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In the second half of the 11th century a monk from the French abbey of Auxerre came to the ancient village of Selby in North Yorkshire and founded a Benedictine monastery. This was the first monastery to be established in northern England following the Norman Conquest, and it was King William himself who granted the land on which Selby Abbey was built. By the beginning of the 12th century, the timber abbey had been replaced by a beautiful stone building under the direction of Abbot Hugh, and it had also been re-sited a few yards from the original plot. With a ready supply of materials and funds the work on Selby Abbey progressed rapidly and the great church was almost completed in Hugh's lifetime. Even though many problems were experienced during construction, mainly as a result of a high water-table, much of Abbot Hugh's church still survives, including the distorted nave arches near the central tower. The accomplishments of this hard-working, innovative monk will be forever remembered in the nave pillar named after him. Abbot Hugh's pillar is a sturdy, cylindrical column boasting a deep-cut diamond pattern, similar in appearance to those seen at Durham Cathedral.
Selby Abbey took some 130 years to complete, but the nave is strikingly Norman. Massive, solid masonry with rounded arches and doorways and the traditional patterns of this period carved from the stone. Looking beyond the arcading to the upper levels, more refined and elegant lines can be seen denoting the architectural developments of later building periods. Soon Selby Abbey was recognised as the wealthiest and most influential Benedictine monastery in Yorkshire and, by the mid-14th century, this splendid medieval church looked largely as it still does today. But the intervening years were not kind and it is only through extensive restoration programmes and skilled craftsmanship that visitors can enjoy Selby Abbey as Abbot Hugh had planned some 650 years ago.
At the time of the Dissolution in 1539, the monastic buildings were demolished but the abbey church survived to become the parish church. However, with the loss of the abbey's benefactors and the industrious monks themselves, there was no money for proper maintenance and the building gradually fell into a state of decay. The poor condition of the church suffered further deterioration during the Civil War, and in 1690 the upper part of the tower finally collapsed causing destruction of the south transept and part of the choir. A bell tower replaced the fallen central tower in 1702, the nave became little more than a storage area, and church services continued in the choir.
Eventually the 'enlightened age' called for a sympathetic restoration of this lovely church and in 1871 Gilbert Scott was commissioned to oversee the work on the nave. The choir was fully restored by the end of the 19th century, but a disastrous fire in 1906 resulted in the loss of the nave's timber roof, and the beautifully carved original choir screen. Determined not to lose their precious church, the local people organised a restoration fund, and within four years Selby Abbey had been rebuilt.
All of Great Britain's surviving abbeys are 'special' because of their history, their marvellous architecture, and their importance in the development of Christianity, but Selby has that distinct air of something extra. Maybe Abbot Hugh's enthusiasm to create such a majestic building has passed through the generations, and the atmosphere today reflects the great love and appreciation for this magnificent feat. It is a place of beauty and a place of peace, but more than that it is a place at the very heart of a proud community.
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