What can you say about this enormous Gothic church, apparently the largest in northern Europe? Well, let’s start with the sheer size of it – 515’ (157m) long, 240’ (73m) wide and 233’ (71m) to the top of the lantern tower (that’s the one in the middle). Mind you, I haven’t measured it myself and the dimensions do vary, depending which guide you read. But, anyway, it’s big.
The soaring splendour, architectural beauty and sheer artistry of medieval cathedrals, particularly bearing in mind when they were built, never fails to astonish me. It is hard for some of us to wrap our brains around the idea that any god would want people to go to so much trouble; but I’m so glad someone did – and who cares if our peasant ancestors were grovelling in the dirt and could have used the money to buy themselves a few little extra treats?
Descendents of downtrodden peasants, then, will not resent having to pay an entrance fee to see inside York Minster (and another if you want to climb 275 steps up the central tower). You’ll be even more delighted to learn that your ticket can be re-used as often as you like within 12 months - ideal, if you happen to live in Sydney, New York, or anywhere else really handy. That said, York Minster dominates the City, is one of the ‘must do’ visits if you happen to be there - and, trust me, York is a place well worth going out of your way for. The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York, to give it its full title, is the seat of the Archbishop of York, Bishop of the Diocese of York and the second highest cleric in the Church of England after the Archbishop of Canterbury. This is a working church in addition to being a huge tourist attraction (around 2 million visitors a year). It also hosts a number of events, including concerts: on our last visit we only just missed seeing Aled Jones; how sad is that?
Only a complete philistine would find nothing to admire in York Minster. It houses the largest collection of medieval stained glass in Britain, for one thing. But my favourites are the Chapter House (how does that roof stay up?!), Quire Screen (I like the archaic spelling, don’t you?) and the roof of the central, lantern tower. The astronomical clock, a memorial to World War II air crews who flew from north east Britain, is fascinating. The nave is absolutely stunning. It is amazing to sit and listen to the choir, and the place is suffused with wonderful light. Compared to other cathedrals, though, I do find York a little sterile and not particularly welcoming. If it seems a little bare, perhaps this is due to it being stripped of most of its ‘Papist trappings’ during the reign of Elizabeth I and the fact that a new floor in 1730 apparently necessitated the removal from the nave of virtually all remaining tombs.
The building you see now was largely constructed between 1220 and 1472, restored after damaging fires in the 19th century and, more recently, in 1984. If you look closely, you will see that the Quire (or Choir) is slightly out of line with the Nave (or vice versa); I wonder if medieval builders were subject to penalty clauses? There has been a church on the same spot since 627AD but the site has been built on since at least Roman times. The Roman Basilica, where law courts were held and where, possibly, Constantine was proclaimed Emperor in 306AD stood there and the Principia, the military HQ, was next door. The first ‘minster’ was a wooden church built specifically for the baptism of Edwin, King of Deira – the territory between the rivers Tees and Humber. Edwin had been persuaded by his new wife, Ethelburga of Kent, to become a Christian - and I do like to think that no bribery was involved in this agreement. Various stone churches replaced the wooden one over an uncertain period in history when York was variously held by Saxons, Danes and Norsemen, whose descendents were living there at the time of the Norman Conquest.
We should mention the ‘Horn of Ulf, though – one of the Minster’s many treasures. Ulf was a Viking who owned land in and around York. The story is that he gifted the land the Minster stands on to the Dean and Chapter and the horn – a decorated elephant tusk believed to have been carved in Italy by followers of Islam – was the deed of transfer. I don’t quite get this, as there appears to have already been a church on the site – but it is not a well understood period in history and in any event I guess the Vikings, who were not initially Christian, could make their own rules.
It was the Saxon Archbishop of York, Ealdred, who crowned William of Normandy King of England on Christmas Day 1066. Resistance to Norman rule was met with the viscous and cruel ‘Harrying of the North’ in 1069, during which whole communities were laid to waste and the Minster was badly damaged. It was then destroyed by a Danish army in 1075. So the new Norman Archbishop, Thomas of Bayeux, set about building a Norman cathedral, a statement of temporal as well as spiritual power.
The remains of the Norman foundations, and many other treasures, can be seen in the undercroft. A new exhibition in 2013, ‘Revealing York Minster in the Undercroft’ looks fascinating; it is due to be complete in 2016. You can read more about it, and the Minster as a whole, on the York Minster website.
Featured on InSPIREd Sunday.
Featured on InSPIREd Sunday.