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4 fascinating Churches in Whitby you should visit

In this blog post, we will discuss 4 fascinating Churches in Whitby and learn about their connection to the town’s religious heritage.

Whitby is home to several Churches, each with an engaging history and incredible architectural features. From the iconic St. Mary’s Church on the East Cliff to the beautiful Flowergate Unitarian Chapel. Whether you’re a history lover, an architecture enthusiast, or simply curious about the role of religion in this coastal town, read on to discover the fascinating stories behind these 4 Churches in Whitby.

St. Mary's Church in Whitby
St. Mary’s is Whitby’s most iconic church, situated at the top of the 199 steps.

St. Mary’s Church

St. Mary’s Church is one of the most iconic landmarks in Whitby, located on the East Cliff overlooking the town and the harbour. The Church was founded in 1110 and is considered one of the country’s finest examples of Gothic architecture. It’s interesting to note that there has been a place of worship atop the cliffs for centuries. Although the Church we see today is a product of the early 12th Century, its history dates to at least the 7th century AD. It is conveniently located near the historic Whitby Abbey, and both attractions receive many visitors each year. St Mary’s is open for visitors and for services.

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The interior of the Church gives a glimpse into 18th Century design with its pre-Victorian furnishings. It’s a stark contrast to the fortress-like exterior, which is ideally suited to the North Sea environment that can be wild and stormy at times. Inside the Church, visitors can admire the beautiful stained-glass windows, which date back to the 19th Century and depict scenes from the Bible. The Church also has several interesting artefacts which you can find detailed here. It’s fascinating to learn that it can accommodate a staggering 3,000 people as the Victorian architects were eager to fill every nook and cranny with pews. Interestingly, it has never been electrified and relies solely on candlelight from sconces and a magnificent brass chandelier.

199 Steps

A distinctive feature is the 199 steps leading up to the Church, which gathers the tourists. Some historians believe that St Hilda would use the steps as a test to confirm the faith of her followers. This tested the Christian faith of those who wished to worship in St Marys Church.

Synod of Whitby

During the Synod of Whitby in 664, King Oswiu of Northumbria declared that his kingdom would follow the Roman customs for calculating Easter and the monastic tonsure instead of the practices of Irish monks at Iona and its associated institutions. The synod met at Hilda’s dual monastery of Streonshalh, which was eventually known as Whitby Abbey.

Captain Cook

St Mary’s is well-known for its connections to Captain James Cook, the famous seafaring explorer and cartographer from the 18th century. Cook was an apprentice to a shipowner in Whitby between 1746-49 and stayed in the town for another six years before joining the Royal Navy. He attended St Mary’s for worship during this time. Cook, and his fellow apprentices would have walked up the famous 199 Steps to reach the Church, just like visitors do today.

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St Hilda’s Catholic Church in Whitby
St Hilda’s Catholic Church in Whitby | Photo © Mike Kirby (cc-by-sa/2.0)

St Hilda’s Catholic Church

St. Hilda’s Church is another important landmark in Whitby. The Church dates back to the 19th Century and is built in the Gothic Revival style, with a distinctive tower that can be seen from all around the town. In 1794, a room above a stonemason’s warehouse in Baxtergate was transformed into a space for Mass. However, it wasn’t until 1805 that a Church was constructed in Bagdale, close to the present Church built much later in 1866-7 by architect Matthew Ellison Hadfield from Sheffield.

St Hilda’s Church has a warm, welcoming atmosphere with beautiful 19th-century architecture. The Church continues to play an important role in the local community, hosting a variety of events and services throughout the year. As well as their worship services, they host Messy Church for families here and a monthly Coffee Morning!

Who was St. Hilda

The Church is named after St. Hilda. St Hilda of Whitby, or Hild, (the correct Anglo Saxon name meaning battle), was born in 614AD into the Royal house of Northumbria. St Hilda of Whitby was a Christian saint and the founding abbess of the monastery at Whitby in 657 AD, which was chosen as the venue for the Synod of Whitby.

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Flowergate Unitarian Chapel in Whitby
Unitarian Chapel – Flowergate by Betty Longbottom, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Flowergate Unitarian Chapel

Flowergate Unitarian Chapel is a Grade II listed building, built in 1812 on the site of a much earlier chapel completed in 1715. As members of a spiritual community, they gather from all walks of life to share in quiet contemplation, self-discovery, and reflection. Their goal is to create a loving and supportive religious community that values and embraces diversity and uniqueness. Newcomers are always welcome!

At their services, they include a diverse range of hymns, prayers, and readings. They draw from a variety of sources, including Christian scriptures, as well as other ancient scriptures and philosophies. They also incorporate poetry and prose into the readings.

Building structure

The building’s basic structure dates to the late 13th century and was originally a three-story house with a gable facing Flowergate. The surviving gable has revealed massive sandstone blocks and an oak beam. There is a blocked window and a late medieval fireplace within the roof void where the wall has never been plastered.

In 1715, the building was generously altered by Mr Leonard Wilde from a house to a chapel. The gable and one side wall remained, but the conversion was of brick and incorporated much of the original roof structure. Today, little else can be seen of this structure as the chapel was rebuilt in 1811, incorporating parts of the original building. The rebuild was the same length, leaving the gable end standing but increasing the width to give a more symmetrical pattern. The Gothic-style sash windows, gallery, front door, and fanlight all date back to this period. Interestingly, there is a trap door in front of the pulpit which is said to have led to an escape route from the building.

In the 20th century, there were few alterations other than the original oil lighting being replaced first by gas and then by electricity. The gable end window has been removed and replaced by a coloured glass leaded light, and a memorial was erected to the Rev. Francis Haydn Williams.

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St Ninian's Church in Whitby
St Ninian’s Church in Whitby | CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

St Ninian’s Church

St Ninian’s Church was the only proprietor Church in all of Yorkshire and one of only two Anglican Churches in England dedicated to St Ninian. Initially serving as an Anglican chapel of ease to St Mary’s Church. St Ninian’s later became involved in the Anglo-Catholic Church after a disagreement with the Church of England regarding the ordination of women priests. The Church was the second oldest Anglican Church in Whitby, with more chapels and Churches constructed after St Ninian’s.

Building structure

The construction of the Church was completed in October 1778. The external walls were built with brown brick, and the wooden designs of the local ships inspired the interior designs. The vestry cupboards were crafted to resemble the lockers on ships, a tribute to the Church’s builders. Isaac Allanson, a renowned Whitby mast-maker, provided the men and materials for the three galleries that line the Church on three sides, with supports made from oak wood. The carpenters who built these galleries were used when the ship-building trade was “slack,” or when they could be spared from the yard. The roof is supported by nearly 30,000 feet (9,100 m) of sawn timber. Timber imports were being hampered by a blockade caused by the American War of Independence. This led to increased costs for all the proprietors. The roof is made of slate, transported overland from Hull in the 1770s. This land route was preferred to delivery by sea due to the ongoing war, which affected shipping.

A Proprietors Church

Local people built the 1778 Church, and the Church of England did not own it. This unique feature makes it a Proprietors Church, the only one in Yorkshire and believed to be one of just four in England. To fund the building costs, thirty townsfolk paid £64 each and were granted a free pew in return. The remaining pews were open to all, and the collection plate offerings were used to pay the minister’s salary. The Church is particularly renowned for its outstanding interior woodwork, which was crafted by men who worked in the shipyards of Whitby, known for producing the ships used by Captain Cook on his expeditions in search of Terra Australis.

Unfortunately, the Church ceased to function as a religious institution in 2019.

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We have loved researching and learning more about these four fascinating Churches in Whitby. They are a testament to this town’s rich history and culture. Whether you are religious yourself or are fascinated by history and architecture, we hope we have inspired you to visit them. If you already have, please let us know what you thought or any further information in the comments.

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