York Minster

York – Edwin’s Minster

York’s cathedral, although known as a minster, is officially the ‘Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York’. By definition a cathedral is the site of a bishop’s throne – ‘a cathedra’ – but the word ‘cathedral’ did not come into use until after the Norman conquest. In Anglo-Saxon times important churches were minsters, but not all were bishops’ seats.

York Minster
York Minster © David Simpson

York Minster’s history began in 627AD when King Edwin of Northumbria was baptised in a simple wooden church at York within the site of the old Roman fort. The church was approved by the Pope and its dedication to St Peter reflected its links with Rome.

The wooden church was rebuilt in stone and completed by King Oswald but the bishop’s seat was transferred for a time to Lindisfarne. The minster was rebuilt again in 664AD and again after a fire in 741AD. It was eventually destroyed during the Norman siege of the city in 1069.

York Minster
York Minster © David Simpson

From Norman to Gothic

York Minster is built in the Gothic style of architecture but what is not widely known is that York was once, like Durham, a Norman cathedral. The Norman cathedral at York was started before Durham in 1070 by the Archbishop of York, Thomas of Bayeux and a Norman choir was added towards the end of the following century (after Durham) by Archbishop Roger of Pont L’Eveque.

Roger’s work seems to have been influenced by Durham Cathedral, but the only remains of the Norman Cathedral at York are below ground level in the minster crypt.

York Minster
York Minster © David Simpson

One thing York lacked in the early days was a shrine and the shrines of saints were a rich source of revenue for Medieval cathedrals. So in the thirteenth century William Fitzherbert, Archbishop of York, was posthumously canonised and became St William of York. This encouraged pilgrims to visit York and helped the minster compete with other shrines such as St John Lee’s at Beverley Minster.

York Minster © David Simpson

The Minster represents almost every stage of the Gothic style of architecture from 1230 to 1475. The Gothic style is most notable for its distinctive pointed arches and its rich decoration.

The present York Minster was built from 1220 and the old Norman cathedral was dismantled in stages as Gothic additions were made. The Gothic style was adopted at York to keep up with the new fashion and to allow considerable enlargement to the cathedral in keeping with its status as the centre of an Archbishopric.

York Minster
York Minster © David Simpson

The Gothic style minster at York was started around 1220 by Archbishop Walter de Grey (1216-1255). He replaced the Norman transepts with Early English Gothic transepts in the period 1227 to 1260.

The new transepts dwarfed the Norman nave so one of Grey’s successors, Archbishop John Romanus, replaced the nave with a new Gothic structure from 1291. The Norman choir was replaced by Archbishop Thoresby from 1361 and by 1400 the minster was entirely Gothic.

York Minster, central tower
York Minster, central tower © David Simpson

The central tower was added in 1405-1415, using money donated by Walter Skirlaw, the Bishop of Durham, and the western towers added from 1433 to 1475. The minster was finally completed and consecrated on July 3, 1472.

The Minster is built of oolitic limestone from the Tadcaster area and gives the minster its white appearance. York has the highest proportion of Medieval stained glass of any European cathedral and there is a magnificent Rose Windows known as the Heart of Yorkshire.

York Minster Roof
Looking up to the roof in York Minster © David Simpson

The Minster Yard

The Minster Yard surrounds both York Minster and Dean’s Park (a cathedral close) which is just to the north of the minster. The most notable building in this area is the Treasurer’s House in Chapter House Street which is mainly seventeenth and eighteenth century with cellars dating back to the thirteenth century. It was historically the home to the Treasurer of York Minster.

Attached to the Treasurer’s House and forming a courtyard with it is a house called Gray’s Court (St John’s College), parts of this building are twelfth century. A little further to the east is the historic St William’s College in College Street.

St Michael-le-Belfrey’s church in Minster Yard lies on the south side of the minster between minster Yard and Petergate. It was first mentioned in 1284, but was by tradition founded in 1066. It was completely rebuilt between 1525 and 1536 and has a Victorian facade.

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