The instantly recognisable ruin of Whitby Abbey on the cliff-top above the harbour is freighted with fourteen centuries of history.
Founded in AD 657 by a Northumbrian princess who became St Hilda, it was the location for the Synod of Whitby (AD 664), which established that the English church would follow Roman rather than Celtic custom.
Nevertheless, St Hilda’s Saxon abbey was designed in the Celtic manner, for parallel communities of monks and nuns, living in single cells but worshipping together. Of the monks in her time five became bishops; two of them, like her, became saints – St John of Beverley and St Wilfrid of York. A lay member of her community was Caedmon, traditionally regarded as the earliest English poet.
The first abbey was destroyed by the Danish invaders in AD 867 and refounded in Norman times by one of the knights who fought at Hastings, Reinfrid, who settled here as a monk and developed a Benedictine community in the 1070s.
The existing ruins represent a massive rebuilding, starting in the 1220s, continuing after a fundraising effort in 1334, followed by a distinctive break when a change from lancet windows to Decorated tracery indicates an interruption to the rebuilding programme of perhaps a hundred years between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The final installation of the now-vanished Perpendicular west window was only completed in the fifteenth century.
Shortly after the Dissolution, in March 1540 the abbey precinct passed to Sir Richard Cholmley of Kingthorpe, near Pickering, “the great blacke knight of the North”, whose son, Francis, adapted the abbot’s lodging to make a residence. His descendant, Sir Hugh Cholmley (1632-89) aggrandised his residence Abbey House with an imposing classical Banqueting Hall wing (1672-82), the shell of which houses a modern visitor centre.
The Abbey ruins served as a waymark for mariners, but what now remains is only a vestige. Much of the church, including the tower, still stood in 1711, but the south transept collapsed in 1736, the south wall of the nave in 1762, the nave arcade in 1793, the west window the year after, the central tower on June 25th 1830 and part of the presbytery in 1839.
What was left of the west front was bombarded by the German battle cruisers Von der Tann and Derfflinger on December 16th 1914, and later reinstated, with a section of the nave arcade reassembled incongruously by the north boundary wall, after the Ministry of Works took over the site in 1920.
There are easier ways of visiting the Abbey and the nearby church of St Mary than by walking up the 199 steps from the town. There’s a discreetly hidden car-park, and a tourist bus running a half-hour service during the summer: http://www.coastalandcountry.co.uk/openTopCoach.html.
Opening times for the Abbey are at http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/whitby-abbey.