Whitby Abbey - History and Facts | History Hit

Whitby Abbey

Whitby, England, United Kingdom

Whitby Abbey is a picturesque cliff-top ruin of the 13th century church which belonged to a Benedictine abbey in Yorkshire.

Amy Irvine

10 Mar 2021
Image Credit: Shuttershock

About Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey is a picturesque cliff-top ruin of the 13th century church of a Benedictine abbey. It overlooks the North Sea on the East Cliff above Whitby, North Yorkshire, and was once a centre of the medieval Northumbrian kingdom.

History of Whitby Abbey

The Whitby headland was first settled during the late Bronze Age, and may also have been occupied by a Roman signal station in the 3rd century AD.

An Anglo-Saxon monastery was first founded here by Northumbria’s King Oswy in 657 AD, and became one of the most important religious centres in the Anglo-Saxon world. In 664 it was the setting for the Synod of Whitby, a landmark in the history of the Church in England (hosted by St Hild, a pioneering abbess), where King Oswy ruled that his kingdom would follow Roman rather than Celtic practices – establishing the Roman method of calculating Easter still in use today.

Nothing remains of that monastery now – it was abandoned at some point in the 9th century, probably as a result of raids by Vikings from Denmark. Around 1078 a monk called Reinfrid founded a new monastic community at Whitby, including a Benedictine monastery on the headland. However, the jagged walls and arches that still stand here are what’s left of a later Gothic church, part of a Benedictine abbey begun in 1220 by the Normans.

Over time, Whitby Abbey has suffered from a series of destructive elements, having been ravaged by invaders and dissolved by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. After the abbey’s suppression in 1539, the Chomley family bought the abbey’s buildings and the core of its estates, occupying them until the 18th century. After this time, the abbey’s walls became weakened by erosion from the elements.

Ownership of the abbey’s ruins passed to the Strickland family (descendants of the Cholmleys). In 1914 the German High Seas Fleet shelled Whitby, causing considerable damage to the west front. The Strickland family handed the abbey ruins over to the Ministry of Works in 1920.

Whitby Abbey has several claims to fame. The site has been the residence of poet Caedmon the cowherd as well as a royal final resting place. What’s more, Dracula author Bram Stoker used the site as inspiration for his dark novel.

Whitby Abbey today

The abbey’s ruins continue to be used by sailors as a landmark at the headland, and were declared a Grade I Listed building in the 20th century. Today, Whitby Abbey is open to the public under the remit of English Heritage. There is also a modern visitor centre housed in Cholmley House (also known as Whitby Hall), a 17th-century mansion, which tells the story of Whitby Abbey as well as having exhibitions of finds from the site.

Getting to Whitby Abbey

The nearest main road to Whitby Abbey is the A174, but access is via the cliff top Cleveland Way, off Hawsker Lane. A car park is located 100 metres from the abbey. The nearest train station is Whitby, 1⁄2 mile away. Buses 97 and 97A serve Whitby Abbey itself.

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