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 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.