York Minster (aka. York cathedral) dominates the city. Arguably, it is York, having been its social and geographical focus for over a thousand years. It’s a Gothic-style cathedral (the largest north of the Alps) of a scale and intricacy that will punch the breath right out of you at first sight – and it’s beautiful because of – rather than despite – its many architectural imperfections. This is a building that has clearly evolved.
As you might expect, that evolution has a rather colourful history.
Here are a few highlights.
Briefly, All Roman Roads Led Here
Lounging decadently outside the front entrance of the Minster is a statue of Roman Emperor Constantine. Why? Because somewhere near this spot (most likely in the principia or Roman headquartersnow preserved in the Minster’s Undercroft), in AD 306, he was hailed Emperor of the Roman Empire. We can therefore put it another way: for a brief moment in history, York (or rather Eboracum, the fortress that preceded it) was the centre of the Roman Empire.
Are there any flaws in this statement? Yup. Constantine’s succession was legitimate by blood only – and shortly after his troops proclaimed him Emperor, Constantine was plunged into a bitter power struggle with the legally-appointed successor Severus and fellow usurper Maxentius. It was during his final, triumphant battle with the latter just outside Rome that Constantine allegedly saw the spectral flaming cross that converted him to Christianity, setting a strikingly different religious tone to the Eastern Roman Empire he would later establish in Constantinople. If Severus or Maxentius had defeated him? No statue, and since Constantine’s succession inspired a 7th Century church on this spot…maybe no Minster either.
What’s Going On ‘Ere, Then?
On the 2nd February 1829, a befuddled religious fanatic called Jonathan Martin did his very best to burn the Minster to the ground. The whole was saved, but the heart of the cathedral was gutted by fire. (The full extraordinary story is here). Unsurprisingly, existing security was tightened up once restoration was complete – on the 6th March 1829 it was announced that “‘Henceforward a watchman/constable shall be employed to keep watch every night in and about the cathedral”.
This police force (one of only two cathedral-serving forces in the world) became such a presence that it’s possible Robert Peel examined it during his research that led to the first Metropolitan police force in Britain, the ‘Peelers‘. And the Minster police are still at work – as I saw a few years back when they escorted a busker and his guitar off the premises. (Yes. In a cathedral. That’s gutsy).
The Archbishop With A Taste For Piracy
This be a tale of Lancelot Blackburne, me hearties. Archbishop of York from 1724 to 1743 he may have been, but afore that…he were a pirate’s chaplain in Antigua. THAT HE WERE!
Look To The East
If you’ve moved to York in recent years, your visits to the Minster will have featured scaffolding. Lots of scaffolding. The tragedy is, that building-work is hiding one of the Minster’s most famous sights - the largest single expanse of medieval glass in England, and some of the finest in Europe. It’s also the earliest work of English art with an artist’s name against it.
Having recently secured funding for extensive repairs, the East Window (seen in the foreground of the above photo taken in 1986) should be back with us soon – and that’s good news, because it’s a truly lovely thing.
Not that the rest of the Minster is particularly shabby, of course.
A Singed Rose
My first memory of York Minster is seeing it ablaze. On July 9th 1984 a fire started in the Minster’s south transcept – nobody knows exactly how, but a lightning strike is our best guess. The fire burned across the transcept roof until at 4am it collapsed, snuffing out much of the fire with it. What is incredible is that high in the back wall the Rose Window survived, albeit so severely damaged that its 73 panels had cracked in situ into around 40,000 individual pieces of glass. Restoration took 4 years and cost over £2 million.
And why a rose? It signifies the intertwined destinies of the House Of York and the House Of Lancaster, fighting to support rival claimants for the throne of England in what came to be known as the 15th Century “War Of The Roses“. The red rose is Lancaster, the white rose is York - and both colours feature in the window because it commemorates the end of this struggle for power with the marriage of Elizabeth of York to the Lancastrian King Henry V11 in 1486.
Once a year, something weird happens to York Minster. Something garish and rather startling.
More details here.