York Minster and the Great North Road

York Minster history spans two millennia and provides direct linkage from Roman times to the present. In that sense its history parallels that of the braid of routes we refer to as the Great North Road.

York’s Minster and its precincts dominate the northern quadrant of the walled city. It is the same space previously occupied by the Roman fortress where, at different times, the sixth and the ninth legions were based. When the mission of St Augustine came to convert England in 597 it carried instructions that the new church was to be governed from the former Roman capitals of London and York.

The great roads such as Ermine Street and Dere Street established by the Romans went on to provide essential lines of communication for the Christian church as it spread and consolidated the length of the country.

York Minster is one of the largest medieval cathedrals in northern Europe and has been visited by those travelling the Great North Road since it was first established. It is located close to Bootham Bar where the road north exits the city but it is not readily visible without making a small diversion.

Map of York - Guy Speed - 1611

Map of York, Guy Speed, 1611

About York Minster

York Minster’s official name is The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter. Although a cathedral, it was historically a mission church – spreading the gospel and ministering to the inhabitants of the surrounding region (hence Minster). Unlike many of our other great cathedrals it was never attached to a monastery or abbey, and this was one of the reasons why it was able to transition relatively smoothly at the time of the reformation in the 16th century. Since its establishment, it has been one of the primary centres for the Christian faith in England.

The current Minster was completed in 1472 after several centuries of building. It has a very wide Decorated Gothic nave and chapter house, a Perpendicular Gothic quire and east end and Early English north and south transepts. Of all the Gothic cathedrals of northern Europe only Cologne can compete in terms of scale.
The cathedral contains one of the finest collections of medieval stained glass. Particularly striking are the Five Sisters window in the north transept, the Rose Window in the south, and the Great East Window which holds the largest area of medieval coloured glass in a single window in the world.

In the past the church sat within its own walled precinct, known as the Liberty of St Peter. The walls around the Liberty were 12 feet high with four gates. A grassed and cobbled precinct lay inside with various residences and official buildings – the Archbishop’s Palace, the Dean’s house and other houses for the Canons, the Treasurer and the Precentor. St William’s College was also within the Liberty and was the home of the chantry priests. This city within a city had its own laws, court, prison and even its own gallows for executions; Peter Prison, York Minster’s jail and gallows, stood outside the West Front, and was used until 1837.

Precincts of York Minster

York Minster Precincts (Image Credit – Victoria County History)

Peter Gate - York Minster

Peter Gate entrance to York Minster Close, built in 1285 and demolished in 1827. (Image Credit – York Art Gallery)

York Minster History – Timeline

The first Christian community in York probably dates to the third century.

It was whilst stationed in York that, in 306, Constantine the Great was proclaimed emperor by his army; he went on to defeat rivals and became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Constantine converted to Christianity, and he supported the Edict of Milan in 313, which declared tolerance for Christianity for the first time.

Constantine, York Minster
1998 Statue of Roman Emperor Constantine I outside York Minster

We know that the bishop of York (his name was recorded as “Eborius”) went to the Council of Arles in 314, where various church laws (or “canons”) were agreed.

Arles Cathedral
The 12th century cathedral at Arles

The first Archbishop of York was a Roman missionary, Paulinus, who in the early 7th century was one of a group of missionaries sent to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. He accompanied Æthelburg of Kent on her journey to Northumbria to marry King Edwin of Northumbria and they eventually succeeded in converting Edwin. Edwin and many of his followers were baptised at York in 627. A wooden church was built housing the bishop’s throne (or cathedra). Pope Gregory’s plan was that York should be England’s second metropolitan see.

Within 10 years the church was replaced by a stone structure dedicated to St Peter by King Edwin. According to early chroniclers, this church was refurbished by Archbishop Wilfrid with rendered walls “whiter than snow by means of white lime”.

In turn, a more substantial stone church was built in the 8th century following a fire in 741. In 790, when Alcunius returned from France, he was most impressed:

“It is very high and supported on solid columns which support recurved arches; beautiful paneling and numerous windows make it shine with the greatest brilliance; its magnificence is further heightened by porticoes, by terraces, and by thirty altars, decorated with a rare variety.”

Saxon Minster at Winchester
Perhaps this reconstruction of the Minster at Winchester gives some idea as to how the Saxon church may have appeared.

During the next 300 years the cathedral church of York was often a place of consecration for bishops, and the burial place of kings. A gift of tin from Alcuin in 801 was probably made to roof a small, recently built belfry.

Standing as part of the infrastructure of governance of the north of England the church had a chequered time under Viking and Danish rule. When York was taken by the Danes in 866 it is likely that the Saxon Minster was damaged, though it seems to have lived on through the Viking period. The Danish king, Guthfrith, converted to Christianity and was buried in the Minster in 895.

King Eadred gave two large bells to the church in 946. During the late 10th and 11th centuries there were a series of Benedictine archbishops, including Saint Oswald of Worcester, Wulfstan and Ealdred. Archbishop Ealdred was malleable in his political allegiances; he supported Harold as king but switched allegiances after the Battle of Hastings and indeed travelled to Westminster to crown William the Conqueror in 1066. Ealdred died in 1069 and was buried in York Minster.

The church sustained damage during William the Conqueror’s Harrying of the North, but the first Norman archbishop, Thomas of Bayeux, organised repairs. The Danes destroyed the church in 1075, prompting a re-build in Norman style with white and red banding.

There was tension at this time between Archbishop Thomas of York and Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury. Lanfranc initially refused to consecrate Thomas as he would not submit to an oath of obedience to Canterbury, both on behalf of himself and future Archbishops of York.

Norman York Minster
Reconstruction of the Norman York Minster built by Archbishop Thomas of Bayeux

York Minster secured its own patron saint (perhaps seeking to rival Canterbury’s Augustine and Becket) when William was canonised in 1224. William was elected Archbishop in 1141, then fell out of favour with the Pope and was replaced by Abbot Murdac of Fountains Abbey. When they both died, William returned to York from Sicily in 1153. He was greeted by a huge crowd but its weight was so great it caused the Ouse bridge to collapse. Only a miracle performed by William meant no one was hurt. The following year William fell ill after celebrating mass at York Minster and died a week later; many believed he had been given poison in the chalice he had used. The shrine of Saint William attracted many pilgrims and the shrine itself was made progressively more elaborate.

Saint William of York
Saint William on Ouse Bridge – stained glass in York Minster

The present church was begun in 1220 and took 250 years to complete. Walter de Gray had been appointed archbishop and his vision was a Gothic structure to rival Canterbury. The old Norman cathedral was dismantled in stages as Gothic additions were made.

The north and south transepts and a central tower with wooden spire were amongst the earlier features. That on the south had probably been begun by 1227 and was complete by 1241 when Walter de Gray founded a chantry in the east aisle. The chapter house, with no central column, was begun in the 1260s.

York Minster - Chapter House
The Chapter House of York Minster

The wide nave (in proportion to the new transepts) was started in 1291 by Archbishop John Romeyn, though the western wall was not completed until 1338 and the roof was not timbered until 1354. The tower had to be rebuilt after a collapse in 1407, and it was only in 1472 that the cathedral was declared complete and consecrated.

The creamy white oolitic limestone used for the Minster was quarried at Tadcaster. The Minster is 525ft long and the tower is 235ft high.

The Great East Window (finished in 1408) at the end of the nave is the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world. The north transept features the Five Sisters Window, each lancet of which is over 53 feet high and 5 feet wide. The south transept contains a stunning rose window, the glass of which dates from about 1500 and commemorates the union of the royal houses of York and Lancaster.

Five Sisters Window - York Minster
The Five Sisters window in the north transept

The reformation brought changes to York Minster but not its destruction. The new protestant orthodoxy affected the decoration and functioning of the cathedral. In 1541 the shrine of Saint William was broken up. In 1547, the 60 chantries of the Minster, which were used to say prayers for the souls of the dead, were abolished.

The liturgy of the cathedral changed under Edward VI, with new service books issued in 1549 and 1552, reducing the number of daily services to just Matins, Communion and Evening Prayer. As the religious leanings of the 16th century monarchs swayed so items such as vestments and altar frontals were removed then replaced.

The Minster was caught in the crossfire of the Civil War in 1644. Reports suggest cannonballs came through windows during services when the royalist city was besieged by Parliamentarians. Once the city surrendered a deal was reached to protect the Minster from further damage. During the Commonwealth, the archbishopric was disbanded but with restoration of the church and the monarchy, so worship, singing and religious infrastructure returned.

There were few major changes to the fabric of the Minster in this period though in the 1730s the floor of the Minster was re-laid in patterned marble.

Early in the 19th century there was a major restoration then fires in 1829 and 1840 forced new repairs. By the 1850s the cathedral was in debt and services were, for a few years, suspended.

1840s Minton Tiles - York Minster
The restoration of 1843-1845 included an ornate Minton tiled floor for the Chapter House

During the second World War precautions were taken to protect elements of the cathedral from the threat of bomb damage. This included removal of 80 windows for safekeeping.

The 20th century saw incremental repairs and improvements but again it was a fire which prompted the most significant intervention. The major fire of 1984 necessitated rebuild of the south transept and restoration of the Rose Window.

The Great East Window was the focus of a massive project in the early 21st century. Over 300 stained glass panels were removed from the 15th-century window, which is the size of a tennis court so York Glaziers Trust could restore the fragile masterpiece. The project also involved the conservation or replacement of nearly 2,500 stones by York Minster’s stonemasons.

The window is one of the most significant medieval artworks and is the work of Coventry glazier John Thornton. The window contains two biblical cycles, Creation and Revelation – the beginning and the end of all things. Beneath the heavenly realm at the head of the window, populated by angels, prophets, patriarchs, apostles, saints, and martyrs, there are three rows of 27 Old Testament scenes from the Creation to the death of Absalom. Below this, scenes from the Apocalypse appears, with a row of historical figures at the base of the window.

Great East Window - York Minster
The Great East Window after its conservation (2008–2018). Image credit: Amanda Slater, CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Archaeology of York Minster

It is unusual for archaeologists to have opportunities to excavate under churches or cathedrals.

However, in the late 1960s surveys of the Minster’s central tower revealed the 16,000 tonne structure was gradually sinking. This forced a major civil engineering project to strengthen foundations – and the opportunity for archaeologists to explore what lies below.

York Minster Excavation -
Roman Basilica wall under York Minster - 1972

Basilica wall exposed under York Minster in 1972

The excavations confirmed the belief that the Minster overlies the Roman barracks of the Roman fortress at Eboracum, originally established in 71AD. A column from the barracks’ Principia (headquarters) unearthed during the excavations has been reconstructed and now stands outside the Minster’s South Transept.

Other finds included evidence of an Anglo-Scandinavian cemetery, and the extensive remains of the Norman cathedral of 1080, the footings and walls of which were reused from 1220 as the foundations of the Gothic arcades in the cathedral we know today. The Norman stonework, designed to bear a much lighter load of completely different geometric properties, failed after nearly 900 years extended service, precipitating the crisis.

A legacy of the underground repairs and excavations was the Undercroft, a space around the foundations left deliberately open beneath the re-laid main floor to make the archaeological remains accessible to the public. A stairwell was dug in the South Transept in 1972, and more recently a lift has been installed, prompting a small additional excavation to a depth 4.2m below the South Transept floor. The work in 2012 provided further glimpses of the site’s history prior to the current minster. Finds included a locally minted silver coin called a sceatta dating from the 9th century, and post holes which could be contemporary with the first wooden cathedral.

Surviving remains of the Norman Minster (Image Credit – www.historyofyork.org.uk)

Roman Principia and nearby buildings and roads shown overlain on modern plan of the Minster area. The 2012 trench in the Minster South Transept is shown in blue (Northern Archaeology Today, Issue 3)

The York Minster Fires

The history of York Minster has been punctuated by major fires. We may think that stone buildings would not be susceptible to fire but in reality an ancient cathedral contains a vast amount of wood.

The first stone church was destroyed by fire. Its replacement was completed by 790 when Alcunius, returning from France, seemed most impressed:

“It is very high and supported on solid columns which support recurved arches; beautiful paneling and numerous windows make it shine with the greatest brilliance; its magnificence is further heightened by porticoes, by terraces, and by thirty altars, decorated with a rare variety.”

The Saxon church burns down during the “Harrying of the North” by William I. An army sent by Sweyn of Denmark landed in the north and captured York. A fire lit by the Normans in an attempt to prevent the Danes and local rebels attacking the two castles got out of control and a large part of the city was destroyed including the cathedral.

The whole city of York was burned down due to a fire started by accident, and this badly damaged the minster and other churches. The damage was subsequently made good under the direction of Thomas’s successor, Roger of Pont L’Eveque. The choir and crypt were rebuilt from 1154, and a large chapel dedicated to St. Sepulchre was added to the nave.

An arsonist, Jonathan Martin, concealed himself in the Minster after evensong and succeeded in setting the choir ablaze. The fire was not discovered until the following morning and was not extinguished until the evening of that day. There was heavy damage on the east arm, including destruction of the organ. A public subscription was raised for the repair work and the new choir was opened on 6 May 1832.

Harper describes how Martin fled the scene travelling north:

Meanwhile, the incendiary had fled along the Great North Road; first to Easingwold, thirteen miles away, where he drank a pint of ale; and then tramping on to Thirsk. Thence he hurried to Northallerton, arriving at three o’clock in the afternoon, worn out with thirty-three miles of walking. That night he journeyed in a coal-cart to West Auckland, and so eventually to a friend near Hexham, in whose house he was arrested on the 6th of February. Taken to York, he was tried at the sessions at York Castle on 30th March. The verdict, given on the following day, was not guilty, on the ground of insanity,’ and he was ordered to be kept in close custody during his Majesty’s pleasure.

Jonathan Martin - York Minster Arsonist

Jonathan Martin drawn in Goal at York Castle by the Rev J Kilby

An accidental fire left the nave, southwest tower and south aisle roofless and blackened shells. The nave piers were severely cracked and chipped, and the west doors destroyed; the glass, however, was largely preserved. The nave was re-opened after restoration on 15 June 1843.

A small fire in the lower roof of the western aisle of the north transept was quickly extinguished and did little damage.

A lightning strike caused a serious fire in the south transept during the early hours of 9th July prompting firefighters to deliberately collapse the roof of the south transept by pouring tens of thousands of gallons of water onto it. This saved the rest of the building from destruction. The glass of the south transept rose window was shattered by the heat but the lead held it together, allowing it to be taken down for restoration.