St Mary's Abbey, York

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St. Mary's Abbey
St Marys Abbey Church York.jpg
Ruins of St Mary's Abbey Church
Monastery information
Order Benedictine
Established 1088
Disestablished 1539
Dedicated to St. Mary
Diocese York
Founder(s) Stephen of Whitby, Alan Rufus, William II of England, William the Conqueror
Location York, Yorkshire, England
Coordinates 53°57′41″N 1°05′17″W / 53.96139°N 1.08806°W / 53.96139; -1.08806Coordinates: 53°57′41″N 1°05′17″W / 53.96139°N 1.08806°W / 53.96139; -1.08806
Visible remains Hospitium, precinct walls, gatehouse, abbey church (ruins with part of the nave and crossing still standing), abbot's house (substantially altered); statues and other remains in the Yorkshire Museum.
Public access yes (Museum Gardens)

The Abbey of St Mary is a ruined Benedictine abbey in York, England and a Grade I listed building.[1]


Once the richest abbey in the north of England,[2] it lies in what are now the Yorkshire Museum Gardens, on a steeply-sloping site to the west of York Minster.

The original church on the site was founded in 1055 and dedicated to Saint Olaf II of Norway. The abbey church was refounded in 1088[1][3] for Abbot Stephen and a group of monks from Whitby by the Anglo-Breton magnate Alan Rufus, who laid the foundation stone of the Norman church in January or February[4] that year.[5] The foundation ceremony was attended by bishop Odo of Bayeux and Archbishop Thomas of Bayeux.[2] The monks moved to York from a site at Lastingham in Ryedale in the 1080s and are recorded there in Domesday.[2] Following a dispute and riot in 1132, a party of reform-minded monks left to establish the Cistercian monastery of Fountains Abbey.[6] The surviving ruins date from a rebuilding programme begun in 1271 and finished by 1294.

Ruins of the abbey church from the southern end


The abbey occupied an extensive precinct site immediately outside the city walls, between Bootham and the River Ouse.[1][5] The original boundary included a ditch and a narrow strip of ground, but the walled circuit was constructed above this in the 1260s in the Abbacy of Simon de Warwick;[5] the walls were nearly three-quarters of a mile long. In 1318 the abbot received royal permission to raise the height of the wall and crenelate it; a stretch of this wall still runs along Bootham and Marygate to the River Ouse.[2]

The gatehouse in Marygate and its lodge formed part of a range of buildings that linked to the older church of St Olave by a chapel dedicated to Mary. Though work on the chapel and gatehouse was under way 1314 and completed in 1320, the surviving structures are mostly of fifteenth-century origin.[2]

Abbey Church[edit]

The abbey church is aligned northeast-southwest, due to restrictions of the site.[2] The original Norman church had an apsidal liturgical east end, and its side aisles ended in apses, though they were square on the exterior. Rebuilding began in 1270, under the direction of Abbot Simon de Warwick,[5] and was swiftly completed during a single twenty-four year building campaign,[3] such was the financial strength of the abbey. The completed abbey church was 350 ft in length, consisted of a nave with aisles, north and south trancepts with chapels in an eastern aisle, and a presbytery with aisles.[5] To the east of the cloister and on the line of the transepts were a vestibule leading to the chapter house, the scriptorium and library.[5] Beyond the church lay the kitchen, novices' building and infirmary.[5] The Abbey chronicle (which has not been fully translated from Latin) names the project officers as Simon de Warwick, a monk administrator and the master stonemason Master Simon,[3] all of whom were still alive upon the completion of the project in 1294.[3]

The Abbots House[edit]

The abbot's house, built of brick in 1483, survived as the "King's Manor" because it became the seat of the Council of the North in 1539; the abbots of St Mary's and the abbey featured in the medieval and early modern ballads of Robin Hood, with the abbot usually as Robin Hood's nemesis).

In August 1513 the Abbot supplied four chests for the use of Philip Tilney treasurer of the English army before the battle of Flodden. The Abbey seems to have become the accounting office for the army in the north, involving Thomas Magnus Archdeacon of the East Riding and two monks of the abbey, Richard Wode and Richard Rypon.[7]

The Dissolution[edit]

St Mary's, the largest and richest Benedictine establishment in the north of England and one of the largest landholders in Yorkshire, was worth over £2,000 a year, (equivalent to £1,210,000 in 2015),[8] when it was valued in 1539, during the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII; it was closed and subsequently substantially destroyed. On 26 November 1539 the Abbey surrendered £2,085 and 50 monks to the crown.[9]

Abbots of St. Mary's[edit]

The abbots of St. Mary's were similar in prestige to the Archbishop of York, being entitled to wear a mitre and having a seat in Parliament (allowing them the style "My Lord Abbot").[9] In total there were 30 Abbots, including:[9]

Abbot Dates of Abbacy Notes
Stephen of Whitby 1088–1112
Richard 1112–1131
Gaufried 1131–1133 Seceded
Severinus (or Savaricus)
Clement 1161–1184
Robert de Harpham 1184–1189
Robery de Longo Campo 1189–1194 Deposed
William de Roundel  ? – 1239
Thomas de Warthill
Simon de Warwick 1258–1296 Major rebuilding programme
Benedict de Malton 1296–1303
John de Gilling 1303–1313
Alan de Wasse 1313–1331
Thomas de Malton 1331–1359
William de Mary's 1359–1382
William de Bradford 1382–1389
Thomas de Staynesgrave 1389–1398
Thomas de Pygott 1398–1405
Thomas de Spoffoth
William Dalton  ? – 1423
William Welly (or Wells)  ? – 1436 Resigned
Roger Kyrkby (or Kiby)
John cottingham
Thomas Bothe  ? – 1485
William Sevyr Later Bishop of Durham 1502–1505
Robert Warhop  ? – 1507
Edmund Thornton
Edmund Whalley
William Thornton c.1530 – 1540 Abbot during the Dissolution of the Monasteries


Painting of the surviving ruins by Michael Angelo Rooker in 1778
Visible remains of St Mary's Abbey, York

All that remains today are the north and west walls, plus a few other remnants: the half-timbered Pilgrims' Hospitium, the West Gate and the 14th-century timber-framed Abbot's House (now called the King's Manor). The walls include interval towers along the north and west stretches, St Mary's Tower at the northwest corner and a polygonal water tower by the river. Much stone was removed from the site in the 18th century, in 1705 for St. Olave's Church, between 1717–1720 for Beverley Minster, and in 1736 for the landing stage of Lendal Ferry.[5]

The Yorkshire Museum, built for the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, stands in part of the abbey cloister; parts of the east, south and west cloister walls were temporarily excavated in 1827–29 preparatory to digging the museum's foundations.[2] The relationship between the Museum and abbey is historically quite intimate as part of the richly carved chapter house vestibule (c. 1298–1307) survives incorporated into Tempest Anderson Hall lecture theatre (1911–12).[1][2] Additionally, excavations of the chapter house were undertaken in 1912 by the honorary curator of Medieval archaeology, Walter Harvey-Brook [10] who, along with Edwin Ridsdale Tate designed and developed the Museum of Medieval Architecture on the site [11] and retained aspects of the warming house and late twelfth-century chapter house for display. Further excavations in the abbey were undertaken in 1952–56 by the then Keeper of the Yorkshire Museum, George Willmot [12] who encountered the pre-Norman and Roman layers beneath the west wing of the nave.

The remains of the Abbey were described by Edwin Ridsdale Tate in a 1929 publication in which he asserted that: "Nowhere in England is there another spot so full of charm as York and where in York is there a more charming spot than the Gardens of the Philosophical Society, in which stand the beautiful fragments of that once powerful and noble monastery of St. Mary's. Here we must leave the venerable pile in the evening of its glory."[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Historic England. "St. Mary's Abbey, York (56602)". PastScape. Retrieved 14 April 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Dean, G. 2008. Medieval York. Stroud: History Press. p. 86
  3. ^ a b c d Norton, C. "The St Mary's Abbey Precincts". University of York, Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past. Retrieved 14 April 2014. 
  4. ^ Sharpe, R. "1088 – WILLIAM II AND THE REBELS" (PDF). Retrieved 17 September 2014. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Tillott, P.M. (Ed.). 1961. A History of Yorkshire: The City of York (The Victoria History of the Counties of England) (The Institute of Historical Research). London: Oxford University Press, pp. 357–360
  6. ^ Coppack, G. 1993. Fountains Abbey. London: B. T. Batsford Ltd / English Heritage. p. 17
  7. ^ J. Mackie, 'The English Army at Flodden', Miscellany of the Scottish History Society, VIII (Edinburgh 1951), p. 57, 74, 81
  8. ^ UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Gregory Clark (2016), "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)" MeasuringWorth.
  9. ^ a b c Ridsdale Tate, E. 1929. The Charm of St. Mary's Abbey and the Architectural Museum, York. York: Yorkshire Philosophical Society. pp. 6–12
  10. ^ 1913. Annual Report of the Council of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society for 1912. York: Yorkshire Philosophical Society
  11. ^ Brook, W. H. 1921.‘Catalogue of the Museum of Medieval Architecture’, Vol. 1. preface [Unpublished catalogue held in the Yorkshire Museum]
  12. ^ Willmot, G. F. 1953. "Interim Report on the 1952 Excavation in St. Mary's Abbey", Yorkshire Philosophical Society, Annual Report for the year 1952. York: YPS. pp. 22–3
  13. ^ Ridsdale Tate, E. 1929. The Charm of St. Mary's Abbey and the Architectural Museum, York. York: Yorkshire Philosophical Society, p. 16

External links[edit]