Thousands of years of lore and legend lie beneath this deeply hallowed ground.
This place has stood defiant and alone since the beginning of time, in the face of the relentless and abrasive North Sea elements.
Today the spectacular, atmospheric ruins of Whitby Abbey are some of the most famous and recognisable in England.
The town as it remains today and the name ‘Whitby’ is Viking in origin, but the beginnings of this place go back much further than the Norsemen invaders.
Whitby Abbey was founded by Saint Hilda in 657, some 1,363 years ago.
Hilda was the great niece of the Anglo-Saxon King Edwin of Northumbria. Local folklore says that Hilda got rid of all the evil snakes and serpents in Whitby by throwing them off the top of the Abbey Cliff as she turned them to stone.
This was a medieval explanation of the spiral fossil Ammonites found in the rocks below the cliffs. It is also said that when sea birds fly over the abbey they dip their wings in honour of St Hilda.
They Abbey of Saint Hild is described by Shaw Jeffrey as “a sort of University and Royal Palace in one, peopled not by monks and nuns vowed to celibacy on later monastic lines, but a mixed gathering of Christian families, males and females alike, ruled like a highland clan of the old days, by a scion of the royal house”.
Probably the most significant event in the history of the English Church was held at the Abbey in 664, The Synod of Whitby. The most eminent clergymen of the Christian Church were summoned to settle the dispute over which tradition, Celtic or Roman would be followed and how the date for Easter should be calculated. The result was that the Celtic church adopted the Roman calendar, calculation of Easter and the monastic tonsure or shaving of the head.
Whitby Abbey was also home to the great Saxon poet and father of English sacred song Caedmon, whose 7th century poem, The Song of Creation is the earliest known poem in English. In present day Whitby at the top of the 199 steps is the Caedmon memorial cross, a 19th century memorial to the poet. The Abbey was also the official burial site of the Northumbrian royal family and other Norman nobles.
Of the Anglian monastery where Cædmon lived, very little is visible today, although recent excavation has revealed that the site was much more extensive than previously thought – with a large number of timber buildings on the headland (at least 500 metres of which has eroded into the sea since Anglo-Saxon times) and an extensive cemetery, which is now buried beneath the Abbey visitors’ car park.
The whole area of headland and indeed even the visitor’s park has a deeply spiritual feel to it and a sense of abundantly layered history that has occurred on this very spot throughout the previous two millennia.
Both within the Abbey boundaries and on the headland, there are tantalising clues as to the times and people gone by as the green turf rolls up and down in curious shapes, hiding whatever secrets are long buried beneath it.
Similarly, many of the gravestones in neighbouring St Mary’s churchyard (explored here https://famouspastwords.co.uk/2020/09/05/st-marys-church-whitby/) are so weathered that the lives of those who lie beneath are now lost to time and within it’s relentless march, will also one day, be lost to the Sea.
In 867 AD Whitby (or Streaneshalch as it was known then) fell to Viking attack and the Saxon monastery was abandoned and destroyed.
The sight of the invaders on the horizon would have been a terrifying prospect for all those who inhabited this place.
While riding through the north of England one day in the 1070s, a Norman soldier called Reinfrid, a companion of William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings, came upon a most dramatic sight at the point where the river Esk meets the North Sea.
High on a headland and framed by a great void of sea and sky to the east and hinterland to the west, stood the ruins of the once great Anglo-Saxon monastery of Streaneshalch.
The combined effect of ruins and landscape was so powerful that Reinfrid took holy orders and later returned to live there as a hermit. By 1078 he had founded a small priory of monks there which in time grew into a great Benedictine monastery which we know as Whitby Abbey.
The ruins which are seen today are the remains of the gothic Abbey, which was begun around 1220, replacing a smaller building.
The building work would be a stop start venture due to insufficient funds; it was not completed until the 15th century.
This Gothic style, known at the time as being exceptionally modern allowed the buildings to be more airy and pleasant. Bigger windows allowed more light and larger vaulted under crofts gave spaces that are more open. The rooms here would stand tall, reaching high with decorate columns and pillars.
To complete the gothic characteristic were a few hundred gargoyles, a feature that was said to induce fear into the peasants of the area to attend church.
These remains are celebrating their 800th year on this spot, almost as revered today for their intrigue, secrets and romantic gothic silhouette than they were as an astonishingly ostentatious place of worship all those years ago.
The Abbey has long been the dominating feature of the charming seaside town below and became one of the most iconic images in Bram Stoker’s immortal Gothic novel, Dracula.
It is said that Dracula’s grave is located within the abbey – the grave of a suicide being the only one he could rest within. It was in the library that overlooks the town and up to the Abbey that Stoker first came up with the story and name for his novel (now the Quayside Fish and Chip restaurant)
“Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes, and which is the scene of part of ‘Marmion,’ where the girl was built up in the wall. It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits.”Dracula. Nina Murrays Diary. Chapter Six.
As you walk through the grounds of the Abbey with the ruins in the distance you get a sense of how large the community here once must have been. The original monk fishponds are still present, situated a few hundred yards from the main church building.
It is incredible to think that these are still here almost a millennia later, the very same ponds that once fed the residents of this great place and then, as they do now, reflect the abbey in their dark, deep waters.
The view from this spot with the backdrop of the North Sea and cliffs has not changed since this place was alive with activity. It is easy to imagine monks hurrying about their daily business, making one of their eight daily prayer sessions before heading to meet within the chapter house for a discussion of the daily business.
There is a curious line of medieval tombstones outside the Abbey church between the nave and North transept which are around six feet below what is now ground level.
These people would have once undoubtedly been witness to life at this place. They would have known the stories, the people and the livelihoods. They would have drunk in the taverns and prayed in this church.
Entering the vast ruins, the remains loom large overhead. You can still see the walkways and the spiral staircases which would have led the monks around their daily lives.
It is easy to imagine them passing through these doors and corridors in the middle of the night, lit only by candlelight on their way to prayer. The walls feel deeply imbued with a sense of history and all that have been here before.
Passing into the Sanctuary area of the abbey you can make out the outline of the early 12th century church which was much smaller in size.
There is a very special feel about the area which includes the Presbytery, the most hallowed and sacred part of this sacrosanct place. The choir was situated just in front of this area with the original steps through to it still visible.
It is remarkable to think that for almost 800 years feet have worn these away, once encapsulated by this incredible building. The voices of the monks and their song would have reverberated around these echoey walls for centuries.
Legend says that a phantom choir can be heard on the 6 January every year at dawn – the old Christmas Day.
Another ghost that is said to haunt this place is Constance De Beverly who was a young nun at the Abbey when she fell in love with a handsome knight called Marmion. She fell in love so deeply that she threw her vows of chastity out of the window and when her secret was exposed she was bricked up alive inside the walls of the Abbey by means of punishment.
People have recalled being able to hear whimpering and screaming, begging to be let out of the walls where she died.
Another local legend, the Phantom Coach is said to hurtle up and down the Cobbled way adjacent to the Abbey steps. It is said that if you were to walk up the 199 steps on ‘a cold dark night, where even the light of the moon only just illuminates the ground’ and stand outside St Mary’s Church, you may be in for a fright.
Standing in the grounds of St Mary’s Church, the structure towering above you like the proud sibling of the Abbey ruins, you might hear the sound of horses approaching in the distance. If you can muster the courage to stay, you may see a ghostly horse drawn carriage charging towards you, with the driver furiously whipping the horses, the sound of the horses’ hooves heavily pounding the ground like thunder. As the carriage approaches, the figures are barely visible and then the carriage hauls up outside the church entrance, horses rearing on their hind legs and disappears.
Another legend is that of The Barghest. Tales of this huge, dog-like creature reach back many years and the tale of a huge black dog running from the ship in Bram Stoker’s novel has further added fuel to the story’s flames.
Common legend has it that The Barghest stalks its prey on the North Yorkshire Moors surrounding Whitby and that it preys on farmers’ livestock and wild animals, using its jet-black fur to blend in with the night. However, should you find yourself out on the Moors one evening, sunlight disappearing behind the tree lined hill tops, mist beginning to cling to the ground like seaweed and hear a blood curdling howl, seek shelter soon as the Barghest only stalks the victims who hear its wolf-like cry.
Ever since the abbey was closed there have been rumours of a vast treasure buried somewhere on the grounds. A rumour that has brought many treasure hunters to the abbey’s front door.
One of those treasure hunters learned the hard way that the treasure has a guardian. A number of years ago, a local minister and his daughter went to the ruin late one night with a shovel in hand and avarice in their hearts.
While digging, the daughter felt a tap on her shoulder. Believing it was her father she turned to look and a horrifying sight met her eyes. She let out a bloodcurdling shriek of fear and fainted dead away. When her father discovered her, she was just coming to and a crazed look filled her eyes.
When she regained her senses, she told her father that she saw a towering, headless apparition commanding her to leave or die. Since that night, all searches for the treasure has all but ceased.
As legends and tales of the abbey and the surrounding area abound, the remote, almost desolate location of the Abbey can still be felt as much today as it was 800 years ago.
Bitter winds still whip up and sweep over the uninhabited surrounding miles of baron rural land, as deserted and prone to the temperament of violent storms now as it was then. The walls around the abbey grounds, which for the most part is still all intact, provides a small buffer to the unpredictable and unrelenting coastal climate of this headland.
Viewing the Abbey after dark is an ethereal experience. It is lit up against the black night sky as the remains loom over the headland and the crashing waves far below.
It is without doubt one of the most surreal and spectacular sights in all of England.