Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

St Hilda and Whitby

Today is also the feast of St Hilda, the great Northumbrian Abbess of royal birth who established monasteries at Hartlepool, Whitby and later Hackness. The Oxford DNB life of her by Alan Thacker is here and there is another account of her life here.

The ruins of the later medieval abbey, refounded after the Norman conquest, have become one of the most familiar images of both the Yorkshire coast and iconic of the dissolution of the monasteries.


Whitby Abbey


As a very small child I spent a number of holidays in Whitby with my parents and the abbey and picturesque town form some of my earliest memories. Not ony was there the abbey - there is the remarkable parish church with its box pews filling every available bit of space, the delightful town tumbling down towards the river Esk and there were also memories of Captain James Cook and his yoyages of discovery. Staying in such a place fed my early interest in, and enthusiasm for, the past. With my father I went as a toddler to say good morning each day to the statue of Captain Cook each morning. My mother used to tell the story of how, when I went to Whitby to stay when I was no more than four and a half, was insistent on the first night in the hotel that the following morning the first thing we had to do was not play on the beach or suchlike but that we must climb the 199 steps that lead from the harbour to abbey to revisit it and as she finished the story "and we did too."

In later years I discovered pictures showing the abbey when more of the fabric survived and that fed my desire to know what these great buildings had looked like when they were complete.

At Whitby the domestic buildings disappeared quite quickly, but the ruins of the abbey church survived, possibly as a coastal mark for mariners, gradually decaying and collapsing.

Whitby Abbey engraving J010105

Samuel Buck's engraving of 1711 is actually from the south west,
and shows the south wall of the nave and the tower and south transept still standing.

Image: englishheritageprints.com

The nave fell in 1762 to be followed by the south transept a year later. Much of the west front, including most of the great west window, collapsed in November 1794.

Whitby Abbey 1789

The view from the west in 1789.
An aquatint by F.Gibson


The ruins from the north-west, painted by J.C.Buckler before 1812

Image: 1st-art-gallery.com

The central tower fell on 25 June 1830, and a storm did some damage to the choir in 1839. Since then the ruin has changed little although it was shelled by German ships on 16 December 1914 and some small damage was done to the west end.

There are good online accounts of the history of Whitby,the abbey and its architecture here and here.

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