St. Mary’s church, Whitby

This church is situated in one of the most dramatic settings in all of England.

Gravestones with the coast in the background. Many have the appearance of being melted by time and the elements

High about the relentless waves of the North Sea hundreds of feet below, the church stands alone and steadfast in the face of the bracing elements, as it has done for well over a millennium.

The church and it’s graveyard have provided inspiration for writers, poets and painters for centuries, most famously providing a backdrop for events in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

I remember visiting here many years ago and being captivated by the gothic atmosphere and intriguing history of this famous place

The church on the right and the abbey on the left at night

The church stands on or near the site of the Church of St. Peter belonging to the Anglian monastery founded by Oswy, King of Northumbria, in A.D.657, whose first abbess was St. Hilda.

That church was the burial place of many persons of distinction including King Edwin, the first Christian King of Northumbria, slain in battle at Hatfield near Doncaster in A.D. 633.

Gravestones with the abbey in the background

His body was exhumed to be brought here for re-interment during the reign of Abbess Elfleda (680-713), but his head was buried at York in the church he founded which is now the current York Minster. 

Here too lies the remains of King Oswy and his Queen Eanfled, the parents of Elfleda, the Abbess who succeeded St. Hilda. 

St Hilda was the first abbess of the original church located on this spot or very close to, founded in 657 by Oswy, King of Northumbria

The Danes destroyed the original Saxon church in the 9th Century in one of the numerous Viking raids on this coast.

The name Whitby itself is Viking (as are most place names ending in ‘by’). Excavations in and about the church have revealed pieces of the daub filling of the timber buildings of that age. Centuries before this the Romans would have had an outpost or watchtower here which has long since been taken by the sea. 

A weathered grave with the Abbey in the background

It is clear that this has been deeply hallowed ground for thousands of years. 

The church which stands today is Norman in origin, having been built by the abbot of the Abbey, William de Percy around 1110. A significant amount of the original building remains in the fabric of the church today which is astonishing considering its highly exposed position in this place for over 910 years.

The north and south transepts (the arms of the church) were added in 1225 and 1380 respectively to give the church its cruciform plan. 

Ancient alter

The building has been added to significantly down the centuries with the interior dating from the around the 18th century. Incredibly, the church was at one time seated for 2,000 people.

Some of the pews date back to the reign of James I with ominous passages from the bible inscribed on large wooden tablets clearly visible all around still speaking their message now in a completely different time and space. 

Carved head

There is a unique energy here both within the church and the churchyard, a true sense of history on top of history.

This place has retained the footprints from a millennium or more of people passing through its doors and wandering this place.

The churchyard contains the earthly remains of those who were once here throughout the previous 1,500 years.

There is almost a sense that this place isn’t of this world.  

Access to the church from the town is via the famous 199 steps. 

Exterior of the church. The oval shaped gravestone is said to be that of ‘Humpy Dumpty’

The first record of the steps was in 1340 but it is believed they were in existence long before this. It is a mystery as to why there are 199 steps and what they represent.

Jenkins states that this is ‘the most exhilarating approach to any church in England, especially on a stormy evening’

199 steps to the church and graveyard at night

At various intervals on the steps are large flat areas with benches to the side. These were not designed with tourists in mind but acted as coffin rests for pallbearers. If you were wealthy enough you could afford a horse-drawn hearse to carry your departed loved one up the very steep cobbled track to the right. The churchyard has been closed for burials since 1858. 

Outside of the church

There is a sizable proportion of gravestones which read ‘in memory of’ rather than ‘here lies’ or ‘here rests which is testament to the amount of people lost at sea from this area and their bodies never recovered.  

Unique interior of the church

The church and the churchyard are entwined with the infamous legend of Dracula. The story goes that Count Dracula fled Whitby by ascending the 199 stairs to the churchyard and the Abbey on the East cliff and hid in a suicide victim’s grave after drinking the blood of a young girl.

One of the many superstitions surrounding vampires is that they can only rest in their own soil or in the grave of a suicide.

The ‘seafaring’ Georgian interior

The story then goes on to say that you can find the graves of both the girl and the suicide victim in the churchyard to this day – they are very simply marked with a skull & crossbones.

Skull and crossbones on a grave stone. It is often said this is Dracula’s grave or that this contains the grave of a pirate but a more likely story is that is is a symbol of a mason, now unknown to the world

Despite the intriguing story it is likely that this grave was that of a mason or freemason, however we will never know for certain as is the case for a large number of these gravestones, any inscription has long since been lost to the hands of time and the elements. 

Bram Stoker himself visited Whitby in July 1890 for a holiday and lodged at a guesthouse owned by a Mrs Veazey at number 6 Royal Crescent.

The Blue plaque at 6 Royal crescent

It was in the town’s library (in the upper floor of what is now the Quayside fish and chip restaurant) that Stoker found references to a 15th-century Transylvanian prince by the name of Vlad Tepes, known for his fondness of torture and his penchant for impaling his enemies on wooden stakes. Vlad was also known by the name of ‘Dracula’ – which translates to ‘son of the Dragon’, an order that his father was a member of. Armed with this information and inspired by his surroundings, Stoker had his villain. 

Bram Stoker’s bench memorial on the West cliff. This view directly looks across the bay to the church and the graveyard high above the town with the abbey behind

Stoker also took inspiration from the name on one of the first gravestones you meet having made the climb up the steps, one William Swales who died in June 1781, ‘Swales’ being the name he used for Dracula’s first victim in Whitby.

Gravestone of William Swales, the name from which Bram Stoker took inspiration for Dracula’s first victim

As you wander around the churchyard at night there is an eerie sense of tranquillity as the gentle noise of the waves crashing below the cliff, slowly but surely eroding more and more of this headland like an almost perfect metaphor for the ever-steady march of time.

All that stands here and the church itself will inevitablly be lost to the sea as well in the coming centuries. 

There was a bright full moon, with heavy black, driving clouds, which threw the whole scene into a fleeting diorama of light and shade as they sailed across. For a moment or two I could see nothing, as the shadow of a cloud obscured St. Mary’s Church and all around it. Then as the cloud passed I could see the ruins of the Abbey coming into view; and as the edge of a narrow band of light as sharp as a sword-cut moved along, the church and churchyard became gradually visible… It seemed to me as though something dark stood behind the seat where the white figure shone, and bent over it. What it was, whether man or beast, I could not tell.

The famous Whale bone arch looking over the harbour to the church and abbey

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