York Minster

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York Minster
The Cathedral and Metropolitical
Church of Saint Peter
York Minster from M&S.JPG
The southern façade of the cathedral including the rose window on the south transept.
North Yorkshire UK location map.svg
Red pog.svg
York Minster
Location within North Yorkshire
53°57′43″N1°4′55″W / 53.96194°N 1.08194°W / 53.96194; -1.08194 Coordinates: 53°57′43″N1°4′55″W / 53.96194°N 1.08194°W / 53.96194; -1.08194
OS grid reference SE603522
LocationDeangate, York [1]
Denomination Church of England
Previous denomination Roman Catholic
Churchmanship Anglo-Catholic
Website www.yorkminster.org
Status Cathedral
Founded627;1394 years ago (627)
Dedication Saint Peter
Consecrated 3 July 1472
Functional statusActive
Heritage designationGrade I
Designated14 June 1954 [2]
Previous cathedralsat least 3
Style Early English, Perpendicular
Years builtc.1230–1472
Length524.5 feet (159.9 m) [3]
Width222 feet (68 m) [3]
Nave height99 feet (30 m) [3]
Choir height102 feet (31 m)[ citation needed ]
Number of towers 3
Tower heightCentral Tower: 235 feet (72 m) [3]
Western Towers: 196 feet (60 m) [3]
Diocese York (since 314)
Province York
Archbishop Stephen Cottrell
Dean Jonathan Frost (also honorary assistant bishop)
Precentor Vicky Johnson
Canon(s) 1 vacancy
Canon Pastor Michael Smith
Canon Missioner Maggie McLean
Director of music Robert Sharpe
Business manager Kathryn Blacker (Chapter Steward)
Arms of the Archbishop of York.svg

The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York, commonly known as York Minster, is the cathedral of York, England, and is one of the largest of its kind in Northern Europe. The minster is the seat of the Archbishop of York, the third-highest office of the Church of England (after the monarch as Supreme Governor and the Archbishop of Canterbury), and is the mother church for the Diocese of York and the Province of York. [4] It is run by a dean and chapter, under the Dean of York. The title "minster" is attributed to churches established in the Anglo-Saxon period as missionary teaching churches, and serves now as an honorific title. [5] Services in the minster are sometimes regarded as on the High Church or Anglo-Catholic end of the Anglican continuum. [6]


The minster was completed in 1472 after several centuries of building. It is devoted to Saint Peter, and has a very wide Decorated Gothic nave and chapter house, a Perpendicular Gothic quire and east end and Early English North and South transepts. The nave contains the West Window, constructed in 1338, and over the Lady Chapel in the east end is the Great East Window (finished in 1408), the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world. In the north transept is the Five Sisters Window, each lancet being over 53 feet (16.3 m) high. [7] The south transept contains a rose window, while the West Window contains a heart-shaped design colloquially known as The Heart of Yorkshire.


A bishop of York was summoned to the Council of Arles in 314 indicating the presence of a Christian community in York at this time; however, archaeological evidence of Christianity in Roman York is limited. [8] [9] The first recorded church on the site was a wooden structure built hurriedly in 627 to provide a place to baptise Edwin, King of Northumbria. Moves towards a more substantial building began in the decade of the 630s. A stone structure was completed in 637 by Oswald and was dedicated to Saint Peter. The church soon fell into disrepair and was dilapidated by 670 when Saint Wilfrid ascended to the See of York. He repaired and renewed the structure. The attached school and library were established and by the 8th century were some of the most substantial in Northern Europe. [10] [11]

In 741, the church was destroyed in a fire. It was rebuilt as a more impressive structure containing thirty altars. The church and the entire area then passed through the hands of numerous invaders, and its history is obscure until the 10th century. There were a series of Benedictine archbishops, including Saint Oswald of Worcester, Wulfstan and Ealdred, who travelled to Westminster to crown William in 1066. Ealdred died in 1069 and was buried in the church. [12]

The church was damaged in 1069 during William the Conqueror's harrying of the North, but the first Norman archbishop, Thomas of Bayeux, arriving in 1070, organised repairs. The Danes destroyed the church in 1075, but it was again rebuilt from 1080. Built in the Norman style, it was 364.173 ft (111 m) long and rendered in white and red lines. The new structure was damaged by fire in 1137 but was soon repaired. The choir and crypt were remodelled in 1154, and a new chapel was built, all in the Norman style.

The Gothic style in cathedrals had arrived in the mid 12th century. Walter de Gray was made archbishop in 1215 and ordered the construction of a Gothic structure to compare to Canterbury; building began in 1220. The north and south transepts were the first new structures; completed in the 1250s, both were built in the Early English Gothic style but had markedly different wall elevations. A substantial central tower was also completed, with a wooden spire. Building continued into the 15th century.

The Chapter House was begun in the 1260s and was completed before 1296. The wide nave was constructed from the 1280s on the Norman foundations. The outer roof was completed in the 1330s, but the vaulting was not finished until 1360. Construction then moved on to the eastern arm and chapels, with the last Norman structure, the choir, being demolished in the 1390s. Work here finished around 1405. In 1407 the central tower collapsed; the piers were then reinforced, and a new tower was built from 1420. The western towers were added between 1433 and 1472. The cathedral was declared complete and consecrated in 1472. [13]

The nave of York Minster York Minster Nave 1, Nth Yorkshire, UK - Diliff.jpg
The nave of York Minster

The English Reformation led to the looting of much of the cathedral's treasures and the loss of much of the church lands. Under Elizabeth I there was a concerted effort to remove all traces of Roman Catholicism from the cathedral; there was much destruction of tombs, windows and altars. In the English Civil War the city was besieged and fell to the forces of Cromwell in 1644, but Thomas Fairfax prevented any further damage to the cathedral.

Etching by William Martin, brother of arsonist Jonathan Martin York Cathedral (BM 1958,0124.2).jpg
Etching by William Martin, brother of arsonist Jonathan Martin

Following the easing of religious tensions there was some work to restore the cathedral. From 1730 to 1736 the whole floor of the minster was relaid in patterned marble and from 1802 there was a major restoration. However, on 2 February 1829, an arson attack by Jonathan Martin inflicted heavy damage on the east arm. [14] An accidental fire in 1840 left the nave, south west tower and south aisle roofless and blackened shells. The cathedral slumped deeply into debt and in the 1850s services were suspended. From 1858 Augustus Duncombe worked successfully to revive the cathedral. In 1866, there were six residentiary canonries: of which one was the Chancellor's, one the Sub-Dean's, and another annexed to the Archdeaconry of York. [15]

During the 20th century there was more concerted preservation work, especially following a 1967 survey that revealed the building, in particular the central tower, was close to collapse. £2,000,000 was raised and spent by 1972 to reinforce and strengthen the building foundations and roof. During the excavations that were carried out, remains of the north corner of the Roman Principia (headquarters of the Roman fort, Eboracum) were found under the south transept. This area, as well as remains of the Norman cathedral, re-opened to the public in spring 2013 as part of the new exhibition exploring the history of the building of York Minster. [16]

1984 fire

On 9 July 1984, York Minster suffered a serious fire in its south transept during the early morning hours. [17] Firefighters made a decision to deliberately collapse the roof of the South Transept by pouring tens of thousands of gallons of water onto it, in order to save the rest of the building from destruction. [18] A total of 114 firefighters from across North Yorkshire responded to the fire and contained it, [17] while York Minster's staff and clergy rushed to preserve historical objects in the building. [17] The glass of the South Transept rose window was shattered by the heat but the lead held it together, allowing it to be taken down for restoration. [19] [18] A subsequent investigation found an 80% chance that the fire was caused by a lightning strike to a metal electrical box atop the roof, a 10% chance that the fire was caused by arson, and a 10% chance that the fire was caused by an electrical fault. [17] Some traditionalist Anglicans suggested the fire was a sign of divine displeasure at the recent consecration as Bishop of Durham of David Jenkins, whose views they considered heterodox. [20]

A repair and restoration project was completed in 1988 at a cost of £2.25 million, [17] and included new roof bosses to designs which had won a competition put on by BBC Television's Blue Peter programme for children. [18] The roof trusses were rebuilt in oak, but some were coated with fire-retardant plaster. [17]

2007–2018 renovation

In 2007 renovation began on the east front, including the Great East Window, at an estimated cost of £23 million. [21] [22] The 311 glass panels from the Great East Window were removed in 2008 for conservation. The project was completed in 2018. [23]


There have been choir schools associated with the Minster since the 7th century. A 'song school' was founded in 627 by Paulinus of York, the first Archbishop of York. [24] Buildings used by the current school have been awarded listed status, among them the school house built 1830–33, [25] two houses dating back to 1837, [26] and a Georgian building of 1755. [27]

Architecture of the present building

York Minster is the second-largest Gothic cathedral of Northern Europe and clearly charts the development of English Gothic architecture from Early English through to the Perpendicular Period. The present building was begun in about 1230 and completed in 1472. York is the largest cathedral completed during the Gothic period of architecture, Cologne Cathedral only being completed in 1880, after being left uncompleted for 350 years. It has a cruciform plan with an octagonal chapter house attached to the north transept, a central tower and two towers at the west front. The stone used for the building is magnesian limestone, a creamy-white coloured rock that was quarried in nearby Tadcaster. The Minster is 524.5 feet (159.9 m) long [3] and the central tower has a height of 235 feet (72 m). [3] The choir has an interior height of 102 feet (31 m).[ citation needed ]

The north and south transepts were the first parts of the new church to be built. They have simple lancet windows, including the Five Sisters in the north transept. These are five lancets, each 16.3 metres (53 ft) tall and five feet wide [28] and glazed with grey (grisaille) glass, [29] rather than narrative scenes or symbolic motifs that are usually seen in medieval stained-glass windows. In the south transept is a rose window whose glass dates from about 1500 and commemorates the union of the royal houses of York and Lancaster. The roofs of the transepts are of wood; that of the south transept was burnt in the fire of 1984 and was replaced in the restoration work which was completed in 1988. New designs were used for the bosses, five of which were designed by winners of a competition organised by the BBC's Blue Peter television programme.

Work began on the chapter house and its vestibule that links it to the north transept after the transepts were completed. The style of the chapter house is of the early Decorated Period where geometric patterns were used in the tracery of the windows, which were wider than those of early styles. However, the work was completed before the appearance of the ogee curve, an S-shaped double curve that was extensively used at the end of this period. The windows cover almost all of the upper wall space, filling the chapter house with light. The chapter house is octagonal, as is the case in many cathedrals, but is notable in that it has no central column supporting the roof. The wooden roof, which was of an innovative design, is light enough to be able to be supported by the buttressed walls. The chapter house has many sculptured heads above the canopies, representing some of the finest Gothic sculpture in the country. There are human heads, no two alike, and some pulling faces; angels; animals and grotesques. Unique to the transepts and chapter house is the use of Purbeck marble to adorn the piers, adding to the richness of decoration.

The nave was built between 1291 and c.1350 and is also in the decorated Gothic style. It is the widest Gothic nave in England and has a wooden roof (painted so as to appear like stone) and the aisles have vaulted stone roofs. At its west end is the Great West Window, known as the 'Heart of Yorkshire', second-largest among the church's 128 windows. [30] This window was designed and built along with the rest of the west front by the master mason Ivo de Raghton in 1338–39. [31] The tracery is in the Flamboyant or Curvilinear Decorated style of English Gothic architecture. [32] [31] [33] Because of deterioration of stone mullions, the tracery was replaced in the late 1980s with an exact copy. [32]

The east end of the Minster was built between 1361 and 1405 in the Perpendicular Gothic style. Despite the change in style, noticeable in details such as the tracery and capitals, the eastern arm preserves the pattern of the nave. The east end contains a four-bay choir; a second set of transepts, projecting only above half-height; and the Lady Chapel. The transepts are in line with the high altar and serve to throw light onto it. Behind the high altar is the Great East Window, the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the country, which underwent a decade-long restoration and conservation project, completed in 2018. Below the Great East Window currently sits the Orb, a stainless steel dome which opened at the end of October 2012, containing five of the conserved panels from the window, one of which is changed each month. The Orb enables visitors to see the work of renowned medieval artist, John Thornton, up close, revealing the remarkable detail in each panel.

The sparsely decorated Central Tower was built between 1407 and 1472 and is also in the Perpendicular style. Below this, separating the choir from the crossing and nave is the striking 15th-century choir screen. It contains sculptures of the kings of England from William the Conqueror to Henry VI with stone and gilded canopies set against a red background. Above the screen is the organ, which dates from 1832. The West Towers, in contrast with the Central Tower, are heavily decorated and are topped with battlements and eight pinnacles each, again in the Perpendicular style.

In 2003, English Heritage made publicly available a monograph on the architectural history of York Minster. [34] The book charts the construction and development of the minster based on the architectural recording of the building from the 1970s.

Stained glass

Some of the stained glass in York Minster dates back to the 12th century and much of the glass (white or coloured) came from Germany. [35] The glass was painted, fired, then joined together with lead strips (came) into the windows. The 77-foot (23 m) tall and 32-foot (9.8 m) wide [36] Great East Window was created by John Thornton in the early 15th century; he was paid £66 for the work. [37] This is the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the country, according to the Minster. [38]

Another important window is the 16.3 metres (53 ft) [7] tall Five Sisters window. Because of the extended time periods during which the glass was installed, different types of glazing and painting techniques are visible in the different windows. Approximately two million individual pieces of glass make up the cathedral's stained-glass windows. The windows were removed in 1916 because of the fear of bombing during the First World War and the "Five Sisters Window" was restored in 1925 with £3,500 raised by Almyra Gray and Helen Little. [39] The glass was removed again during the Second World War.

In 2008 a conservation project of the Great East Window commenced, involving the removal, repainting and re-leading of each individual panel. [40] While the window was in storage in the minster's stonemasons' yard, a fire broke out in some adjoining offices, due to an electrical fault, on 30 December 2009. [41] The window's 311 panes, stored in a neighbouring room, were undamaged and were successfully moved to safety. [42] [43] In September 2015, the first phase of the renovation project of the East Front of the Minster was completed. [44] The final phase of the £11 million restoration [45] of the 311 panels was completed in September 2017 and they were re-installed between November 2017 and January 2018. In total, the work on the Great East Window had taken 92,400 hours of labour, including the time required to add protective UV coating on the glass. [46]

Towers and bells

The two west towers of the minster hold bells, clock chimes and a concert carillon. The north-west tower contains Great Peter (216  cwt or 10.8  tons) and the six clock bells (the largest weighing just over 60 cwt or 3 tons). The south-west tower holds 14 bells (tenor 59 cwt or 3 tons) hung and rung for change ringing and 22 carillon bells (tenor 23 cwt or 1.2 tons) which are played from a baton keyboard in the ringing chamber (all together 35 bells.)

Low Petergate with the Minster towers in the background Lower Petergate in York, England.jpg
Low Petergate with the Minster towers in the background

The clock bells ring every quarter of an hour during the daytime and Great Peter strikes the hour.

The change ringing bells fell silent in October 2016, following the controversial termination of the ringers' volunteer agreements by the dean and chapter. [47] [48] The pause in ringing included the Christmas period of 2016, reported as the first time in over 600 years that the Minster's bells were not heard on Christmas Day. [49] After a year with no change ringing, a new band was appointed and ringing resumed. [50]

York Minster became the first cathedral in England to have a carillon of bells with the arrival of a further twenty-four small bells on 4 April 2008. These are added to the existing "Nelson Chime" which is chimed to announce Evensong around 5:00 pm each day, giving a carillon of 35 bells in total (three chromatic octaves). The new bells were cast at the Loughborough Bell Foundry of John Taylor & Co, where all of the existing minster bells were cast. The new carillon is a gift to the minster. It will be the first new carillon in the British Isles for 40 years and first hand played carillon in an English cathedral. Before Evensong each evening, hymn tunes are played on a baton keyboard connected with the bells, but occasionally anything from Beethoven to the Beatles may be heard. [51]


When Thomas Becket was murdered and subsequently enshrined at Canterbury, York found itself with a rival major draw for pilgrims. More specifically, pilgrims spent money and would leave gifts for the support of the cathedral. Hence Walter de Gray, supported by the King, petitioned the Pope. On 18 March 1226, Pope Honorius issued a letter to the effect that the name of William (Fitzherbert), formerly Archbishop of York, was "inscribed in the catalogue of the Saints of the Church Militant." Thus there was now St William of York (whose name is perhaps more often associated with the adjacent St William's College). York had its saint but it took until 1279, when William de Wickwane (William de Wykewayne) was elected archbishop, for the remains of the canonised William to be transferred to a shrine prepared for them behind the high altar. [52] This was placed on a platform raised upon the arches of the crypt removed to this position for that purpose. On 29 December King Edward I himself, together with the bishops who were present, carried on their shoulder the chest or feretory containing the relics to their new resting-place and Anthony Beck, consecrated the same day as Bishop of Durham, paid all the expenses.

The tomb of Walter de Gray was erected in the south transept. His remains were interred on "the vigil of Pentecost, 1255" [52] under his effigy "in full canonicals" carved in Purbeck marble under a canopy resting on ten light pillars. It was subsequently somewhat hidden behind a screen of ironwork erected by Archbishop William Markham in the early 19th century.



The fire of 1829 destroyed the organ and the basis of the present organ dates from 1832, when Elliot and Hill constructed a new instrument. This organ was reconstructed in 1859 by William Hill and Sons. The case remained intact, but the organ was mechanically new, retaining the largest pipes of the former instrument.

In 1903, J. W. Walker and Sons built a new instrument in the same case. They retained several registers from the previous instrument.

Some work was undertaken in 1918 by Harrison & Harrison when the Tuba Mirabilis was added and the Great chorus revised. The same firm rebuilt this Walker-Harrison instrument in 1931 when a new console and electro-pneumatic action were added together with four new stops. The smaller solo tubas were enclosed in the solo box. In 1960, J. W. Walker & Sons restored the actions, lowered wind pressures and introduced mutations and higher chorus work in the spirit of the neo-classical movement. They cleaned the organ in 1982.

The fire of 1984 affected the organ but not irreparably; the damage hastened the time for a major restoration, which was begun in 1991 and finished two years later by Principal Pipe Organs of York, under the direction of their founder, Geoffrey Coffin, who had at one time been assistant organist at the Minster. [53]

In 2018, a £2 million project to refurbish the current organ was announced. The project will take two years to complete and will see nearly all of its 5,403 pipes removed and taken to organ specialists Harrison and Harrison in Durham. [54]


The organists of York Minster have had several official titles, the job description roughly equates to that of Organist and Master of the Choristers. The current Organist and Director of Music of the Minster is Robert Sharpe. There is also an Assistant Director of Music, Ben Morris.

Among the notable organists of York Minster are four members of the Camidge family, who served as the cathedral's organists for over 100 years, and a number of composers including John Naylor, T. Tertius Noble, Edward Bairstow, Francis Jackson, and Philip Moore.

Dean and chapter

As of 2 January 2021: [55]


Astronomical clock

The astronomical clock was installed in the North Transept of York Minster in 1955. The clock is a memorial to the airmen operating from bases in Yorkshire, County Durham and Northumberland who were killed in action during the Second World War. [62]


The West Door, illuminated in December 2005 York Minster Illuminations.jpg
The West Door, illuminated in December 2005

In November 2002, York Minster was illuminated in colour, devised by York-born Mark Brayshaw, for the first time in its history. The occasion was televised live on the BBC1 Look North programme. Similar illuminations have been projected over the Christmas period in subsequent years.

York Minster was also artistically illuminated on 5 November 2005, celebrating the 400th anniversary of the foiling of York-born Guy Fawkes' gunpowder plot. This was done by Patrice Warrener using his unique "chromolithe" technique with which he 'paints' with light, picking out sculpted architectural details.

In October 2010, York Minster's south transept was selected for "Rose", a son et lumiere created by international artists Ross Ashton and Karen Monid which lit up the entire exterior of the south transept of the minster and illuminated the Rose Window. There were also satellite illuminate events in Dean's Park.

York Mystery Plays

In 2000, the Dean and Chapter allowed the York Mystery Plays to be performed for the first time inside the Minster, directed by Greg Doran. [63] The Plays returned to the Minster for a second time in 2016, directed by Phillip Breen with Philip McGinley performing the role of Jesus. [64]

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