project at the visitor centre, museum and interpretation across the site.
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