York Minster

There have been many religious buildings on the site where York Minster currently stands, dating back to 627 when the first church was constructed on the site.

In 1075 the Danes destroyed the church on the site, but it was rebuilt by the Normans in 1080. The building was again damaged in 1137, but was repaired again, and then expanded and improved in 1154. Work on the Chapter House was completed in 1296 after some decades of work, with the nave having been widened in 1280.

The choir screen had been built from 1475 to 1500. There is also an eagle lectern which had been given to the Minster in 1686, which is made from brass, situated in the nave, close to to the altar.

During the Civil War the Minster remained at risk, but efforts were made to ensure that the building was kept safe. In the mid 1700s further efforts were made to ensure that the building was kept in a good state of repair, and extensive repairs and improvements were made to the flooring. Some of these changes caused damage however to the history of the building, it was in 1736 that the nave and transept floors were relaid, and the gravestones and memorials which were once there removed and cut up. The historian Charles Brunton Knight noted that “the vandalism of destroying the gravestones, as well as the confusion of records caused by their removal, is greatly deplored by present-day antiquarians”.

There were further extensive repairs to the Minster from 1802 onwards but the Minster was badly damaged in an 1829 arson attack by Jonathan Martin, which left the east wing with some considerable damage. A letter to the Morning Post at the time from a local resident said:

“I write to inform you that our fine old building, the Cathedral Church of St Peter, was discovered to be on fire about seven this morning [February 2nd] and on gaining admission into the building the Prayer House presented one complete mass of fire and smoke. Every vestige of the fine old carved woodwork that composed the Prebend’s stall together with that magnificent instrument, the Organ, is completed destroyed and the smoke is now issuing from the roof in volume: every assistance is at hand; the engines are playing with every exertion to save this noble edifice. The cause of the fire is not yet known, but it is supposed to have proceeded from the negligence of some of the individuals in not putting the gas out safe, after the evening service yesterday. Should the roof be on fire, which is not yet ascertained, little hope can be entertained of saving the building so as it can be repaired. The consternation among the inhabitants may be better conceived than described”.

In the days after the fire, the true arson cause was discovered and the individual who were initially blamed by the correspondent exonerated. The London Standard at the time said:

“We are enabled to state, on unquestionable authority, that there no longer exists the least doubt respecting the origin of what cannot be deemed other than a national misfortune. A shoemaker at York has identified as his property pincers found on the window ledge where the incendiary made his exit from the cathedral. A person who occasionally lodged with this shoemaker has just disappeared and is the individual upon whom every suspicion at present is concentrated. He is said to be a printer by trade, and to have gained a livelihood of late by hawking about pamphlets containing a history of his own life. The wretched being is now believed to be insane.”

There was damage to the bosses in 1840, when copies of the original were used in the repair work. There is also a gilded dragon, dating from the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, which was situated high on the north side of the triforium above the nave.

The cost of the fire caused significant strains on the finances of the Minster. As noted by Edward Royle in his book, ‘The Victorian Church in York’, the Minster’s revenue in 1840 was £1,352 a year, making it the third poorest, despite its importance. Royle also notes that, “a major consideration in the appointment of Augustus Duncombe as Dean in 1858 was that he was personally rich”.

In 1959 the state of the Minster was causing concern, with a new gantry erected on the West Front to protect members of the public from falling ornamental stonework, which had been an occasional problem in previous years. The Minster noted that the Tadcaster stone used to build the front was disintegrating and twelve skilled masons would be needed to fully repair the stone. Potentially far more seriously, in the late 1960s a survey conducted on the Minster showed significant subsidence problems, and a large fund-raising exercise was started to enable repairs to be completed to stabilise the building.

One side-effect of this redevelopment work has been to allow foundations from the Roman and Norman buildings on this site to be uncovered, and these are still visible if you visit the Minster’s undercroft.

Another fire occurred at the Minster in 1984 when the roof in the south transept was destroyed. The building was repaired, including using some bosses which had been designed by children following a competition on BBC’s Blue Peter programme.

There have been three Royal Weddings which have been held at the Minster. The first was in 1251, with the marriage of Alexander III of Scotland to Princess Margaret, the daughter of Henry III. The second was in 1327, when Edward III married Philippa of Hainault. The third Royal Wedding was with the 1961 marriage of the Duchess of Kent.

More information on the history of the Minster can be found on the official web-site at http://www.yorkminster.org/. The Minster also has its own library, which numerous historic volumes included in the collection.