The Cathedral City

York, 2019

You can’t visit York and not imagine Harry Potter. The walled city of York reeks of ancient and modern history – from its tangle of cobbled streets, nooks and crannies representing Nordic history, not to mention its incredible reporsiotry of rail history. It’s also home to the largest cathedral of Britain – the York Minster. I will be very honest, my understanding of a church has always been limited – mostly to the history of the religion itself and the stained glasses that are always present. While the York Minister does live up to all of those expectations, the ancient cathdral has a past that starts right from its frontsteps.

Just on the frontsteps of the Minster, stands a beautiful bluish-green tinged statue of Emperor Constantine who, on 25 July 306 AD, was proclaimed Emperor of the Western Roman Empire by his troops in York (then Eboracum), an important Roman stronghold in Britain. As the placard suggests, he was the first Roman emperor who professed himself to Christianity. Throughout his life, Constantine ascribed his success to his conversion to Christianity and the support of the Christian God. He not only initiated the evolution of the Roman empire into a Christian state but also provided the impulse for a distinctively Christian culture that prepared the way for the growth of Byzantine and Western medieval culture.

York Minster is officially known as the ‘Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York’. In the past, the church sat within its own walled precinct, known as the Liberty of St Peter. What that simply means is that not every part of medieval York came within the Mayor’s authority.  Large institutions like the Abbey (St Mary’s) and the Minster retained control of all that went on within their walled boundary.  Although it is by definition a cathedral, the word ‘cathedral’ did not come into actual use until the Norman Conquest.

Dedicated to St. Peter, one of the 12 Apostles, the tall and imposing York Minster stands testament to the monks who converted the locals to Christianity in the 3rd and 4th centuries. In fact, the word ‘minster’ has a distinct root in the Anglo-Saxons dictionary, and is used for monasteries that originally represented churches that were served by monks. York Minster played a great role during the early years of the Christian faith; the bishops of York Minster were often invited to participate in the council at Arles during AD 314. After this, little was heard about the great building until 627 AD, when the oldest documented (wooden) church was built here for the baptism of King Edwin of Northumbria. The church was built over a span of 250 years and consecrated in 1472. Since its establishment in the 7th century, there have been 96 archbishops and bishops. Strangely, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, was designated as the cardinal here for 16 years, but never once stepped inside the Minster.

Visible from nearly every part of the city of York, the 500 feet in length, and 100 feet wide cathedral with its central tower that’s 200 feet tall is reputed as the largest medieval Gothic cathedral built in Northern Europe. The Lantern Tower of the Minister is the tallest landmark in York. Because the structure was built across 2.5 centuries, one can literally map out how the Gothic architecture has developed simply by stepping within the walls of the historic building.

The north and south transepts were built in the Early English style, the octagonal Chapter House and nave were built in the Decorated style, and the quire and central tower were built in Perpendicular style. It has been argued that this more sober Perpendicular style reflected a nation suffering under the Black Death.

Beyond the gothic masterpiece that the building is, the cathedral also boasts about 128 stained glass windows, made from more than 2 million separate glass pieces. The sheer beauty of each window makes it easy to appreciate why they are potential record breakers! I mean it took 92,400 hours and 10 years to make the Great East Window fit for public viewing. In fact, the Great East Window of York Minster, made between 1405 and 1408, is the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in England and one of the most ambitious glazing projects ever undertaken. Depicting the beginning and the end of the Christian cosmos, from the Creation in the Book of Genesis to the Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ, it summarises the medieval perception of human history, which unfolds under the feet of God the Father (top) and the company of heaven.

Representation of the East Window

The Minster is also home to the five sister window, a term coined by Charles Dickens, which dates to the mid-1200s. After World War I, the window was restored and was rededicated as a monument to the women of the British Empire who died while serving their country during the war, including Edith Cavell, a nurse who was executed in 1915 after helping more than 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. The west window, also known as the Heart of Yorkshire, installed between 1338 and 1339, includes depictions of the archbishops of York and Christ’s apostles, along with panels showing scenes from the life of Christ, as well as a panel depicting Mary as Queen. It was restored in 1989-1990 because of erosion.

The Rose Window, one of the largest in Europe, was produced in the year 1515 by the workshop of Master Glazier Robert Petty. The outer panels contain two red Lancastrian roses, alternating with panels containing two red and white Tudor roses. This alluded to the union of the Houses of Lancaster and York through the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York in 1486, and may have been designed to enforce the legitimacy of the new ruling house of Tudor. Early in the morning of 9th July 1984, York Minster suffered a serious fire in its south transept, as a result of lightning, causing the roof to collapse. The heat even cracked the 7000 glass pieces in the Rose Window in about 40,000 places, but miraculously it stayed intact.

Rose window, circular stained glass at the top

Another notable feature of the York Minster is the Grand Organ with its tall, spire-like façade, hailing from the 1830s. This spectacular, ornate instrument boasts of an impressive 5,400 beautifully decorated pipes – most of them original – the now fully-restored organ has a very unique sound, which can once again be heard following its return to action in the spring of 2021.

During the restoration following the 1984 fire, Blue Peter held a children’s competition to design carvings for the cathedral roof. Out of the 30,000 submissions, the winning designs depicted Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon, and the 1982 raising of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s warship. Typical to biblical history, this was not the only fire that was witnessed at this great cathedral. There was a fire in 741, which destroyed the original structure. A newer, Norman cathedral was damaged in 1137. On the 2 February 1829, a religious fanatic named Jonathan Martin set the cathedral alight with arson. The heart of the cathedral was gutted, and after this disaster a cathedral police force was employed. York Minster’s police force became the inspiration for the ‘Peelers’ – the first Metropolitan police force in Britain.

Interior of the Minister is a joy to explore – with interesting statues lining the aisle, fancy tombs and memorials, underground crofts and cryts, to some of the unique antique watches. The minister is also home to a number of grotesques, fantastical figures used for ornamental functions.

Pro Tips:

You can buy a ticket to enter the Minster only, or a combined ticket which admits you to the Minster and the Lantern Tower. It’s a steep climb up 275 steps, but we have been told that the panoramic views from the top are absolutely incredible. It’s worth noting that there is only one route up and down, so you’ll be booked onto a time slot and make the climb as a group. Since it was a day trip for me, and I had a time crunch on hand (and not to mention my great dislike for confined spaces and numerous steps), this part of the tour was skipped.

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. Check out the link to get some more idea on how to best utilise the footsteps! 😉

Interesting reads:

Read the linked article to learn about how the Great East Window was restored.

Related (and not-so related) Posts:

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