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The St Mary’s Abbey Precincts

by Christopher Norton

The King’s Manor and the St Mary’s Abbey site are a unity – the division is a nineteenth century artefact. Indeed it is only because the abbey became the King’s Manor at the Dissolution that the precinct was preserved. But in order to have an holistic interpretation of the site we need to understand the modern phases of occupation too, for it would not have survived intact had not the King’s Manor remained occupied. It is important to focus on a few historical moments and also on the potential for further work: what might we know and how might we go further and develop our understanding?

St Mary’s Abbey Precinct is the most important monastic ruin that survives in an urban site. St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury is more nationally important but is a dreary site – it is the inherent beauty of this site that also makes St Mary’s Abbey an astonishing survival.

As King George VI said: ‘The history of York is the History of England’ – and St Mary’s Abbey IS the history of York. York Minster is a great site, but St Mary’s Abbey encapsulates more completely the history of the city for the last one thousand years. Its estates are recorded in the cartularies of landholdings that have never been published, possibly because it is too daunting a project. It also fits very well into the wider context of Yorkshire. Huge landholdings spread over the whole of Yorkshire are indicated in St Mary’s Abbey cartulary. Indeed the cartularies themselves embody the history of the Abbey.


One object speaks volumes and encapsulates events in the post-dissolution period. After the Dissolution all the monastic records from the whole of the north of England were brought to York and were lodged on the St Mary’s Abbey site. At some point the archives were moved to St Mary’s Tower and it was there that the Parliamentarians blasted a hole in the Abbey defences in 1644 to gain access to the city. One cartulary bears witness to this episode in the cannonball hole in its side: it can now be seen in York Minster Library Archives.

After the Dissolution the Council of the North – the Government of the North of England - was run from King’s Manor. This means that it is not difficult to make the case for the importance of the St Mary’s Abbey site. When the Council of the North closed down in 1641 the citizens of York were thrown into poverty since the presence of the Council of the North supported the economy of the City of York and its removal had a catastrophic effect on economy.

The Eleventh-Century Abbey Church


[Image – Kirk Hammerton Saxon Church].

St Mary’s Abbey is here because St Olave’s church was here first – a useful comparator for what it may have looked like is Kirk Hammerton church.

The tower was like the precursor of St Olave’s church. It was built by Earl Siward of Northumbria; high political drama took place here in 1065 when opponents of Earl Tostig seized the site. This phase of the precinct site and the abbey church is very under-researched.

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The eleventh-century abbey church was founded by William Rufus and begun in 1088. It was given a royal imprimatur since William wanted to claim his inheritance from William the Conqueror. William I had planned to found an Abbey here – indeed it is said that on his deathbed he regretted the bloodshed of the 1069-70 Harrying of the North. It weighed so heavily on the Conqueror’s conscience that he wanted to found an abbey in reparation of the destruction wrought on York and Yorkshire.

As for the church – not much survives, as revealed by Wilmot’s excavations.

It would be a very simple task to make a reconstruction of Abbey church of St Mary’s in the late eleventh century. Work has already been carried out by Stuart Harrison, the world expert on reconstruction, so although almost all has been destroyed, it can be reconstructed. The importance of the church cannot be overstated: in the wider context, it was built five years before Durham Cathedral was commenced, and the Bishop of Durham was present at the foundation ceremony. There are certain famous aspects of Durham Cathedral that were possibly taken from St Mary’s Abbey York, which makes it of real national architectural importance. Material and expertise already exist to carry out the research; all that is needed now is the time and the money.

Moving on to the later abbey church, – Fountains Abbey was founded by monks from St Mary’s Abbey. In 1132 some monks and the Archbishop, Thurstan of York, were beaten up, and the monks settled at Fountains Abbey where they founded the monastery. Archbishop Thurstan’s contemporary account recalls what happened when he was assaulted and makes thrilling reading.

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The Early Figurative Sculpture

Figurative sculptures from the original Abbey church survived because they were carefully and deliberately buried when the thirteenth-century Abbey church was constructed. They are of international importance – indeed they have been to exhibitions in New York and Rome – along with some from York Minster, although those from the Minster are greatly decayed. After the decline of the Roman Empire there was no tradition of life-size figurative sculpture in Europe until the twelfth century. Consequently, between them these figures comprise a remarkable set and are the earliest life-size sculpture in this country after the Romans. They represent the start of a hugely important sculptural tradition that was continuous thereafter. To put them in their twelfth century context, we don’t know how they were arranged at the abbey and have to look at comparators, like Chartres, for an exemplar. These astonishing survivals have never been sufficiently highlighted but we can really blow the trumpet about them.

The Thirteenth-Century Abbey Church


The Abbey church is in itself one of the most important buildings in mediaeval ecclesiastical architecture. There were only two really large scale mediaeval buildings which we can say were designed, constructed and finished in a single generation: one is Salisbury Cathedral, the other is St Mary’s Abbey church. The process took twenty-four years and represents a staggering achievement. We have not only the remains of the building, but also a Latin chronicle contemporaneous with the construction of the church. A triumvirate of personalities was responsible for the project: the abbot, Simon of Warwick; a monk administrator; and the master mason, Master Simon. It is the story of three determined personalities who pushed the abbey church through to completion within twenty-four years and were all still alive in 1294 when it was completed. They it was who carefully buried the twelfth-century statues in the foundations of St Mary’s Abbey in a ritual symbolic burial.

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The abbey chronicle has never been translated into English, but it contains a series of potted biographies of monks that affords a wonderful insight into the characters of the day. One monk lived for sixty years without reproach, while another it would seem had been married. The chronicle offers these fascinating snippets, which are unusual in writing of the time and the translation of the text could be another project for those who don’t know Latin; it would make this most interesting text available to a wider community.

The Abbey Precinct Walls

[Image – Hospitium under water]


July 1313 experienced terrible weather and during a tremendous downpour in July the only access to the Hospitium building was by boat. St Mary’s Abbey Precinct walls are an astonishing survival – rarely do walls survive in an urban context; it is only because the site became the King’s Manor that these were preserved to keep the precinct as a single unit as a royal palace; they were a part of the security apparatus of the palace. The history of the recovery of the site is also important in its own right: W H Auden’s father - a local worthy involved in the preservation movement - was a key personality in the preservation of the walls of the site.

St Mary’s Abbey and The Dissolution

King's Manor

[Image - Plan of the King’s Manor annotated by Christopher Norton]

King Henry VIII is the second royal figure, after William Rufus, to be associated with the history of the site. He it was who dissolved St Mary’s Abbey. The National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) has the first document which refers to ‘the King’s Manor’, and it is dated a fortnight after the Dissolution. Normally monastic sites were sold off to cronies and turned into a country house or demolished, but at York it was retained by the Crown and became instead the seat of the Council of the North.

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In the 1540s Henry VIII come to York to meet the Scots – as related in C J Samson’s Sovereign, although Samson inaccurately described the housing of the royal couple. It seems more likely that the Queen was housed on the east side of the claustral buildings, and the king on the west side of the cloister.

In the middle of the sixteenth century the King Henry VIII advised the President of the Council of the North to live in the Manor, but the King had given the King’s Manor to the Court of Augmentations. The President of the Council wrote to the king to inform him that they were in the process of demolishing the Manor in order to sell off the materials. He related in a letter to the Privy Council how they were demolishing his office as he wrote. Although a reply was forthcoming from the Privy Council, so much time had elapsed that when an order to cease was sent to the Court of Augmentations the demolition had already taken place. Consequently only two of the original rooms survive from the period of the abbots’ occupation.

In Volume 4 of its survey of York, the Royal Commission actually devoted two complete plans to try to explain the architectural history of the King’s Manor. This is a rare treatment for a building – and they were reproduced in full colour the better to try to distinguish the separate building phases. Despite their best efforts they produced an impenetrable account of one of the most complicated buildings in the country. This Grade 1 listed building is the antithesis of, say, Castle Howard, where the beholder can see the great conception of a great architect and a great monument. We don’t know who designed the King’s Manor, and it incorporates evidence of building material from every decade from sixteenth century onwards. The Council of the North started to expand it but over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it fells into decline.

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The Manor is documented by an astonishing survival of the visual resources; there are up to three hundred and fifty drawings of the Manor site alone. A most valuable exercise would be to publish an illustrated history of the site since it is so very rich in drawings and plans.

The Long Tradition of Learning at St Mary’s Abbey

St Mary’s Abbey has a very long history associated with learning. In the late mediaeval history of the abbey, Thomas Spofford – whose memorial slab is in the museum – was Abbot and Bishop of Hereford. A stained glass window of him in Herefordshire represents him as a devotee of St Anne. He was an early member of the Corpus Christi guild. A few years ago Richard Sharp, Professor of Paleography, attributed to St Mary’s Abbey a catalogue of books that reveals evidence of St Mary’s Abbey as a centre of learning. This inventory was drawn up in the time of Spofford, a currently unappreciated figure who went to Council of Constance, retired to St Mary’s Abbey and was buried here.


Narratives and personalities such as these would be so easily developed to animate the Abbey site to visitors, and would be suitable for further research, and the library catalogue - one of the biggest in England – is a reminder of the role of the Abbey in the Middle Ages as a cultural centre.

The tradition of education on the site continued. In the early eighteenth century a Mr Lumley had a girls’ school in the King’s Manor. Indeed, one of the windows of the Huntington Room contains glass panes inscribed by some of the young ladies who were present there. In 1833 the Wilberforce School for the Blind opened. This philanthropic site was a Yorkshire memorial to the local radical and anti-slavery campaigner, William Wilberforce, and a bust of the man used to stand in the entrance hall. The school was one of the earliest of the kind in the world and eventually took over the whole of the King’s Manor. It was quite radical for blind children to be considered as educable at that date, but a Mr Buckle invented a tactile system for reading which preceded the Braille System by some time, and for which he was awarded prizes by the Belgian government.

Continuing the York tradition of constructional ingenuity, the Jubilee school building that was erected on the site in the nineteenth century had an early example of gas central heating. The pebbles, which are still a feature of the first courtyard of the King’s Manor buildings, were originally laid down for blind children so they could hear if they inadvertently strayed off the paths.

The history of the site from 1830s offers a history of building conservation. In excess of one hundred architectural drawings remain in the Borthwick Institute from the Brierley practice just relating to the King’s Manor buildings; most of what we see today is the result of sensitively carried out restoration. The Manor Lane wall was saved from collapse by Water Brierley. Brierley’s plan of the 1920s phase of work along Manor Lane marked the mediaeval precinct wall they found when they were restoring it.

This site was extremely important ever since the foundation of the Abbey in 1088; it is not a question of making up history but merely building on the history that is already here - it would provide a wonderful opportunity to open up the past.

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Select Bibliography

Historical Sources
Excavations and Architectural Studies The St. Mary’s Abbey Sculptures

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