Bless Me: 5 Surprising Sides To York Minster

MikeachimThe Everyday15 Comments

York Minster 2 - by Mike Sowden

York Minster, from the city walls past Bootham Bar

York Minster (aka. York cathedral) dominates the city. Arguably, it is York, having been its social and geographical focus for over a thousand years. It’s a Gothic-style cathedral (the largest north of the Alps) of a scale and intricacy that will punch the breath right out of you at first sight – and it’s beautiful because of – rather than despite – its many architectural imperfections. This is a building that has clearly evolved.

As you might expect, that evolution has a rather colourful history.

Here are a few highlights.

Briefly, All Roman Roads Led Here

Constantine The Great - by Multiple fragments of tissue, Flickr

Kneel! Or, don’t kneel. I can’t do much about it either way, I’m only a statue.

Lounging decadently outside the front entrance of the Minster is a statue of Roman Emperor Constantine. Why? Because somewhere near this spot (most likely in the principia or Roman headquartersnow preserved in the Minster’s Undercroft), in AD 306, he was hailed Emperor of the Roman Empire. We can therefore put it another way: for a brief moment in history, York (or rather Eboracum, the fortress that preceded it) was the centre of the Roman Empire.

Are there any flaws in this statement? Yup. Constantine’s succession was legitimate by blood only – and shortly after his troops proclaimed him Emperor, Constantine was plunged into a bitter power struggle with the legally-appointed successor Severus and fellow usurper Maxentius. It was during his final, triumphant battle with the latter just outside Rome that Constantine allegedly saw the spectral flaming cross that converted him to Christianity, setting a strikingly different religious tone to the Eastern Roman Empire he would later establish in Constantinople. If Severus or Maxentius had defeated him? No statue, and since Constantine’s succession inspired a 7th Century church on this spot…maybe no Minster either.

What’s Going On ‘Ere, Then?

York Minster 1 - by Mike Sowden

York Minster in the olden days (when everything was black & white, & people moved around very fast to piano music)

On the 2nd February 1829, a befuddled religious fanatic called Jonathan Martin did his very best to burn the Minster to the ground. The whole was saved, but the heart of the cathedral was gutted by fire. (The full extraordinary story is here). Unsurprisingly, existing security was tightened up once restoration was complete – on the 6th March 1829 it was announced that “‘Henceforward a watchman/constable shall be employed to keep watch every night in and about the cathedral”.

This police force (one of only two cathedral-serving forces in the world) became such a presence that it’s possible Robert Peel examined it during his research that led to the first Metropolitan police force in Britain, the ‘Peelers‘. And the Minster police are still at work – as I saw a few years back when they escorted a busker and his guitar off the premises. (Yes. In a cathedral. That’s gutsy).

The Archbishop With A Taste For Piracy

Pirate Flag, by Olivier Bruchez - Flickr


This be a tale of Lancelot Blackburne, me hearties. Archbishop of York from 1724 to 1743 he may have been, but afore that…he were a pirate’s chaplain in Antigua. THAT HE WERE!


Look To The East

If you’ve moved to York in recent years, your visits to the Minster will have featured scaffolding. Lots of scaffolding. The tragedy is, that building-work is hiding one of the Minster’s most famous sights  – the largest single expanse of medieval glass in England, and some of the finest in Europe. It’s also the earliest work of English art with an artist’s name against it.

Having recently secured funding for extensive repairs, the East Window (seen in the foreground of the above photo taken in 1986) should be back with us soon – and that’s good news, because it’s a truly lovely thing.

York Minster Interior, by jonoakley - Flickr

Not that the rest of the Minster is particularly shabby, of course.

A Singed Rose

Rose Window, by Keith Laverack - Flickr

The Rose Window. Can you grow roses like that? I’m damn sure I can’t.

My first memory of York Minster is seeing it ablaze. On July 9th 1984 a fire started in the Minster’s south transceptnobody knows exactly how, but a lightning strike is our best guess. The fire burned across the transcept roof until at 4am it collapsed, snuffing out much of the fire with it. What is incredible is that high in the back wall the Rose Window survived, albeit so severely damaged that its 73 panels had cracked in situ into around 40,000 individual pieces of glass. Restoration took 4 years and cost over £2 million.

And why a rose? It signifies the intertwined destinies of the House Of York and the House Of Lancaster, fighting to support rival claimants for the throne of England in what came to be known as the 15th Century “War Of The Roses“. The red rose is Lancaster, the white rose is York  – and both colours feature in the window because it commemorates the end of this struggle for power with the marriage of Elizabeth of York to the Lancastrian King Henry V11 in 1486.

Um…Too Much?

York Minster in the Illuminating York Festival, 2010 - Mike Sowden

“It’ll come right off, guv…”

Once a year, something weird happens to York Minster. Something garish and rather startling.

More details here.

Images: Mike Sowden, Keith Laverack, jonoakley, Olivier Bruchez, alh1 and Multiple fragments of tissue.
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  • Very entertaining article, Mike. And informative! You now, I’ve been in England a million times… well, more like 50… but I’ve yet to make it to York – even though it’s named after a Viking village. Next time…

  • Jimbo

    At the risk of sounding like an utter geek the derivation of the placename York was neatly summed up by Guy Halsall in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West (Cambridge, CUP 2007, 449):

    ‘York, a city whose modern name is a contraction of Yorvik. Although Yorvik can be rationalised as a Danish [Viking] word describing the site’s location, it is in fact a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon word for the town: Eoferwic. Eoferwic in turn is a development from Evrawg, the Brythonic version of Eboracum, the Roman name for York (following characteristic late Latin linguistic changes, such as the softening of b to v and the loss of the word’s final syllable).’

    So you could argue York actually holds the same name (though much corrupted and altered) as it did when the Roman army turned up in AD71. Eboracum may mean something like ‘place of the yews’ or ‘place owned by a man called yew’.

  • I love England, but didn’t make it to York. I love the rose stained glass window.

  • No matter how they try to garish it up, it’s a beautiful building. Loved the fascinating history and intricacies!

  • Very interesting and entertaining. I go ga-ga over cathedrals, and the English ones I’ve seen really are some of the best. I visited York in 1996; unfortunately, I don’t remember it well, so I particularly enjoyed the above pictures.

  • Wow, great post. I have been to York Minster before, but didn’t know a lot of what you said. Thanks for sharing. Great photos, too!

  • Agree with Jenna. Honestly (and I’m not English!), all of these cathedrals look much cooler than other real famous ones like, for example, the Notre Dame cathedral. The one in Cologne, Germany is also a thing of beauty.

  • Very interesting post with lots of nice pictures too.

  • Fascinating read and beautiful pics. So glad I stumbled upon this article because I am a big fan of gothic cathedrals and the histories they have endured for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Thanks for introducing me to one I didn’t know.

  • Been to England many times, as I love castles. Heading Austria over the weekend fort he exact same reason.
    Great article! Thanks

  • I really want to visit York, I live in London and STILL haven’t been. The main reason for that would be that a return train costs over £150 at the moment! Ridiculous. Still, one day…

  • I have lived in the UK all my life, and I don’t think I have ever been to York. Maybe once, on a school trip, but you never appreciate these things at that age. Nice article, thanks Mike.

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  • While I’m not religious, I love visiting beautiful cathedrals, you don’t see many new buildings where they put such an effort into beautiful details and extravaganza.