York Minster is a symphony in stone – Tadcaster stone, actually. The great church dominates the city from a distance and when you glimpse it through the streetscape. It tells you where you are as you walk round the city walls, and it tells you where you’ve arrived when you pass north on the train.
The Yorkshire: York and the East Riding volume of Pevsner’s Buildings of England comments, “it tells us a more consistent and complete story of the Gothic styles in England than any other cathedral”.
Throughout what we now call the Middle Ages it was a building site, rebuilt not once but twice between c1230 and c1472. That’s as if we were now to see the completion of a building begun the year Captain Cook discovered Australia.
It’s likely that its builders at some point intended it to be bigger and even more dominant than it is.
Misjudgements in rebuilding work in 1407 caused the collapse of the central tower, which contained a belfry.
The replacement central tower is an oddity. It’s only two feet higher, at 198 feet, than the western towers, which were built in the same period (south-west, 1432-56; north-west, 1470-4).
It has an oddly truncated appearance, abruptly cut off above the great windows which light the crossing within.
It seems unlikely that this huge structure would have been built simply to act as an empty lantern, but it’s never had a belfry: the Minster’s bells have hung in the south-west tower ever since it was built.
Perhaps the fifteenth-century builders got nervous about the foundations, and decided that a peal of bells swinging around two hundred feet up might not be a good idea.
If so, their judgement was sound, as became clear in the mid-twentieth century when active settlement around the central crossing required a vast stabilisation programme, directed by Dr Bernard Feilden, between 1967 and 1972.
Huge medieval spires had a poor track-record. Lincoln Cathedral used to be the tallest building in the world: it had a 524-foot spire until it blew down in a storm in 1549. The 493-foot spire of London’s Old St Paul’s Cathedral was destroyed by lightning in 1561.
It’s interesting to gaze at York Minster from a distance and visualise it with a taller central tower and perhaps a spire. Even if they had been built it’s unlikely they would have lasted.
As with Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony”, we must be grateful for what we have.
Tourists are charged admission to York Minster [see http://www.yorkminster.org/visiting/opening-times-prices/], with the customary concession that you can enter free of charge to pray or light a candle.
The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic York tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing. To view sample pages click here. Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.