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York Minster – York in Focus

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York Minster – York in Focus. In this episode we discover the Gothic cathedral known as York Minster as well as how Christianity grew in the City of York around it.


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Before the Minster was Established

York Minster & Christianity – York in Focus


Constantine the Great and a Roman Column

During his reign between 306 – 337, Constantine the Great was declared emperor in York or rather Eboracum as the Romans named it. Of course, at this time York was a completely different place altogether as a Roman settlement. You will notice a Roman Column that was discovered and erected by a group of archaeologists in 1971 after it was discovered. The column marks the spot of a Roman Headquarters pertaining to the Roman fort that existed here. Stonegate was the road leading up to the headquarters that ran beside the wall that was constructed by Roman soldiers.  You will find a statue of Constantine the Great on the southern transept of York Minster.

York Minster didn’t exist at this time, but Constantine the Great had a form of Christianity which introduced Christianity into the area. In 625, King Edwin married Ethelburga, a Christian princess and the cylinder shaped church with a coned roof in which they would have married was at the site of the Roman fort. By 633, a stone church was built around the wooden church in which they were married and Edwin was baptised in this construction. Edwin was later killed in battle and was buried here.  By 735 Ecgbert became the first Archbishop of York.


Establishing York Minster

York Minster & Christianity – York in Focus


Accelerating to Norman times, Archbishop Thomas of Bayeaux had a new cathedral constructed after the former had been burned down during the Harrying of the North in 1069. This construction looked dissimilar to what exists today as it had one central tower. Therefore you could say that York Minster as a cathedral began in 1080.

In 1154, the structure was expanded but with a new south transept and the east transept was complete rebuilt. The south transept was constructed by Walter de Gray after the east transept was rebuilt in 1225. 250 years later, the minster that we see today took shape. William Fitzherbert is declared as Saint William the year after the south transept was constructed who was twice Archbishop of York. The impressive Chapter House on the North transept was added in 1260 yet construction finished in 1296.

York Minster’s large and famous Gothic nave was constructed during the 1280’s on Norman foundations. However, the outer roof wasn’t completed until the 1330’s and the vaulting in the 1360’s and the work wasn’t completed until 1405. Two years later, the central tower sadly collapsed and the piers were reinforced and work on the new tower began in 1420. The twin western towers that contain the bells were not added until 1433 and 1472. When the work was completed, the minster was then consecrated. So you could say that the Minster’s construction is somewhat multi-generational.


Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York

York Minster & Christianity – York in Focus


Most people address the structure as York Minster, but in fact it’s true but more cumbersome name is Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York. It is the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe and is also the seat of the Archbishop of York which is the third highest office of the Church of England. It is also the mother church of the Diocese of York and the Province of York. The Minster is run by a Dean and Chapter and it is open to the public outside of pandemic lockdowns. In fact, it is the only cathedral with an accredited museum in its undercroft.


York Minster’s Gothic Style

York Minster & Christianity – York in Focus

Gothic style in cathedrals arrived in the 12th century which derives from Northern France and as we already discovered York Minster was largely established in the same period. York Minster’s Gothic style was to match that of Cantebury.


Dean’s Park at York Minster

York Minster & Christianity – York in Focus

After the Minster fire of 1137, the Archbishop of York reconstructed the minster in 1154 to 1181. This also included the palace and you will encounter the arcade of the palace which faces the minster at the opposite side of Dean’s Park. From here you receive some fantastic views of the north transept including the chapter house and five sisters window.

Further along down the path you will notice a large construction which was the palace chapel, however it stands as Minster Library from around 1814 when the house was demolished. In 1268, the palace and grounds extended up to the city walls. By 1616, the palace was in ruins and sold to Arthur Ingram and he remained there until he died and the palace was split into smaller apartments. Sadly the palace was demolished but the park still exists today.


York Minster’s Chime

York Minster & Christianity – York in Focus


In the left west tower facing the front is the home of Great Peter which is a large 10.8 ton bell that chimes the hour across the city. If you watched our City Walls episode you will have listened to a 10am sample. It also contains 6 smaller bells for the melody. On the opposite tower, there are 14 hung and rung bells as well as 22 carillon bells which are played from a keyboard.


St Michael le Belfrey Church

York Minster & Christianity – York in Focus

St Michael le Belfrey Church is the only church to be built in the 16th century pre-reformation. It was constructed between 1525 and 1536 by John Forman who was the master mason of the Minster. On the subject of masonry, you may encounter some live stone masonry activity at the east side of the minster.

Next to Chapter House Street you will see a large brick building known as York Minster School Visit Centre. So this in itself shows how popular the Minster is of all ages and creeds.


York Minster’s Impressive Windows

York Minster & Christianity – York in Focus


The Great East Window

The Great East Window is the largest single expanse of stained glass in the country and you will find it at the very rear of the Minster. In fact, it is 77ft tall and 32ft wide. It is actually the size of a tennis court which helps you to understand its true dimensions. Therefore to receive a great photo you need to stand well back with a wide angled lens.

You may find this extremely impressive on the outside but it looks just as impressive internally and it is worthwhile taking a look. Each pain of stained glass consists of a visual representation from the bible, which are very detailed and painted by hand by John Thornton. There is an orb underneath the window which contains five conserved panels which are rotated on a monthly basis so that you can get to see them in closer detail.

The Five Sisters Window

The Five Sisters Window is slightly smaller but still enormous in terms of windows. It stands at approximately 52 – 53 ft high and 5ft wide. You will find this just under the central tower on the northern side of the Minster. It also faces Dean’s Park and the northern section of the city walls.

The Five Sisters Window isn’t as colourful as the Great East Window as it is glazed in a grey glass and doesn’t feature any scenes from Bible passages. However, this is not to say that the window doesn’t lack astonishment, particularly owing to its size and history.

The Rose Window

Probably one of the most famous windows at York Minster is the Rose Window. Rose windows are associated with gothic cathedrals and churches and is a generic term for circular windows. Therefore York Minster’s Rose Window is a good example.

Again, the Rose Window is different than both the Great East and Five Sisters windows because this window has motif’s although they are typical for medieval windows. The glass dates back to around 1500 and the window was to commemorate the union of the Royal houses of Lancaster and York. In 1984, the window was severely damaged by fire after a lightening strike and sadly the glass didn’t survive. Much of the roof was taken in the South transept. Water was taken from the Ouse to fight the fire which of course is just down the road.


The Chapter House

York Minster & Christianity – York in Focus


The Chapter House is very impressive from both the outside as well as the inside. You will find this on the north transept walking into Dean’s Park. Alternatively, you can walk around by Minster Yard. The Chapter House was completed by 1296 after 36 years of work. You will notice the vestibule that links the chapter house to the minster. The design of the chapter house is in keeping with the second English Gothic style known as Decorated Style, and geometric patterns are employed. The structure is octagonal with windows that occupy much of the space along the walls. These windows are very impressive to look at from the inside. The ceiling is also very impressive to look at and the windows draw your eyes upwards. It contains some of the finest gothic sculptures all unique. 


St Williams College

York Minster & Christianity – York in Focus


St Williams college was a college of chantry priests that was constructed on a courtyard. Although there had been previous attempts, the college was established in 1465. Henry VI had granted license for a college in 1455 to the then Archbishop of York, William Booth. In fact, the street it resides is known as College Street and denotes how York Minster was a centre of religious education at the time. After the dissolution of the monasteries, or the suppression of the monasteries, the building was divided and turned into residences and shops. By the 20th century, the former college was acquired by Frank Green who also had purchased the Treasurers House almost next door. He restored the former college and sold it back to the Minster. 


Minster School

York Minster & Christianity – York in Focus


The aesthetic large red building along the Queen’s Path opposite the Great East Window is part of the Minster School, namely Minster Prep School, but originally was the choristers at York Minster. In fact, a large number of pupils, around 40, at Minster School are choristers at York Minster today. 


Minster Gates

York Minster & Christianity – York in Focus


You will notice a short street known as Minster Gates between York Minster and Petergate which were the principal gates to the Minster. These were one of four gates that Frances Drake wrote about in 1736. A further set were where Goodramgate meets the College Green and the timber framed building is the gatehouse. Further gates existed at the top of Lop Lane, and later became Duncombe Place. The final set were situated at Ogleforth where it meets Chapter House Street that was the Roman via decumana.


What to Look Out For Inside the Minster

York Minster & Christianity – York in Focus


Organ and Organ Screen

The current organ dates back to the 1830’s and recently underwent a £2m refurbishment by Harrison and Harrison in Durham. It has a total of 5,403 pipes and plays a key part in all of the Minster’s services.

One of the most impressive aspects is the screen known as the King’s Screen. This is because it contains fifteen figures of English Kings and dates back to the 15th century. It starts with William the Conqueror down to Henry the Sixth and is the artwork of William Hindley of Norwich.

Central Tower

Unlike the west towers, you can look up into the central tower and tours of the tower are available if you have a head for heights. It was built between 1407 to 1472 yet the tower prior to this collapsed which also had a wooden spire. It weighs around 25,000 tons!

The Undercroft

The Minster is the only cathedral with an accredited museum in its undercroft. Between 1967 and 1972, emergency works were required to underpin the central tower and excavations uncovered remains of a Roman barracks as well as the Roman Column mentioned earlier. It also revealed an Anglo Saxon cemetery and the foundations of a Norman minster.

One of its most notable attractions is the Viking Horn of Ulf which is a thousand year old elephant tusk. We mentioned Walter de Gray earlier who was the Archbishop of York from 1215 to 1255 and a gold ring was found in his coffin that contains a large sapphire stone. However, you will also find all manner of historic items pertaining to the Minster including the York Gospels which is an illuminated manuscript around 1000 years old.

We hope you enjoy your visit to York Minster. Until next time!

Further Episodes of York in Focus

Museum Gardens

York Walls

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