whitby abbey and church by night february 175
A recent rescue operation to salvage buried remains from coastal erosion at Whitby Abbey has inspired a revolutionary theory about this cradle of northern Christianity. No longer is Dark Age Whitby Abbey seen as a lonely, wind-swept religious community, but as a bustling settlement, a sophisticated modern town of its day, with a highly organised, complex structure. Meanwhile, the headland commanded by the abbey is being hailed as one of the most important archaeological sites in the country.
Perched dramatically on the cliff top, Whitby Abbey is a magnificent reminder of the early church’s power and dedication. It contained the shrine to the abbey’s founder, St Hilda (Hild during her lifetime), who died in AD680 and symbolised the continuing Christian tradition in the north. The abbey’s gaunt and moving remains have associations as diverse as Victorian jewellery, whaling and Count Dracula.
Those choosing to approach the abbey – up the 199 steps from Whitby town – know the meaning of dedication. So, too, did its founder. Hild’s reputation attracted monks and nuns, including the poet Cædmon, and Whitby soon acquired influence in England and beyond.
The abbey was founded in AD657 on the site of what may previously have been a Roman signal station. The Synod of AD664 was held here – the two branches of early English Christianity, the Celtic and Roman churches, debating the matter that divided them most: the dating of Easter. The Synod decided in favour of the Roman tradition – a turning point that has repercussions into modern times.
Whitby Abbey was destroyed during a Viking invasion in AD867, but one of William the Conqueror’s knights revived it in the late 1070s. By 1220, his Norman church proved inadequate for the many pilgrims who visited it and so rebuilding began. After its dissolution in 1538, Whitby Abbey passed to the Cholmley family, who proceeded to build a mansion largely out of materials plundered from the monastery. Parts of this building have been incorporated into the 19th-century Abbey House.
A new visitor centre now nestles within the walls of the Cholmley’s house as part of a major project encompassing the whole of the headland. It houses archaeological material excavated at Whitby, as well as computer-generated images revealing how the headland has changed over time. Spectacular audio-visual displays recreate the medieval abbey and the 17th-century house, its interiors and gardens. Visitors can also gain an insight into the people who have lived in Whitby, from St Hild to Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. One of the aims of the project has been to enhance and protect the natural beauty and historic character of the headland. As work at the headland progressed, English Heritage carried out research excavations that have added to our understanding of Whitby’s complex past, including the discovery of a rare 17th-century ‘hard garden’ – inspired by Cholmley’s visits to France and Spain – now restored. Continuing research may yield further insights into the past of this historically important abbey. When visiting don’t miss the interactive visitor centre and restored hard garden.