Whitby Abbey

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Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey 060615.jpg
Monastery information
Order Benedictine
Established 657AD
Disestablished 1538
Mother house Fountains Abbey
Diocese Diocese of York
Founder(s) 1.Oswy, 2.Prior Reinfrid
Location Whitby, North Yorkshire, England
Coordinates 54.4883 -0.6075
Visible remains substantial
Public access yes

Whitby Abbey is a ruined Benedictine abbey[1] overlooking the North Sea on the East Cliff above Whitby in North Yorkshire, England. It was disestablished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries[2] under the auspices of Henry VIII. It is a Grade I Listed building in the care of English Heritage[1] and its site museum is housed in Cholmley House.[3]


The first monastery was founded in 657 AD by the Anglo-Saxon era King of Northumbria, Oswy (Oswiu) as Streoneshalh (the older name for Whitby).[4][5] He appointed Lady Hilda, abbess of Hartlepool Abbey and grand-niece of Edwin the first Christian king of Northumbria, as founding abbess. The name Streoneshalh is thought to signify Fort Bay or Tower Bay in reference to a supposed Roman settlement that previously existed on the site. This contention has never been proven though and alternative theories have been proposed, such as the name meaning Streona's settlement. Some believe that the name referred to Eadric Streona,[6] but this is highly unlikely for chronological reasons: Streona died in 1017 so the naming of Streoneshalh would have preceded his birth by several hundred years.[7]

The double monastery of Celtic monks and nuns was home (614–680), to the great Northumbrian poet Cædmon.

In 664 the Synod of Whitby - at which King Oswiu ruled that the Northumbrian church would adopt the Roman calculation of Easter and monastic tonsure - took place at the abbey.

Streoneshalch was laid waste by Danes in successive raids between 867 and 870 under Ingwar and Ubba and remained desolate for more than 200 years. The existence of 'Prestebi', meaning the habitation of priests in Old Norse, at the Domesday Survey may point to the revival of religious life since Danish times.[8] The old monastery given to Reinfrid comprised about 40 ruined monasteria vel oratoria similar to Irish monastic ruins with numerous chapels and cells.[9]


Illustration of the ruins of Whitby Abbey, illustration from 1909.

Reinfrid, a soldier of William the Conqueror, became a monk and travelled to Streoneshalh, which was then known as Prestebi or Hwitebi (the "white settlement" in Old Norse). He approached William de Percy who gave him the ruined monastery of St. Peter with two carucates of land, to found a new monastery. Serlo de Percy, the founder's brother, joined Reinfrid at the new monastery which followed the Benedictine rule.[9]

The second monastery lasted until it was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1540 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Though the abbey fell into ruin, it remained a prominent landmark for sailors and helped inspire Bram Stoker's Dracula.[10] The ruins are now owned and maintained by English Heritage.

In December 1914, Whitby Abbey was shelled by German battlecruisers Von der Tann and Derfflinger[11] who were aiming for the Coastguard Station[12][13] on the end of the headland. Scarborough and Hartlepool were also attacked.[14] The Abbey sustained considerable damage during the ten-minute attack. The BBC included before and after photographs as part of the First World War centenary.[15]

Whitby Abbey at sunset

Whitby Abbey was rendered famous in fiction by Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, as Dracula there came ashore as a creature resembling a large dog and proceeded to climb the 199 steps which lead up to the ruins.[16][17]

Abbey possessions[edit]

The original gift of William de Percy not only included the monastery of St. Peter at Streoneshalch, but the town and port of Whitby with its parish church of St. Mary and six dependent chapels at Fyling, Hawsker, Sneaton, Ugglebarnby, Dunsley, and Aislaby, five mills including Ruswarp, the town of Hackness with two mills and the parish church of St. Mary, and the church of St. Peter at Hackness 'where our monks served God, died, and were buried,' and various other gifts enumerated in the ' Memorial' in the abbot's book.[9]

Priors and abbots[edit]

The first prior, Reinfrid, ruled for many years before being killed in an accident. He was buried at St Peter at Hackness. He was succeeded as prior by Serlo de Percy.[9]

Notable burials[edit]


  1. ^ a b "History of Whitby Abbey". English Heritage. Retrieved 21 November 2015. 
  2. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 29830". PastScape. Retrieved 21 November 2015. 
  3. ^ Ravenscroft, John (2006). "Discovering Whitby Abbey". Time Travel Britain. Retrieved 21 November 2015. 
  4. ^ Higham, N. J. (2006). (Re-)Reading Bede: The Ecclesiastical History in context. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 46. ISBN 0-415-35368-8. 
  5. ^ Jamieson, John (1890). "A History of the Culdees" (PDF). The Christian Identity Forum. p. 252. Retrieved 21 November 2015. 
  6. ^ Young, George (1817). A history of Streonshalh and Whitby Abbey. Clark and Medd. p. 146. Retrieved 21 November 2015. 
  7. ^ History of Whitby Abbey[vague]
  8. ^ Page, William, ed. (1923). Parishes: Whitby. A History of the County of York North Riding: Volume 2. Victoria County History. British History Online. pp. 506–528. Retrieved 5 September 2010. 
  9. ^ a b c d Page, William, ed. (1923). Abbey of Whitby. A History of the County of York North Riding: Volume 3. Victoria County History. British History Online. pp. 101–105. Retrieved 5 September 2010. 
  10. ^ "Whitby Abbey". English Heritage. 
  11. ^ Marsay, Mark (2009). "The Bombardment of Scarborough 1914". BBC. York and North Yorkshire BBC. Retrieved 21 November 2015. 
  12. ^ "Yorkshire Battlefields - WWI". Welcome To Yorkshire. Retrieved 21 November 2015. 
  13. ^ Lewis, Stephen (11 December 2014). "Black day in History for Scarborough". The Press. Retrieved 21 November 2015. 
  14. ^ Watson, Greig (1 March 2014). "World War One: German ships took war to England's doorstep". BBC. Retrieved 21 November 2015. 
  15. ^ "How Stonehenge site became the world's largest military training camp". BBC News. 6 November 2014. Retrieved 18 November 2014. 
  16. ^ "Dracula Experience Whitby". Dracula Experience Whitby. 2008. Retrieved 21 November 2015. 
  17. ^ Barnett, David (28 July 2015). "Dracula's birthplace: how Whitby is celebrating the count's anniversary". The Guardian. Retrieved 21 November 2015. 


External links[edit]

Coordinates: 54°29′20″N 0°36′29″W / 54.489°N 0.608°W / 54.489; -0.608