The end of the challenge is drawing near and I’m transporting myself to York for what most be one of the most famous cathedrals, if only because it keeps bouncing back from near destruction.
The first church on the site dates back to 627AD and was built in wood, as would have been most churches back in Saxon times. Then it was recast in stone a few years later before St Wilfred rebuilt it in 670. I imagine these early churches being small, but given it had a school and library, perhaps they were more like centres of learning. A note here on the use of ‘minster’. A minster is a Saxon church established as a missionary or teaching church, therefore appropriate for York. The title later became honorific.
The minister church burnt down in 741 and the next one put up had 30 altars and managed to stay intact for a while.
In the Dark Ages, York was captured by every invader that came to the British Isles, including the Vikings, who named the city Yorvik. However the church survived until William the conqueror headed north following his invasion. The ‘harrying of the North’ as it was known. William hadn’t quite got rid of the Danes for good though. They came back in 1075 and this time burnt the church down.
The first Norman archbishop of York (the next most important bishopric after Canterbury) Thomas of Bayeau, rebuilt the minister beginning in 1080. Only a few decades later in 1137, the church was badly damaged by fire… again. The choir and crypt were rebuilt in 1154, however, the church wasn’t in keeping with the latest Gothic designs. So from 1220, York Minister was refashioned.
The north transept includes the Five Sisters – a five lancet window – and a great tower was added… which collapsed in 1407. The nave was rebuilt in 1280 making it one of the largest in the country in terms of width and the remaining Norman parts were replaced in 1395.
A new central tower was added in 1420 and finally in 1470, the minster was completed and rededicated. Subsequent centuries, particularly those of the Reformation and English Civil War saw the interior suffer with tombs, altars and memorials, among many other decorations removed. The Georgian period was particularly destructive of the old medieval styles. A new marble floor was laid and consequently every tomb in the nave was removed and destroyed. A replacement organ, which sits on the choir screen, was needed after an arson attack in 1829. Another fire in 1840 caused major damage before serious preservation work was carried out in the 20th Century.
The great thing about York Minster is that you can see so much of its history by going beneath that marble floor, below into the undercroft where the foundations are visible. These spaces were created during excavations in 1960s and 1970s which were needed to save the central tower from collapse. The tower was underpinned, saving it, and during the work new history was uncovered beneath the minster: a Roman barracks, an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, and the foundations of the Norman church. It’s worth a visit.
As for fire – it came back in 1984. A lightning strike caused the fire that burnt down the roof of the south transept. Fire crews worked to save the Rose window. Thankfully, there have been none since.