10 Amazing Facts About York Minster

Alice Roberts

4 mins

04 Nov 2019

Ever since the 2nd century, York has played a pivotal role in determining the course of British history. Today, it holds the seat of the Archbishop of York, the third-highest office in the Church of England after the monarch and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Here are 10 facts about York Minster, the ancient cathedral of the city.

1. It was the site of an important Roman basilica

Outside the front entrance of the Minster is a statue of Emperor Constantine who, on 25 July 306 AD, was proclaimed Emperor of the Western Roman Empire by his troops in York (then Eboracum).

Eboracum had been an important Roman stronghold in Britain from about 70 AD. Indeed between 208 and 211, Septimus Severus had ruled the Roman Empire from York. He also died there, on 4 February 211.

Constantine the Great was proclaimed Emperor at York in 306. Image source: Son of Groucho / CC BY 2.0.

2. The name of Minster comes from Anglo-Saxon times

York Minster is officially the ‘Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York’. Although it is by definition a cathedral, as it is the site of a bishop’s throne, the word ‘cathedral’ did not come into use until the Norman Conquest. The word ‘minster’ was what Anglo-Saxons named their important churches.

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3. There was a cathedral police force

On the 2 February 1829, a religious fanatic named Jonathan Martin set the cathedral alight with arson. The heart of the cathedral was gutted, and after this disaster a cathedral police force was employed:

‘Henceforward a watchman/constable shall be employed to keep watch every night in and about the cathedral.’

York Minster’s police force became such a presence that it’s likely Robert Peel worked with them to research the ‘Peelers’ – the first Metropolitan police force in Britain.

The Minster, as viewed from the south. Image source: MatzeTrier / CC BY-SA 3.0.

4. It was struck by a lightning bolt

On 9 July 1984, on a hot summer’s night, a lightning bolt struck York Minster. Fire engulfed the roof, until it collapsed at 4am. Bob Littlewood, the Superintendent of Works, described the scene:

‘We suddenly heard this roar as the roof started to come down and we just had to run as the whole thing collapsed like a pack of cards.’

The convectional heat from the fire cracked the 7,000 pieces of glass in the Rose Window in the South Transept into about 40,000 places – but remarkably, the window stayed in one piece. This was mainly due to the restoration and re-leading work from twelve years before.

5. The Rose Window is world famous

The Rose Window was produced in the year 1515 by the workshop of Master Glazier Robert Petty. The outer panels contain two red Lancastrian roses, alternating with panels containing two red and white Tudor roses.

The South transept houses the famous Rose Window. Image source: dun_deagh / CC BY-SA 2.0.

This alluded to the union of the Houses of Lancaster and York through the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York in 1486, and may have been designed to enforce the legitimacy of the new ruling house of Tudor.

There are about 128 stained glass windows in York Minster, made from more than 2 million separate glass pieces.

6. It was first built as a temporary structure

A church first stood here in 627. It was quickly erected to provide a place for Edwin, king of Northumbria, to be baptised. It was finally completed 252 years later.

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Since its establishment in the 7th century, there have been 96 archbishops and bishops. Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, was cardinal here for 16 years but never once stepped foot in the Minster.

7. It is the largest medieval Gothic cathedral north of the Alps

Because the structure was built across two and a half centuries, it embodies all the major stages of Gothic architectural development.

The north and south transepts were built in the Early English style, the octagonal Chapter House and nave were built in the Decorated style, and the quire and central tower were built in Perpendicular style.

The nave of York Minster. Image source: Diliff / CC BY-SA 3.0.

It has been argued that this more sober Perpendicular style reflected  a nation suffering under the Black Death.

8. The tower weighs the same as 40 jumbo jets

The Minster was built to challenge the architectural supremacy of Canterbury, as it dates from the period when York was the main economic, political and religious centre in the North.

A panorama of 15th century York.

It was built out of cream-coloured magnesian limestone, quarried from nearby Tadcaster.

The structure is surmounted by the central tower, which has a height of 21 storeys and weighs about the same as 40 jumbo jets. On a very clear day Lincoln Cathedral can be seen 60 miles away.

9. Some parts of the cathedral roof were designed by children

During the restoration following the 1984 fire, Blue Peter held a children’s competition to design the new bosses for the cathedral roof. The winning designs depicted Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon, and the 1982 raising of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s warship. 

York Minster is famed for containing medieval stained glass. Image source: Paul Hudson / CC BY 2.0.

10. It is the only UK cathedral to put mistletoe on the high altar

This ancient use of mistletoe is connected to Britain’s druid past, which was particularly strong in the north of England. The mistletoe, which grows on lime, poplar, apple and hawthorn trees, was held in high regard by the Druids, who believed it warded off evil spirits and represented friendship.

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Most early churches didn’t display mistletoe because of its association with the Druids. However, York Minster held a winter Mistletoe Service, where the city’s evil doers were invited to seek forgiveness.

Featured Image: Paul Hudson / CC BY 2.0.