York Minster is located in the centre of York and dominates the city. It is Northern Europe’s largest medieval cathedral and England’s largest gothic cathedral. As well as the Minster itself, there is the octagonal Chapter House, undercroft, treasury and crypt to explore. If you are feeling energetic and have a spare five pounds (this is in addition to the normal admission charge), a climb up the 275 steps of the massive central tower will reward you with fantastic views of the City of York. Halfway up you have to walk outside across the roofline. Here there are some amazing close-up views of the flying buttresses which transmit the weight of the building down to the ground.
The Minster, also known as St Peter’s, is 158m long and 76m wide across the transepts. Its full name is the “Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York”.
During its construction, all the major stages of Gothic architectural development have been used. Early English style was used for the transepts, the Decorated style for the octagonal Chapter House and nave. Finally, the Perpendicular style was used for the west towers, the west front and central tower.
The Minster is the seat of the Archbishop of York, primate of England, and second in importance only to Canterbury.
The first church on this site was a wooden chapel where King Edwin of Northumbria was baptised in 627. However, this was not the first building to occupy the site. The remains of the Basilica, the ceremonial centre of the original Roman fortress of Eboracum, have been found beneath the Minster building.
Several other churches have stood on the site before the present Minster was started in 1220 and completed 250 years later. The central tower was rebuilt in 1420 through to 1465 after it partially collapsed in 1407. In 1984 the south transept was struck by lightning and the roof was destroyed in the ensuing fire. This has subsequently been restored.
The Minster has been damaged by fires throughout its history. On February 1, 1829, Jonathan Martin (brother of the famous painter John Martin) hid behind a monument in the Minster. At nightfall, he emerged into the empty cathedral and piled prayer books and other material together in the choir. He then set them alight and left. Fire engines were called after the blaze was spotted in the early hours of the morning. However, by this time, the fire had become an inferno which melted the lead from the roof and cracked the limestone pillars. The fire only started to subside later that day. By that time over 230 feet of the choir roof had been destroyed.
Also destroyed were the pulpit, the medieval choir stalls and the organ.
Martin was a non-conformist preacher who rebelled against using the formal liturgy for prayer. He believed that prayer should come from the heart. Although he left York after the fire, he was soon caught. At his trial, he was found not guilty due to insanity.
Inside the Minster
South Transept and Nave.
The nave of York Minster is not only the widest in Europe but also one of the highest. A large expanse of stained glass enhances the impression of height. If you are lucky enough to visit on a sunny day when the sun is in the right position, the shafts of coloured light coming through the windows are truly spectacular. The nave was built starting in 1220, replacing an older structure, and is primarily Early English in style.
Enter by the south door and look upwards where you can see the large Rose Window above the entrance. The stonework dates from 1220, but the glass itself is from the late 15th century.
In front is an elaborate screen. This sits between the choir and the nave. The 15th century stone screen has carved statues of the Kings of England from William 1 to Henry V1 with a canopy of angels. Walking anti-clockwise, turn right and walk along the south aisle towards the Minsters eastern end. Lining the aisle are monuments to nobles and ancient churchmen. There are numerous tombs in the Minster. The majority are post-medieval, but some date from the late Tudor period and often have painted effigies of family members.
The Great East Window dominates the eastern end of the Minster. There are also three small chapels. Underneath the window is Lady Chapel, at the sides are St. Stephen’s Chapel and All Saints, the official chapel of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment.
More tombs and memorials line the north aisle. As you approach the north transept you’ll see the 14th-century canopied tomb of Prince William of Hatfield. Prince William sadly died at the age of 10.
North Transept and Chapter House.
Walk past the tomb and turn right to enter the north transept. Five lancet windows which are collectively known as the Five Sisters dominate the transept. Completed in 1250 the windows contain over 100,000 individual pieces of glass. They are over six metres high, and one and a half metres wide. A mechanical clock on the other side of the transept features two knights who strike each other every quarter-hour.
From here there is a short, low passage which leads to the octagonal Chapter House. This is where the business of the Minster used to be carried out. A twin arched door takes you into a circular space lined with low stalls. Above these and all around are stained glass windows. The light flooding through the stained glass makes this a very atmospheric and airy room
Above the windows is the vault of the ceiling. The wooden ribbed roof has colourful panels with gilded bosses. The whole structure is self-supporting, there is no central column holding up the roof. Between the stalls and the windows is a collection of gargoyles. Some of the faces are quite humorous, others depict souls in torment.
Return now to the nave and walk towards the west end. The large west window dates from 1339 and is built in the Curvilinear style which was popular at the time.
If you have time visit the undercroft and crypt. The entrance is down a set of stairs near the south entrance which lead down to the foundations. Here you’ll find the “York Minster Revealed” exhibition. This takes you through the two thousand years of history that have taken place on the site.
Outside the Minster
College Street, home to the Medieval St Williams College, has superb views of Great East Window. Stand near the college and the Great East Window towers above you. Dating back to the early 15th century, it contains over 1,700 square feet of stained glass.
From College Street, walk around the southeast corner of the Minster to the south entrance. From here there are excellent views of the central tower, especially at night, when it is illuminated by floodlights. Close to the south entrance is a statue of Emperor Constantine the Great sat on a stone plinth. York was visited by Constantine I in 306 AD and his son, Constantine the Great, the founder of Constantinople became the first Christian Emperor of Rome. He was proclaimed emperor in York. Preserved under the Minster is the site of his crowning.
Continue past the south entrance to the large paved area in front of the west end. Stand close to Precentor’s Ct to get the best view of the front. The western towers have examples of 15th Century decorative panelling and elaborate pinnacles. The southwest tower is the Minster belfry. Floodlights beautifully illuminate the west front at night.
The north side of the minster can be viewed from Dean’s Park, whose entrance is off the paved area. The park is home to the Cathedral Library and a popular place to sunbathe and have lunch during the summer months.
You can also get nice views of the Minster from the old city walls. Some of the best views of the towers are from the walls south of the River Ouse. Walk over Lendal Bridge and onto the wall walk. Walk south to where the wall rises to cross the road. If you turn round you can see the oldest part of York. The Minster towers above the group of smaller buildings that surround it. The section of wall from Monkgate Bar to Bootham Bar has excellent views of the north side of the minster and Chapter House.
The Minster has the largest collection of medieval stained glass in Britain. Some of it dates from the 12th Century. Make sure you see the Five Sisters Window in the north transept, the largest example of Grisaille glass in Britain. Celebrating the creation, the Great East Window is the size of a tennis court and the largest area of stained glass in the world. The south transept houses the great Rose Window.
No visit to York would be complete with a trip to the Minster, it is a stunning place to visit. Obviously, it was originally built for religious worship, however, there are plenty of quiet corners for contemplation or just to sit and admire the building and absorb its unique atmosphere.
Other things to do in York
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