Whitby Abbey is one of the finest scenes Whitby has to offer
The history of Whitby Abbey
The founding of the Abbey on the East Cliff was a tribute of thanksgiving to God by King Oswui of Northumbria after defeating the Penda, the pagan King of Mercia.
The view of the abbey high up on the East Cliff exposed to the North Sea has become one of the iconic landscapes of Yorkshire, known throughout the world and photographed regularly by amateurs and professional alike.
Royal Princess Hild founded the ‘double monastery' in the Anglo-Saxon style to be used by both men and women. The Abbey became a centre of learning, a renowned nunnery and burial place for the royal family of Deira.
It is through the contribution of Caedmon who is remembered at the Abbey and at St Mary’s Churchyard with a cross, that Whitby lays claim to a literary first – Caedmon was the first English poet and Whitby the birthplace of English literature.
In 664 the first Synod of Whitby took place to establish the date of Easter. The story goes that in a toss-up between the Ionan practice followed by Irish monks and the Roman tradition favoured by Rome, the decision was settled by Big Oswui.
King Oswui asked both sides if they agreed that St Peter had been handed the keys to the kingdom of Heaven by Christ and pronounced as ‘the rock’ on which the church would be built.
Reasoning that St Peter was the highest authority in the Church it was conceded that the Roman tradition is kept. Easter was fixed to be held on a Sunday, the day of Resurrection.
This first incarnation of the Abbey under St Hilda lasted 200 years.
At this time the north-east of England was invaded by the Danes, or as they are more commonly known – Vikings! The invasion of the Danes wrought great destruction across the region and led to the fall of the Abbey. For the next 200 years, the Abbey was derelict, deserted and destroyed by the ravages of time.
The next incarnation of the Abbey was in the eleventh century shortly after the Norman Conquest. It is these ruins that remain today. The story goes that a Norman knight travelled to England with William the Conquerer. After witnessing many bloody battles to defeat the rebellious Anglo-Saxon lords in the north of the country, he became a monk.
Reinfrid entered the monastic life at Evesham in Worcestershire then later journeyed to Jarrow, a great religious centre in the north of England. It was here that he had a vision to re-establish the great Abbey at Whitby.
In 1067, with the generous help of local lord, William de Percy, Reinfrid founded the second Abbey at Whitby. This new Benedictine institution was at first merely a priory. It was granted Abbey status only in the early twelfth century.
It was in this guise that the Abbey performed a great deal of service to the local community providing for their religious needs through the running of churches, providing employment to a great number people and supporting local crafts and industries in the area.
Alas, this happy time couldn’t last. The age monasticism was about to come to an abrupt end.
In the South of England, a process known as the Suppression of the Monasteries began in 1509. Numbers were dwindling in the great monastic houses. Novices were in short supply and many religious houses were merged to ensure survival or sold to turn the assets into cash for use elsewhere.
It was in this way that Cardinal Wolsey had planned for a great college at Cambridge to be named after him. Henry, however, now the king had other ideas. Wolsey failed to secure a divorce on behalf of the king from Katharine of Aragon and the Cardinal fell from grace. King’s College, Cambridge was the outcome
On the 14 December 1539 Henry VIII ordered Whitby Abbey to close. The dissolution of the monasteries had reduced the old way of life to dust. The result of a whimsical monarch demanding everything go his way.
Upon closure, Whitby Abbey was stripped of all the fixtures and fittings of value; glass from the windows, lead from the roof and left to decay. The roof of the great church and the central tower all eventually fell leaving behind the ruins we know and love today.
During the first World War, in December 1914, a German battlecruiser shelled Whitby from the North Sea, destroying the west wall and nave.
Further damage was done at the hands of locals, scavenging material for their own built projects and gardens, much as others had done before them. The Cholmsley family built an impressive private house adjacent to the Abbey plundered the ruins heavily in the making of this grand residence.
In the 1920’s the Ministry of Work took over and the today, English Heritage takes care of the still extensive remains. Much diminished from the original building but enough survives of Whitby Abbey to leave a lasting impression on visitors of what was one of the most stunning monuments in the monastic tradition of Old England.
It is easy to see why tourists flock from across the UK and the world, climbing the legendary 199 Steps, to see Whitby Abbey. This iconic and ancient place has enchanted and inspired generations of visitors with visions of saints, storytellers and vampires.
Whitby Abbey and Dracula
One of the things that really put Whitby Abbey, or rather the ruins of the Abbey, on the map was the publication of the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. This was published in 1897 and resulted in renewed interest in the ruins of the Abbey.
Bram Stoker came to visit Whitby town in 1890, and it was this visit that gave him the inspiration that he was looking for to create his world-famous character and Gothic novel.
The ruins of Whitby Abbey dominating the landscape and the eerie setting of the ruins gave him inspiration for his book. He also went to a local library, where he found a book that was written eight decades earlier.
This book mentioned an evil 15th-century villain in Romania who was known as Dracula and impaled people on wooden stakes. While the book did take a number of years to write following his visits to Whitby, it was his experience in this town and of the Abbey ruins that provided him with his inspiration.
Whitby Abbey Illuminated
If you want to see Whitby Abbey in a new light and from a new perspective, one event you may be interested in is Illuminated Abbey.
This will take place from 25th to 31st October and will see the Abbey ruins spectacularly illuminated.
There will be costume characters in attendance, ready to tell spooky stories associated with the Abbey. In addition, you can also come along in fancy dress for Halloween.
To finish your special experience, there is also a live performance of Dracula for you to enjoy, resulting from the Abbey’s close association with Bran Stoker and his Gothic novel.
199 Steps to St Mary’s Church and Whitby Abbey
For those who have the stamina, one way to reach the Abbey is to climb the famous 199 Steps to St. Mary’s Church and then through the graveyard to Whitby Abbey.
It is well worth trying these steps for the spectacular views you get as you get towards the top. Another reason why people climb them is to count them – this has become something of a tradition.
Contact Tel: 01947 603 568
Seasonal opening times
- April – September: 10am until 6pm
- October: 10am until 5pm
- November 1st to 5th: 10am until 4pm
- November 6th to December 23rd: 10am until 4pm (Saturdays and Sundays only)
- December 27th to 31st: 10am until 4pm
- January 1st to February 11th: 10am until 4pm (Saturdays and Sundays only)
- February 12th to 18th: 10am until 4pm
- February 19th to March 29th: 10am until 4pm (Saturdays and Sundays only)
Please note that last admission is always 30 minutes prior to closing.
There is a council-run car park around one hundred meters from the Abbey. There is a fee for parking. There are wheelchairs available for disabled visitors at the car park entrance as well as the Visitor Centre.
- Baby changing and push chair facilities
- Audio tours are part of the admission
- Dogs on a leash are allowed in certain parts
- Toilets are located in the car park
- Gift shop
- Open grassed areas for picnics
- Cafe located next door
Other than Whitby Abbey, Whitby has many other historical and interesting modern structures that are noteworthy. Whitby Railway Station, St Mary's Church, Old Town Hall and the Whalebone Arch (and that is exactly what it sounds like), are a few of these examples.
This beautiful town has been home to many authors, inspiring their work, and offering them the peace they need to write. Caedmon, a well-known Anglo-Saxon poet, Stoker (the author of the well-known novel Dracula), Charles Dickens (the author of many famous novels such as David Copperfield, and Great Expectations), and even the American writer James Russel Lowell are known to have lived in or visited Whitby at one point or another. What better proof of Whitby's beauty than Lowell's quote: “This my ninth year at Whitby, and the place loses none of its charm for me.”