While in York, I just had to visit the York Minster, the largest gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. Today, I want to write some about my visit to the Minster, relaying some of the information that I have learned and sharing some of the pictures that I have taken of it. Like my post on the Brontë Parsonage, this will not be a comprehensive post detailing everything about the Minster. Rather, it will just provide an overview of some of the things that I have found most interesting.

A church has been at the spot of the Minster for a long time, dating back to about 627 when a wooden structure was erected for the baptism of Northumbria’s King Edward. They do not know where the wooden church originally sat, but they do know it fell into disrepair in the latter part of the seventh century and in 741 caught fire and fell to the ground. The church was rebuilt and in 1075 the Danes destroyed it. (The Wikipedia page has an extensive history with more dates.)

View of Minster from Dean’s Park

The key moment came in the early part of the 13th century when William de Gray became archbishop. Between about 1220 and 1472, the Minster went through several stages of construction. In 1420, the original tower collapsed, and the new tower, the one standing now, was erected. The central tower weighs 16,000 metric tons.

According to the guide I had for our ghost tour, he had a friend named Harry Martindale who was working on the Treasurer’s House in 1953. While working on the piping in the cellar, he was on a ladder and saw a Roman soldier, followed by a cart horse and about ten pairs of Roman soldiers, in what appeared to be military garb, from the knees up, walking in the cellar. As they walked, they vanished into the wall. He fell down from his ladder and told everybody, but no one believed him. He missed work for a few weeks due to the experience.

David Holt recalling Martindale’s account in the cellar of the Treasurer’s House.
Statue of Constantine outside the Minster

A survey in 1967 revealed that the central tower was under threat of collapse and some of the floor was sinking downward. An excavation revealed the ruins of a building underneath the Minster. What the workers found was actually the ruins of the Roman Principa, the Roman fort for the town they called Eboracum. They also found the Roman road. The apparitions that Martindale saw were walking, as the survey discovered, along one of the main Roman roads towards the Principia. As well, they appeared to be cut off at the knees because the road was that far beneath the current level of the ground. Adding to all of this, after the death of Constantius in 306 in York, Constantine became the Roman Emperor and spread Christianity throughout the kingdom. He appointed the first bishop at Eboracum. This is why there is a statute to Constantine and a marker for the Roman road right outside of the Minster.

Roman column outside the Minster

Engineers strengthened the foundation of the Minster, especially the spots that are sitting on top of the Principia. There is no fear of the tower collapsing due to a weakened foundation now. In 2013, the Minster opened up a section called the Undercroft where visitors can see the Principia and trace the Minster’s history from the Roman period through the present.

Our tour guide inside the Minster told us three stories that I want to share with you. One involves the cleaning of the stained glass. When they clean the glass, they must take it out and separate it, piece by piece, and clean each individual piece. They are, since the completion of the Minster, in the third cycle of cleaning, about once every 300 years for each window. During a cleaning in 1910, the Minster decided to send the glass being cleaned to London. So, they packed it up in crates with straw and set it off on a train. The company they sent the glass to, though, did not realize they needed to clean it. Instead, they thought the Minster wanted a replica so they threw away the original and sent back a replica. The window, as you can see, looks much clearer than the surrounding ones due to its age.

The 1910 stained glass window

The next story involves the Great East Window, created by glazier John Thornton between 1405 and 1408. The top depicts the book of Genesis, and the larger panels at the bottom depict the book of Revelations and the apocalypse. It is the size of a doubles tennis court and the largest stained glass in England. The church asked Thornton how long it would take him to make the piece. He said three years. They offered him £46, and if he completed it in three years, he would get a £10 bonus. He ended up making £56, which is a little over £10 million today.

View of Great East Window from the lecturn
Great East Window (Sorry about picture quality here.)
Great Eastern Window from outside
Great Eastern Window at night

The Dean Of York in the early 1900s went antique shopping in London. While there, he found the piece pictured below and bought it. He purchased the piece because of its depiction of the nativity, specifically the three Magi. He turned the piece into a banner that is still used during Advent and Christmas services. What is cool about this piece is that, as the guide told us, it’s a 300 year old Norwegian quilt. A quilt, made 300+ years ago, possibly in Norway, serves as a banner at the Minster. That is pretty cool.

Norwegian quilt now used as banner for Advent services

Three fires have damaged the current Minster. Two occurred in the 1800s and one in 1984. These fires damaged the roofs and destroyed some of the bosses that helped support the roofs. One of the bosses, after the 1840s fire is a little different from its original. The original boss showed Mary breastfeeding baby Jesus. However, the replacement differs by having Mary bottle feed Jesus. Chalk this one up to Victorian sensibilities.

After the 1984 fire, the British kids show Blue Peter had a contest where kids could send in their designs for new bosses. Out of the 30k plus submissions, only around seven were chosen. Three are below. The first, designed by a seven year old, shows a whale and a diver. The second, designed by a six year old, shows an astronaut on a crescent shaped moon. The last, designed by a ten year old, depicts a Tudor Rose. The idea of having a contest for kids to design pieces that would go in the Minster is amazing. These winners have their work immortalized in a history dating back to the Romans. This fact shows that the Minster, while steeped in history, is still very much a part of the present.

I want to conclude this post with a lot of pictures of the Minster from various angles. I’ve walked the city walls, on a few days, and snapped some pictures of the Minster. One day I had the sun. One morning I had the fog. Plus, I snapped a few at night and from the adjoining garden. I want to share them with you. Enjoy!

Western entrance to Minster
View of Minster from the city wall.
The Minster from the city wall.
The Minster from the city wall.
The Minster on a sunny day. Taken from the city wall.
Image of the Minster in the fog. Taken from the city wall.
Another image of the Minster in the fog. Taken from the city wall.

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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