A dominant landmark, York Minster is also the city’s most popular tourist destination. The great Gothic cathedral towers over the surrounding area and at its tallest point reaches a height of 71 metres. Visitors can climb the stairs of central tower, emerging at the top to panoramic views of the city below and the wider Vale of York.
Constructed over the course of two and a half centuries, the Minster dates from a period when York was the significant economic and political – as well as religious – capital in the North. Whilst the city’s influence has waned somewhat since then, the Minster has maintained its religious importance and York remains the administrative centre of the Church of England’s ministry in the north of the country.
Built in a time long before motorised cranes and computer aided design, the complex stone structure is the combined product of master medieval architects and thousands of hours of man and animal power.
Although York Minster has withstood a lot in its long lifetime, it is currently undergoing a process of seemingly unending repair. A number of the large windows have been carefully restored and a team of masons work year round to replace stonework that has fallen victim to the weather.
Why York Minster?
There are a number of other ‘minsters’ in England, perhaps the most famous being Westminster Cathedral in London. Although similar to the Latin monasterium or monastery, the title itself dates back to the Anglo-Saxon period, when it was used to describe a settlement of clergy obligated to maintain the daily office of prayer. Over time the word ‘minster’ began to be used more commonly to refer to any large or important church or cathedral.
History of York Minster
There is a long history of Christianity on this site, with the first wooden chapel being constructed for the baptism of King Edward of Northumbria in 627. This was later replaced with a stone church which was built on the site of a Roman basilica – the remains of which can still be seen today in the Minster’s crypt.
Destroyed by the Danes during the turbulent period that followed the invasion of William The Conqueror, it was rebuilt in the Norman manner favoured by England’s new rulers.
With the new Gothic style sweeping across Europe, another rebuild was ordered in the 13th century. It was hoped this new structure would rival the elegance of the new cathedral constructed in Canterbury.
Built from creamy-white magnesian limestone quarried from nearby Tadcaster, the building we can see today was constructed over a period of 250 years, between 1220 and 1472, although it has undergone a considerable number of repairs and restorations since then.
The Reformation and After
During the 16th century, with the English Reformation in full swing, attempts were made to remove all the cathedral’s most obviously Catholic features. Tombs, windows and altars that did not conform to the new religious orthodoxy were destroyed and the cathedral also fell victim to looters – with many of it’s treasures being stolen.
Although attempts were made to restore parts of the cathedral during the 18th century, two major disasters wreeked further havoc in the early years of the nineteenth. In 1829, a deliberate arson attack by a non-conformist damaged the east wing, and in 1840 another fire – accidental this time – left much of the southern side a blackened shell. All this damage, combined with the debt into which the cathedral had fallen, led to services being suspended during the 1850s.
There were more alarming developments in the 20th century. A 1967 survey revealed that parts of the building were close to collapse and £2 million had to be raised to reinforce the roof and foundations.
All this remedial work did however uncover some fascinating archaeology. During excavations, the north corner of the headquarters of the Roman fort – Eboracum – were discovered under the south transept, and are now on display to the public.
Because it’s construction took so long, York Minster actually embodies all the major stages of Gothic architectural development. The north and south transepts – the two parts that form the ‘arms’ of the cross in the cathedral’s layout – were built between 1220-55 in the Early English style.
The most significant and characteristic development here was the use of pointed rather than curved arches. These can be seen in what are known as lancet windows, in doorways or in the large spans above the aisles.
Compared to the earlier rounded Romanesque arches, the new style looked more refined but more importantly was much more efficient at distributing the weight of the stonework above it, allowing for wider and higher spans with thinner columns. This allowed for larger windows, less massive walls and generally a more open and graceful building.
Death and Design
The octagonal Chapter House and the nave – the main body of the church – were built later in what is known as the Decorated Style. Decorated Gothic is characterised by it’s elaborate window designs which are divided by thin vertical columns of stone or mullions. Towards the top of the window these mullions branch out and cross forming elaborate patterns – the west front of York Minster is a fine example of this technique.
Finally, the quire and central tower (rebuilt after the original had collapsed) – finished in 1472 – are in the Perpendicular style. It has been argued that this new trend was a movement against the more flamboyant decorative style that had preceded it and was born in the shadow of the Black Death – which wiped out an estimated third of England’s population in just 18 months. Not only did the new architecture reflect a new morbidity in the wider populace, it was also a response to acute labour shortages.
The Chapter House
Taking over 20 years to build, the Chapter House is a remarkable piece of architecture and design.
Rather than being held up by a central column, the vaulted ceiling of this octagonal space is supported by the roof timbers above – the earliest example of this innovative building technique (there is a scale model of the timber frame in the vestible that links the Chapter House to the north transept).
Alongside the beautiful stained glass of it’s vast windows, the Chapter House also contains some of the Minster’s finest sculpture. These Gothic carvings – of which no two are alike – include gargoyles, cats and dogs, as well as angels.
Shortly after its completion in 1297 it was used by Edward I to convene his Parliament, and it is still used today for meetings of the College of Canons. The 44 seats that run around the walls are arranged in such a way that all have an equal voice during a meeting.
Chapter House Virtual Tour
With 128 windows, made from an estimated two million individual pieces, York Minster houses one of Europe’s biggest collections of stained glass.
The Great East Window – once again visible now the scaffolding has been removed – is the largest expanse of medieval stained glass anywhere in the world and dates all the way back to the 15th century.
There are a number of other remarkable windows including the fifty foot Five Sisters, The Rose Window and The Great West Window. In the same way that the cathedral embodies different stages of Gothic architecture, so too its stained glass reveals the evolution of painting and glazing techniques over hundreds of years.
York has a long tradition of creating beautiful stained glass. Records reveal, however, that much of the glass was actually manufactured in Germany and then shipped to England. Once in York it was then painted, fired and glazed together with lead strips to create the intricate designs you can see today.
The images and scenes depicted on the glass are typically biblical in inspiration. The Great East Window – the size of a tennis court – shows the beginning and end of all things, from the Book of Genesis through to the Apocalypse and the second coming of Christ. At the top of the Great West window you can see stages of the life of Jesus – the Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection and Ascension.
The Five Sisters is perhaps an exception, being made of ‘grisaille’ glass fashionable in thirteenth century England. The emphasis here is on strong geometric patterns held together with the skillful use of lead.
Visiting York Minster
Despite being one of York’s most popular tourist attractions, the Minster is still a functioning cathedral with regular services. These services are very traditional in style and this form of worship is often referred to as “High Church” Anglican.
For sightseeing York Minster is open 9.00am – 5.00pm (last entry) Monday to Friday. On Sunday the opening times are 12.45pm-5.45pm. Please note, that in the winter you may not be able to climb the Tower due to bad weather.
The Minster may well also be closed for other reasons from time to time so be sure to check their Calendar before you visit.
For more York attractions check out our guide to Things To Do in the city.