Whitby Abbey

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Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey 060615.jpg
Monastery information
Established657 AD
Mother houseFountains Abbey
DioceseDiocese of York
Founder(s)1.Oswy, 2.Prior Reinfrid
LocationWhitby, North Yorkshire, England
Coordinates54.4883 -0.6075
Visible remainssubstantial
Public accessyes

Whitby Abbey was a 7th-century Christian monastery that later became a Benedictine abbey.[1] The abbey and its possessions were confiscated by the crown during the Dissolution of the Monasteries[2] under Henry VIII. The abbey church was situated overlooking the North Sea on the East Cliff above Whitby in North Yorkshire, England. The substantial ruins of the church have been declared a Grade I Listed building and are in the care of English Heritage,[1] while 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 took place at the monastery to resolve the question of whether the Northumbrian church would adopt and follow Celtic Christian traditions or adopt Roman practice, including the manner of calculating the date of Easter and form of the monastic tonsure. The decision, with the support of King Oswy, as was for adopting Roman practices.

Streoneshalch monastery 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 in the area of a locality named 'Prestebi', recorded in the Domesday Survey, may be a sign that religious life was revived in some form after the Danish raids since in Old Norse it means a habitation of priests.[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]


The ruins of Whitby Abbey in a 1909 book illustration.

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]

Plan of Whitby Abbey showing the various periods of building[10]

The second monastery lasted until it was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1540 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Though the abbey church was stripped and fell into ruin, it remains a prominent landmark for sailors. The ruins are now owned and maintained by English Heritage.

In December 1914, Whitby Abbey was shelled by the German battlecruisers Von der Tann and Derfflinger[11] who were aiming for the Coastguard Station on the end of the headland.[12][13] Scarborough and Hartlepool were also attacked.[14] The Abbey buildings sustained considerable damage during the ten-minute attack.

Whitby Abbey at sunset

Whitby Abbey was rendered famous in fiction by Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula[15], 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. ^ Clapham, Alfred (1952). Whitby Abbey Official Guidebook. HMSO.
  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. ^ "Whitby Abbey". English Heritage. Retrieved 14 August 2011.
  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