The History of St. Mary's Abbey, the site of the York Mystery Plays 2012

Foundation

The foundation of the abbey that was to become St Mary’s dates back to the year 1080 when Alan Rufus, one of the great Norman barons who had prospered in the wake of the Conquest of 1066, offered a group of monks from Lastingham the use of St Olave’s church in York, along with lands nearby.

Abbot Stephen, leader of the community at Lastingham, jumped at the chance to move to the city and six years later the Abbot of York was recorded in the Domesday Book as one of the city’s prominent landowners.

King William I (the Conqueror) was only too happy to have the abbey moved to York; the daily reminder of the power of the Norman barons – and indeed the King – would clearly make an impression on the recently cowed Saxon population.

Soon after, in 1088, King William II (Rufus) decided that St Olave’s was not big enough for the abbey’s needs and granted the community lands next to the church. In 1089 he formally laid the foundation stone of the great new abbey church, which was to be dedicated to St Mary. Count Alan Rufus granted the abbey more lands in what is now Bootham, before formally surrendering patronage of the abbey to his King.

A New Order

Within a generation or so of its foundation, St Mary’s was to lose a number of its community: The monks at St Mary’s followed the Rule of St Benedict, but early in the 12th century a new form of monasticism was beginning to gain popularity in England; the Cistercians had arrived! This new monastic order lived a simpler, poorer lifestyle and several members of the community at St Mary’s (including its Prior, Richard) were impressed with Cistercian ideals. In 1132, following an unsuccessful attempt to introduce some of these new values to life at St Mary’s, Prior Richard and a group of monks left the community and founded Fountains Abbey, which became a Cistercian house.

Romanesque to Gothic

The abbey that William Rufus had founded in 1088 was built in the Romanesque style, brought over from the continent by the Normans. It was built at the same time as the Normans were completely rebuilding York Minster and these two vast, Romanesque structures, built in stone and towering over the city’s skyline, can have left no doubt in the minds of the people of York that the Normans were here to stay.

In 1137 York was devastated by fire and St Mary’s Abbey was badly damaged, along with York Minster and 39 other churches in the city! The abbeychurch had doubtless been completed by this time, but archaeology shows that substantial rebuilding and repair work took place in the mid-12th century.

This Romanesque church, though, stood for little more than a hundred years; in 1270 Abbot Simon de Warwick laid the foundation stone of a new, larger abbey church which was built in the Decorated Gothic style between 1270 and 1294. It is the partial remains of this abbey church that still stand in the Museum Gardens today.

The Abbey and the City

Relations between St Mary’s Abbey and the city of York were uneasy from the start; as has been mentioned, upon its foundation it quickly became a symbol of Norman overlordship and then, as its wealth and influence grew, city merchants and traders became angry at its power. On several occasions this anger simmered over into violence; in 1262 the abbot’s property in Bootham was plundered and his tenants were attacked. In 1343 and 1350 the abbey was effectively besieged and members of the community were threatened with violence and even crucifixion!

But the abbey also provided employment for many in the city, along with the charity which was a hallmark of monastic foundations, and it would be wrong to imagine that the relationship between city and abbey was entirely fractious.

Dissolution

Life at St Mary’s Abbey came to an end in November 1539, when Henry VIII closed the abbey down as part of his nationwide Dissolution of the Monasteries. By that time St Mary’s was worth more than £2,000 a year, which put it on par with the great earls of the land. The closure of the abbey, along with the seizure of its lands, treasures and assets, greatly increased the King’s wealth. 

However, the buildings of St Mary’s remained largely intact after closure; the abbey buildings were complete enough that, in 1541, Henry VIII and his fifth wife – Catherine Howard – stayed there when they visited the city. But, over time, the abbey was pillaged of its stone; some was sold but later the people of York simply began stealing what was left – it became, in effect, a stone quarry.

The King’s Manor and the Manor Shore

The buildings that had formed the Abbot’s residence were taken by the Crown and extensively rebuilt in order to fit their new function; the residence became known as the King’s Manor and was used for the meeting of the Council of the North.

The area where the abbey church and its buildings had stood became known simply as the Manor Shore and was, essentially, wasteland. Livestock were grazed there and, in the 17th century, lime kilns were set up in the ruins of the church. Evidence of these kilns can still be seen in the blackened stone of the abbey ruins.

To the Present Day

The abbey ruins were excavated in the 1820s, prior to the Yorkshire Philosophical Society’s building of the Yorkshire Museum. In 1912 the Tempest Anderson Hall was added to the side of the Museum. Beneath it, in the Museum’s Medieval gallery, can be seen the remains of the chapter house and its vestibule, along with the south transept, the private parlour and one corner of the cloister.

Today, the abbey ruins are a beautiful and scenic backdrop for picnics or simple sunbathing and are a stunning setting for York’s 2012 cycle of Mystery Plays.

Written by John Hoyland, Enhanced Guide at the York Museums Trust

Photo Credit: Allan Harris 

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