EBK Home
  King Arthur
  For Kids
  Mail David


York Minster from thr south-eastYork Minster, York
Site of King Edwin's Palace

The Cathedral & Metropolitcal Church of St. Peter in York is popularly known as 'York Minster' from its original foundation as a missionary church or monaterium. It is the seat of the Archbishop of York and, as such, is, not surprisingly, the most dramatic of churches in Northern England. It is simply vast - the largest medieval cathedral in Northern Europe - and displays some of the best examples of the medieval craftsman's work to be found anywhere. Particularly of note are the fine carvings in the chapter house (c.1275) and the fantastic array of medieval glass dating back to the 12th century.

The present structure was built in several stages between the early 13th and late 15th centuries. The transepts are early English, the nave is decorated gothic and the tower, quire & lady chapel are Perpendicular. Remains of the previous Norman structure can be seen in the undercroft, but the Minster has been the site of Christian worship since King Edwin of Northumbria was baptised here by St. Paulinus in AD 627. Traditionally this was in the well still to be seen in the present cathedral crypt. It stood just to the north of the old Roman Military Headquarters Building which is thought to have become the Palace of the Deiran and then the Northumbrian Kings. The threshold of a late 4th century entrance, excavated at the back of the great basilica, certainly became considerably warn over a long period of time - probably well into the 7th century. While the grand main entrance to the courtyard still survives today as Minster Gates.

Saxon Gravestones excavated beneath the present York MinsterThe pagan King Edwin was married to Princess Ethelburga of Kent who had brought Paulinus to the north as her personal chaplain. At the Royal palace in York, Edwin allowed him to build a church "of weed, of hasty workmanship, whilst he was receiving instruction, in preparation for baptism." We know that it stood within an 'arx' (walled enclosure) and was reached from the 'aula' (the Royal Palace) by crossing a public square. Soon after his conversion, however, the King set about encasing this temporary shack within a basilican cathedral of stone. Unfortunately, the city was overrun by Welsh and Mercian troops six years later and the scaffolded church was set alight. Edwin was killed in battle soon afterward and his cathedral remained a sad ruin for at least a year. Upon King Oswald's accession, however, building work recommenced and York Minster was finally completed and dedicated to St. Peter in AD 640. It was a fine building, though the windows were apparently unglazed, being instead covered with translucent linen or boards pierced with holes. Oswald had his uncle Edwin's body was buried at Whitby Abbey, but his head, which had become detached in battle, was taken to the chapel of St. Gregory at the new minster in York. Here, it was venerated as a holy relic for many centuries. The large Saxon cemetery excavated beneath the present south transept may also have been founded near the church at this time.

Saxon Gravestone excavated beneath the present York MinsterDespite its new found pilgrimage potential however, the church at York lost its cathedral status to Lindisfarne in Northumberland the following year. Thirty years of obscurity followed, until St. Wilfrid persuaded the Northumbrians to switch from Irish-based  to Roman Catholicism. Being highly influenced by Rome itself, which he had visited, Wilfred preferred the urban setting of York to rural Lindisfarne. Upon becoming Bishop of York in AD 664, he found the minster in a state of disrepair: "The leaking roofs admitted rain and the open windows, birds who built their nests within and were constantly flying in and out. The rain and the birds, together, defiled and discoloured the neglected walls."  But he did not repair the structure as his new cathedral with whitewashed walls of lime until his return from a European tour in AD 669. He had the roof releaded and glazed the windows for the first time. It may have been at this time that the little used Royal palace surrounding the cathedral was handed over to Episcopal control, while the Kings of Northumbria built a new residence around the the south-east gate of the old Roman fort. This area is now called 'King's Square' although the name may only date from the Viking period.

Saxon Gravestone excavated beneath the present York MinsterFor almost the next hundred years, the cathedral and the diocese flourished, culminating in Bishop Egbert being raised to the Archiepiscopate in AD 735. Bishop Wilfred II had refurbished the cathedral in the AD 720s; but, on 23rd April AD 741, the church, or at least part of the Archiepiscopal complex, was apparently destroyed by fire. It must have been pretty devastating, for the place was apparently not rebuilt until Bishop Albert came to the Archiepiscopal throne in AD 767. Though it is just possible the description is of Holy Trinity Priory in Micklegate, the cathedral's famous schoolmaster, Alcuin, appears to describe this building in his poetry:

"A new structure of a wondrous basilica was in the days of this bishop began, completed, and consecrated. This house of appropriate altitude is supported by solid columns set under curved arches. Within it sparkles with admirable ceilings and windows, and in its beauty shines, environed with many aisles (or apsidal chapels). It has a great number of apartments with distinct roofs, which contain thirty altars with various ornaments. Two disciples, Enbald and Alcuin, at the command of the prelate erected this temple, and he himself consecrated it to the Saviour ten days before his death."

Another associated building of note was a small bellcote with two large bells. The trappings within were described thus:

"The bishop had constructed a large altar and covered it all about with gold and silver and jewels. He dedicated it to the name of holy Paul; He suspended above this altar a lofty candelabrum, which sustained three large vessels for oil with nine rows of lights. He raised the banner of the cross aloft the altar, and covered the whole with precious metals.... And he made another altar, and clothed it with pure silver and with precious stones, and dedicated it to the martyrs and to the cross."

The high number of chapels can probably be explained by the use of multi-storied galleries. Bishop Albert crowned King Erdwulf of Northumbria in one of these dedicated to St. Paul in AD 796. The cathedral's school and library were the envy of all Europe at this time. However, when the Vikings took York in AD 866, the buildings were sacked and the library dispersed, if not destroyed. The cathedral was in decline. Later, however, constitutional changes forced upon the complex, and instigated by Bishop Wulfstan II, led Bishop Aeldred to undertaking considerable new building work.

Important Burials in the Saxon Cathedral include: King Edwin's Head (AD 632), King Aelfwin (AD 678), Archbishop Egbert (AD 766), King Edbert (AD 768), Archbishop Enbald I (AD 796), King Osbald (AD 799), King Guthfrith (AD 895), King Sweyn (temporarily in AD 1014) and Archbishop Aeldred (1069). It survived until 1069 when it was destroyed by the ravaging Vikings.


    Nash Ford Publishing 2003. All Rights Reserved.