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Whitby Abbey

Coordinates: 54°29′20″N 0°36′29″W / 54.489°N 0.608°W / 54.489; -0.608
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Whitby Abbey
Monastery information
Established657 AD
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 church was situated overlooking the North Sea on the East Cliff above Whitby in North Yorkshire, England, a centre of the medieval Northumbrian kingdom. The abbey and its possessions were confiscated by the crown under Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1545.[2]

Since that time, the ruins of the abbey have continued to be used by sailors as a landmark at the headland. Since the 20th century, the substantial ruins of the church have been declared a Grade I Listed building and are in the care of English Heritage.[1] The site museum is housed in Cholmley House,[3] a 17th century banqueting hall repurposed by design studio Stanton Williams in 2002.[4]


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).[5][6] 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 and alternative theories have been proposed, such as the name meaning Streona's settlement. Some believe that the name referred to Eadric Streona,[7] but Streona died in 1017 so the naming of Streoneshalh would have preceded his birth by several hundred years.

The double monastery of monks and nuns was home (614–680) to the great Northumbrian poet Cædmon.[8]

In 664 the Synod of Whitby took place at the monastery to resolve the question of whether the Northumbrian church would adopt and follow the Easter dating of Iona (the 84-year cycle which had previously been used at Rome and on the continent) or the new 19-year cycle which had recently been adopted at Rome. There was also discussion of what kind of tonsure clergy and monks should use. The decision, with the support of King Oswy, was for adopting the newer Roman Easter calculation - as was used in other English kingdoms to the south.

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. A locality named 'Prestebi' was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, which may be a sign that religious life was revived in some form after the Danish raids; 'Witebi' (Whitby) is also mentioned. In Old Norse, Prestebi means a habitation of priests.[9] The old monastery given to Reinfrid comprised about 40 ruined monasteria vel oratoria, similar to Irish monastic ruins with numerous chapels and cells.[10]


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 for a grant of land, 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.[10] The greater part of de Percy's building was pulled down and the monastery was rebuilt on a larger scale in the 1220s.[11]

The Benedictine abbey thrived for centuries as a centre of learning. This second monastery was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1540 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The abbey was bought by Sir Richard Cholmley. It remained in the Cholmley family and their descendants, the Strickland family. The Strickland family passed it to the UK government in 1920.[12] The ruins are now owned and maintained by English Heritage.[13]

In December 1914, Whitby Abbey was shelled by the German battlecruisers Von der Tann and Derfflinger,[14] whose crew "were aiming for the Coastguard Station on the end of the headland."[15][16] Scarborough and Hartlepool were also attacked.[17] The abbey buildings sustained considerable damage during the ten-minute attack.

Abbey possessions[edit]

The original gift of William de Percy included not only 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 village 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.[10]

Priors and abbots[edit]

The first prior of the reestablished monastery, Reinfrid, ruled for many years before being killed in an accident. He was buried at St Peter's at Hackness, now in North Yorkshire. He was succeeded as prior by Serlo de Percy.[10]


Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula featured Count Dracula as a creature resembling a large dog which came ashore at the headland and ran up the 199 steps to the graveyard of St Mary's Church in the shadow of the Whitby Abbey ruins.[18][19] The abbey is also described in Mina Harker's diary in the novel:

Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes, and which is the scene of part of Marmion, where the girl was built up in the wall. It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows.[20]


Notable burials[edit]


  1. ^ a b "History of Whitby Abbey". English Heritage. Retrieved 21 November 2015.
  2. ^ Historic England. "Monument No. 29830". Research records (formerly PastScape). Retrieved 21 November 2015.
  3. ^ Ravenscroft, John (2006). "Discovering Whitby Abbey". Time Travel Britain. Retrieved 21 November 2015.
  4. ^ "Do you have any blood-flavour fudge?". The Guardian. 1 April 2002. Retrieved 16 January 2024.
  5. ^ Higham, N. J. (2006). (Re-)Reading Bede: The Ecclesiastical History in context. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 46. ISBN 0-415-35368-8.
  6. ^ Jamieson, John (1890). "A History of the Culdees" (PDF). The Christian Identity Forum. p. 252. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 July 2017. Retrieved 21 November 2015.
  7. ^ Young, George (1817). A history of Streonshalh and Whitby Abbey. Clark and Medd. p. 146. Retrieved 21 November 2015.
  8. ^ Huddleston, Gilbert. "Abbey of Whitby." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 2 February 2020Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Foot, Sarah (8 November 2011). "Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire". HistoryExtra. Immediate Media Company Limited. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
  12. ^ "Whitby Abbey History | A short walk through the Abbey's past". VisitWhitby.com. 26 October 2018. Retrieved 7 May 2020.
  13. ^ "Revamping Whitby Abbey". Retrieved 30 July 2023.
  14. ^ Marsay, Mark (2009). "The Bombardment of Scarborough 1914". BBC. York and North Yorkshire BBC. Retrieved 21 November 2015.
  15. ^ "World War I". Welcome To Yorkshire. Archived from the original on 14 September 2015.
  16. ^ Lewis, Stephen (11 December 2014). "Black day in History for Scarborough". The Press. Retrieved 21 November 2015.
  17. ^ Watson, Greig (1 March 2014). "World War One: German ships took war to England's doorstep". BBC News. Retrieved 21 November 2015.
  18. ^ "Dracula Experience Whitby". Dracula Experience Whitby. 2008. Retrieved 21 November 2015.
  19. ^ Barnett, David (28 July 2015). "Dracula's birthplace: how Whitby is celebrating the count's anniversary". The Guardian. Retrieved 21 November 2015.
  20. ^ "Whitby's Dracula connections". BBC. Retrieved 10 January 2021.
  21. ^ Clapham, Alfred (1952). Whitby Abbey Official Guidebook. HMSO.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Abbey of Whitby". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.


External links[edit]

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