St Mary's Abbey, York

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St. Mary's Abbey
St Marys Abbey Church York.jpg
Ruins of St Mary's Abbey Church
Monastery information
Order Benedictine
Dedicated toSt. Mary
Diocese York
Founder(s)Stephen of Whitby, Alan Rufus, William II of England, William the Conqueror
Location York, Yorkshire, England
Coordinates 53°57′41″N1°05′17″W / 53.96139°N 1.08806°W / 53.96139; -1.08806 Coordinates: 53°57′41″N1°05′17″W / 53.96139°N 1.08806°W / 53.96139; -1.08806
Visible remains Hospitium , precinct walls, gatehouse, abbey church (ruins with part of the nave and crossing still standing), abbot's house (substantially altered); statues and other remains in the Yorkshire Museum.
Public accessyes (Museum Gardens)

The Abbey of St Mary is a ruined Benedictine abbey in York, England and a Grade I listed building. [1]



Once the richest abbey in the north of England, [2] it lies in what are now the York Museum Gardens, on a steeply-sloping site to the west of York Minster.

The original church on the site was founded in 1055 and dedicated to Saint Olaf II of Norway. After the Norman Conquest the church came into the possession of the Anglo-Breton magnate Alan Rufus who granted the lands to Abbot Stephen and a group of monks from Whitby. The abbey church was refounded in 1088 [1] [3] when the King, William Rufus, visited York in January or February of that year [4] and gave the monks additional lands. The following year he laid the foundation stone of the new Norman church and the site was rededicated to the Virgin Mary. [5] [6] The foundation ceremony was attended by bishop Odo of Bayeux and Archbishop Thomas of Bayeux. [2] The monks moved to York from a site at Lastingham in Ryedale in the 1080s and are recorded there in Domesday. [2] Following a dispute and riot in 1132, a party of reform-minded monks left to establish the Cistercian monastery of Fountains Abbey. [7] In 1137 the abbey was badly damaged by a great fire. [5] The surviving ruins date from a rebuilding programme begun in 1271 and finished by 1294.

Ruins of the abbey church from the southern end Saitmarysruinssouth.jpg
Ruins of the abbey church from the southern end


The abbey occupied an extensive precinct site immediately outside the city walls, between Bootham and the River Ouse. [1] [6] The original boundary included a ditch and a narrow strip of ground, but the walled circuit was constructed above this in the 1260s in the Abbacy of Simon de Warwick; [6] the walls were nearly three-quarters of a mile long. In 1318 the abbot received royal permission to raise the height of the wall and crenelate it; a stretch of this wall still runs along Bootham and Marygate to the River Ouse. [2]

The gatehouse in Marygate and its lodge formed part of a range of buildings that linked to the older church of St Olave by a chapel dedicated to Mary. Though work on the chapel and gatehouse was under way 1314 and completed in 1320, the surviving structures are mostly of fifteenth-century origin. [2]

St Mary's Tower is a structure at the corner of Marygate and Bootham. [8]

Abbey Church

The abbey church is aligned northeast–southwest, due to restrictions of the site. [2] The original Norman church had an apsidal liturgical east end, and its side aisles ended in apses, though they were square on the exterior. Rebuilding began in 1270, under the direction of Abbot Simon de Warwick, [6] and was swiftly completed during a single twenty-four year building campaign, [3] such was the financial strength of the abbey. The completed abbey church was 350 feet (110 m) in length, consisted of a nave with aisles, north and south transepts with chapels in an eastern aisle, and a presbytery with aisles. [6] To the east of the cloister and on the line of the transepts were a vestibule leading to the chapter house, the scriptorium and library. [6] Beyond the church lay the kitchen, novices' building and infirmary. [6] The Abbey chronicle (which has not been fully translated from Latin) names the project officers as Simon de Warwick, a monk administrator and the master stonemason Master Simon, [3] all of whom were still alive upon the completion of the project in 1294. [3]

The Abbot's House

The abbot's house Kings Manor1.jpg
The abbot's house

The abbot's house, built of brick in 1483, survives as the King's Manor because it became the seat of the Council of the North in 1539; the abbots of St Mary's and the abbey featured in the medieval and early modern ballads of Robin Hood, with the abbot usually as Robin Hood's nemesis.[ citation needed ]

In August 1513 the Abbot supplied four chests for the use of Philip Tilney, treasurer of the English army before the Battle of Flodden. The Abbey seems to have become the accounting office for the army in the north, involving Thomas Magnus, Archdeacon of the East Riding, and two monks of the abbey, Richard Wode and Richard Rypon. [9]

The Dissolution

A portion of the remaining walls Wall of the ruins, st marys abbey York 8714.jpg
A portion of the remaining walls

St Mary's, the largest and richest Benedictine establishment in the north of England and one of the largest landholders in Yorkshire, was worth over £2,000 a year, (equivalent to £1,350,000in 2019), [10] when it was valued in 1539, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII; it was closed and subsequently substantially destroyed. On 26 November 1539 the Abbey surrendered £2,085 and 50 monks to the Crown. [11]


A fifteenth-century index catalogue records that the Abbey's library originally contained over 750 books. Approximately thirty-five texts from the Abbey are currently extant, including only five printed books; these include a 15th-century copy of Richard Rolle's Incendium Amoris. [12]

Brother Grayson's Bible

A Vulgate Bible, sold at auction in England in 2010, has been identified as the possession of Brother John Grayson from St Mary's Abbey. It is an octavo volume and was printed on 8 November 1526 by Thielmann Kerver in Paris. Brother Grayson was first noted at the Abbey in 1528 but was absent from its pension list at the time of the Dissolution in 1539. [12]

The Anonimalle Chronicle

The Anonimalle Chronicle is an important chronicle whose scope extends from the legendary Brutus to 1381. [13] It was composed in Anglo-Norman [14] by an anonymous monk of St Mary's Abbey towards the end of the 14th century. It includes the most detailed surviving description of a medieval parliament and a well-informed account of the Peasants' Revolt; these are likely to have been written by eyewitnesses and later incorporated into the chronicle. [13] The body of the chronicle from Brutus to the year 1307 has been described as a variant of the prose Brut but there are considerable differences (e.g. the chronicler shows an interest in early ecclesiastical history which the Brut does not). From 1307 to 1333 it follows the main Brut tradition more closely though it demonstrates a marked London interest. After 1333 the chronicle is an individual account probably drawing on sources originating in London. [13] The manuscript was known to the 16th-century antiquaries Thynne and Stow; its title derives from Thynne's description of it. It afterwards passed through the hands of various owners until it was found in the possession of the Ingilby family of Ripley Castle in 1920. The section from 1333 to 1381 was edited by V. H. Galbraith and published in 1927. In 1982 it was acquired by the Brotherton Collection, at the University of Leeds. [13] Another partial edition appeared in 1991 in the form of an edition and translation of the chronicle from 1307 to 1334 by Wendy Childs and John Taylor. [15]

Excavations in the Abbey precinct

The St. Mary's Abbey Figurine of Christ St Mary's Abbey Figurine.jpg
The St. Mary's Abbey Figurine of Christ

The Yorkshire Museum, built for the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, stands in part of the abbey cloister; parts of the east, south and west cloister walls were temporarily excavated in 1827–29 preparatory to digging the museum's foundations. [2] The relationship between the Museum and abbey is historically quite intimate as part of the richly carved chapter house vestibule (c. 1298–1307) survives incorporated into Tempest Anderson Hall lecture theatre (1911–12). [1] [2] These walls and part of the warming house are retained in the Museum as part of the Medieval gallery display.

Excavations of the chapter house were undertaken in 1912 by the honorary curator of Medieval archaeology, Walter Harvey-Brook [16] who, along with Edwin Ridsdale Tate designed and developed the Museum of Medieval Architecture on the site. [17]

Further excavations in the abbey were undertaken in 1952–56 by the then Keeper of the Yorkshire Museum, George Willmot who encountered the pre-Norman and Roman layers beneath the west wing of the nave. [18]

Excavations in 2014 and 2015 discovered an apse in the south transept, large parts of the wall foundations, and numerous residual small finds dating from the Roman to Modern periods. These investigations also encountered fragments of human remains, disturbed from burials somewhere on the site. One of the major conclusions of these excavations was the prevalence of in situ archaeological remains at a very shallow depth beneath the modern ground surface; in some cases as little as 7 cm underground. [19] [20]

Figure of Jesus Christ

A 13th-century gilt, Limoges enamel figurine depicting Christ (the St Mary's Abbey Figurine) was discovered in the Abbey in 1826, having avoided the dissolution of the monastery in 1539. It disappeared soon afterwards, and was thought by some to have been destroyed, only to be discovered in a private art collection in Germany in the 1920s. In 2019, the statue was bought by York Museums Trust and put on display in Yorkshire Museum. [21]

Abbots of St. Mary's

The abbots of St. Mary's were similar in prestige to the Archbishop of York, being entitled to wear a mitre and having a seat in Parliament (allowing them the style "My Lord Abbot"). [11] In total there were 30 Abbots, including: [11] [22]

AbbotDates of AbbacyNotes
Stephen of Whitby1088–1112
Severinus (or Savaricus)- 1161Died in office
Clement1161–1184Died in office
Robert de Harpham1184–1195Deposed
Robery de Longo Campo1197-1239Died in office
William de Roundel1241-1244Died in office
Thomas de Warthill (Wardhull)1244-1258Died in office
Simon de Warwick1258–1296Died in office
Benedict de Malton1296–1303Resigned
John de Gilling1303–1313Died in office
Alan de Wasse1313–1331Died in office
Thomas de Malton1331–1359Resigned
William de Mary's?1359–1382Died in office
William de Bradford (Bridford or Brydford)1382–1389Died in office
Thomas de Staynesgrave1389–1398Died in office
Thomas de Pygott (Pygdt)1398–1405Died in office
Thomas de Spoffoth 8 June 1405-?1421Resigned
William Dalton1422–1423Died in office
William Wells 1423–1436Resigned
Roger Kyrkby (or Kiby)1437-1438Died in office
John Cottingham1438-1464Died in office
Thomas Bothe (Booth)1464–1485Resigned
William Senhouse (Sever) 1485-1502Later Bishop of Durham 1502–1505
Robert Wanhope1502–?1507
Edmund Thornton1507-?1521
Edmund Whalley1521-1530
William Thornton1530–1539Abbot during the Dissolution of the Monasteries



Painting of the surviving ruins by Michael Angelo Rooker in 1778 Michael "Angelo" Rooker - St. Mary's Abbey, York - Google Art Project.jpg
Painting of the surviving ruins by Michael Angelo Rooker in 1778
Visible remains of St Mary's Abbey, York Remains of St Mary's Abbey, York - - 1717559.jpg
Visible remains of St Mary's Abbey, York

All that remains today are the north and west walls, plus a few other remnants: the half-timbered Pilgrims' Hospitium , the West Gate and the 14th-century timber-framed Abbot's House (now called the King's Manor). The walls include interval towers along the north and west stretches, St Mary's Tower at the northwest corner and a polygonal water tower by the river. Much stone was removed from the site in the 18th century, in 1705 for St. Olave's Church, between 1717 and 1720 for Beverley Minster, and in 1736 for the landing stage of Lendal Ferry. [6]

The remains of the Abbey were described by Edwin Ridsdale Tate in a 1929 publication in which he asserted that: "Nowhere in England is there another spot so full of charm as York and where in York is there a more charming spot than the Gardens of the Philosophical Society, in which stand the beautiful fragments of that once powerful and noble monastery of St. Mary's. Here we must leave the venerable pile in the evening of its glory." [24]

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