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The cliffs at Whitby had been a popular area for communities to settle from as long ago as Roman times, but when St Hilda arrived here in AD657 the headland became one of the holiest places in the country. The source of information about Hilda is The Ecclesiastical History of the English by the Venerable Bede in 731, who was born approximately eight years before her death. He documented much of the conversion away from the Anglo-Saxon paganism established in England when it was invaded and settled by Germanic tribes that resulted in the recall of the legions of the Roman Empire from the province of Britannia in 410. It was here on these sacred cliffs that a Benedictine house for monks and nuns was established, and Hilda became the first Anglo-Saxon Abbess at Whitby. With the Danish invasions of 867, however, the monastery and the whole community were totally destroyed.
In 1078 the Benedictine priory was refounded but nothing of the first Norman church has survived, although excavations have revealed that it was a smaller building than the ruins portray today, and had an apsidal east end. During the 1220s an ambitious rebuilding programme of the church began. It's overall length was extended to some 300ft, and the east end was transformed with the splendour of Early English architecture. Boasting decorative piers, three levels of elegant lancet windows, a continuous row of beautifully carved arches, and high-level blind arcading, the 14th century Whitby Abbey must have presented a grand spectacle from its commanding position above the town. Even 650 years later the ruins still demand a lingering look from any angle. The end wall of the north transept, the northern wall of the chancel, and one section of the east end have survived to almost full height, but everything on the south side of the church has virtually disappeared along with all the domestic buildings usually associated with a monastery.
Of all the great monastic houses in Britain, Whitby Abbey was one of the last to be dissolved. But the end finally came for the Benedictine monks in December 1539. After the Dissolution the site passed to the Cholmley family and remained with them for 250 years. During this time they used all the valuable building materials they could plunder from the ruined abbey to construct a mansion nearby. Although the church was left relatively intact at that time, by the end of the 18th century the years of neglect had taken their toll on the structure. The nave collapsed, followed by the south transept and a substantial part of the west front, and then in the 1830s the central tower fell, and the choir was badly damaged in a storm. Continually battered by the weather in its exposed location, Whitby Abbey suffered the final insult of being shelled by German cruisers patrolling the North Sea in 1914.
We have experienced the delights of this Yorkshire coastal abbey in extreme contrasts of weather - once on a balmy autumn day with the sun reflecting upon the warm peachy tones of the ancient stonework, and on another occasion when an Easter blizzard was bombarding the site with squally snow showers. But nothing detracts from the determined beauty of Whitby, a place of peace and sanctity that Bede found so much to write about in the early 8th century. It may have changed beyond all recognition in 1300 years, but it still retains an aura of quiet holiness, with an evocative sense of the past contained within the standing walls.
As a prominent landmark in Yorkshire, just imagine how grand and inviting the abbey must have looked in the 14th century, commanding the town from its elevated position next to the sea.
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