Cathedral Church of St Peter, York Minster

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  1. Ian Topham says:

    Re: Cathedral Church of St Peter, York Minster
    ‘A History of the County of York: the City of York’ (1961) by P.M. Tillott

    The first cathedral church on or near the site of the present minster for which there is firm literary evidence is the wooden structure in which Paulinus baptized King Edwin. No traces of this church have ever been found; it is unlikely that they would have survived for, soon after his baptism, Edwin began to build a church of stone to replace the other. By 632 sufficient of the building had been erected for Edwin’s head to be buried in porticu Sancti Papae Gregorii, that is to say, in a chapel so dedicated opening off the body of the church. The building was completed by King Oswald, but by the time Wilfrid succeeded as bishop in 669 he found the church in disrepair; the roof had to be leaded, the windows glazed, and the walls whitewashed. The church was embellished by Wilfrid II (718-32). In 741 it probably suffered from fire but was repaired and soon appears in the records again. During the episcopacy of Æthelberht (767-78), a new church, dedicated to the Holy Wisdom, was built in York; whether this was a rebuilding of Edwin’s church or another and new building contiguous to St. Peter’s has already been discussed.

    During the next 300 years the cathedral church of York is frequently mentioned as the place of consecration for bishops, as the burial place of kings and other notables, and in other connexions, but little or nothing is said about the building itself. A gift of tin from Alcuin in 801 was probably made to roof a small, recently built belfrey; it seems likely that the church was damaged by the Danes after their capture of York in 866; King Eadred gave two large bells to the church in 946.

    In 1069 Archbishop Ealdred died and was buried in the minster; he was perhaps the last notable person to be buried in the Saxon minster for, very soon after, the Normans ‘thoroughly ravaged and burnt the holy minster of St. Peter’. There is no documentary evidence—nor has any archaeological evidence yet been found—to refute the supposition that the church then destroyed was that begun by Edwin. The precise location of the Saxon minster or minsters is not known; no walls, foundations, or floors of indisputably Saxon origin have ever been found on the present site though excavation there has been very limited. The most attractive hypothesis is perhaps that which places it (or them) west of the present choir and probably west of the present nave.

    In 1075 a Danish army is said to have destroyed the church but whether this was the Saxon building repaired after William’s wasting of the city or the new building erected by Thomas of Bayeux (10701100) is not clear; there is some reason to suppose that Thomas’s work did not begin until after 1079. Thomas’s contribution to the fabric is uncertain but it seems likely that he built a nave, an aisle-less transept, and a central tower; and since the piers of the present central tower encase piers of Thomas’s time, it is his work that first sets the size and proportions of the present church by setting the size of the central crossing. The only trace of a choir of this period that has been found is a concrete foundation platform with apsidal end lying under the foundations of a later choir. It has been suggested that Thomas laid the concrete platform but was unable to proceed much further with building a choir before his death. A new choir was certainly built by Roger de Pont 1’Evêque (1154-81) and its dimensions can be determined from the remains of his crypt under it, still visible in the present crypt.

    There is more certainty about the times at which each part of the present church was erected. The transepts were the first portion to be re-built. That on the south had probably been begun by 1227 and was complete by 1241 when Walter de Gray (archbishop 1215-55) founded a chantry in the east aisle of the transept. The north transept and the central tower have been ascribed to the treasurership of John Romeyn (c. 1260-5): the north, ‘Five Sisters’ window has been ascribed to such a date.

    The new transepts and the tower clearly needed a nave in proportion—Archbishop Thomas’s was shorter and narrower—and this was begun in 1291 by Archbishop John Romeyn, son of the treasurer. The western wall was not completed until 1338 and the roof was not timbered until 1354. During the building of the nave the chapter house and its vestibule were added on the north; the exterior of the chapter house was probably completed during the treasurership of Francis de FitzUrse (1335-52). It appears to have been the first chapter house on the site.

    Throughout this period the choir was that built by Roger in the 12th century. A new one, with a Lady chapel, was begun by Archbishop Thoresby (135273) in 1361 and on his death the first four bays from the east were probably complete; the outer shell of the entire eastern arm was finished by 1405. At some date subsequent to this the central tower was recased; it seems to have been intended that it should be higher or surmounted by another structure, but one of the piers of the western side had to be rebuilt and this perhaps led to the abandonment of any plan to increase its size.

    Only the two western towers now remained to be built; the southern one was probably begun about 1432 and building was still in progress in 1446; the northern one may have been started in 1456. Both towers were presumably complete by 3 July 1472 when the church was reconsecrated; the date has been observed as the anniversary of the completion of the building since that time.

    The fabric of the church has not been altered since the 15th century but has, of course, been frequently repaired and repairs to some parts have amounted to little less than rebuilding. Little appears to have been done to the exterior before the 19th century; changes to the interior consequent upon the Reformation and the changing pattern of worship are described elsewhere.

    The first major repairs occurred after the fire of 1-2 February 1829. This fire was started by an incendiary and lunatic, Jonathan Martin. Martin concealed himself in the minster after evensong and succeeded in setting the choir ablaze. The fire was not discovered until the following morning and was not extinguished until the evening of that day; in it perished all the woodwork of the choir, the roof, and some of the stained glass. A large public subscription was raised for the repair work and the new choir was opened on 6 May 1832. An almost equally disastrous fire began accidentally in the south-west tower in the evening of 20 May 1840; it spread to the nave roof and only the collapse of this appears to have prevented the whole fabric from being engulfed. Besides much minor damage, the south-west tower was burnt out, the nave piers severely cracked and chipped, and the west doors destroyed; the glass however, was very largely preserved. The nave was re-opened after restoration on 15 June 1843. A small fire in the lower roof of the western aisle of the north transept in 1909 was quickly extinguished and did little damage.

    Most of the repair work undertaken since the 19thcentury fires has been consequent upon the ravages of weather and, especially, atmospheric pollution. The west front, for example, which had been generally repaired between 1802 and 1816, was restored after the 1840 fire but again needed extensive work in 1907; in the 1950’s more work was necessary on the front itself and on the pinnacles of the southwest tower. The east end was restored in the 1840’s and 1850’s when, it is said, the pinnacles surmounting the wall were reduced in size; by the 1950’s portions of the east end were considered unsafe. The south transept was extensively restored by Street between 1871 and 1880. Perhaps the most controversial piece of restoration was that done at the end of the 19th century: the pinnacles on the south side of the nave were restored in 1898, and between that date and 1906 the chapter added, in the face of a storm of antiquarian protest, pinnacles to the north side butresses, and flying buttresses on both sides. Whether the nave was ever supported by flying buttresses before this time remains uncertain. The chapter house was restored between 1843 and 1845 under the will of Dr. Stephen Beckwith who also gave the peal of twelve bells in the south-west tower to replace the peal of ten destroyed in the fire of 1840. The large bell known as ‘Big Peter’ or ‘Great Peter’ was placed in the north-west tower in 1845. The bells were tuned and rehung during 1914.

    Four small buildings, attached to the fabric of the church, flank the south transept door. On the west a building is drawn out from the transept and was probably built in the early 15th century to house the library; it is now carried back to the wall of the nave and houses the diocesan registry and vestries. East of the transept lie two rooms, formerly used for the consistory court and now as vestries, and the Zouche Chapel; all these are thought to have been erected in the 14th century. In Drake’s time they appear to have been accessible only through the Zouche Chapel but there are now entrances in the south choir aisle and the eastern aisle of the south transept. The Zouche Chapel was built under the terms of the will of the archbishop of that name (1342-52) against Archbishop Roger’s choir and later altered to fit the new choir. The chapel has in recent times been used for chapter meetings (only the formal opening of meetings taking place in the chapter house) and to house the muniments, most of which, however, had been transferred by 1958 to the chapel of the archbishop’s palace (now the Minster Library) in Dean’s Park.

    St. Sepulchre’s and St. Mary-ad-Valvas
    Only two other buildings were contiguous to the fabric of the church itself: the chapel of St. Mary and Holy Angels and the church of St. Mary-ad-Valvas. The chapel was commonly known as St. Sepulchre’s, perhaps because of its use as a churchyard chapel and because of its association with masses for the dead. Some part of the chapel appears to have been built against the north wall of Archbishop Thomas’s nave on a north-west and southwest axis. The site was excavated before 1847 by John Browne and a plan of the foundations then said to be found was published in his Historyof the minster and marked on the Ordnance plan of 1852. Two blocked doorways on the north face of the nave are thought to have led into the chapel, one of them at the level of the upper floor. It is now impossible to be certain of the nature of the chapel buildings. The foundations uncovered by Browne may have been those of a vestibule or corridor leading from the minster to the chapel; this vestibule had disappeared by Drake’s time and is not marked on a large-scale plan of the area of 1782, although the lower door appears to have been still open at that time. The site and possessions of St. Sepulchre’s had been leased in 1562 to George Webster ‘queen’s servant’ who had held a lease of them since 1550 but what buildings were then standing is not known. In 1816 Hargrove observed the demolition of a building which he identified as part of St. Sepulchre’s; it had by that time become a public house known as ‘The Hole in the Wall’ and beneath it was found a prison. The public house had been named from a cavity, apparently in the wall of the prison, which was thought to have been used for immuring prisoners, but Hargrove shows, although his account is by no means clear, that it was an entrance to the prison.

    It seems most likely that the building Hargrove saw demolished is that marked on the 1782 plan as a prison and is clearly to be identified with the archbishop’s prison. Whether St. Sepulchre’s lay above it is another matter. The words ultra portam palatii used to describe the chapel in a 15th-century docu ment probably mean ‘above’ rather than ‘beyond’ the gateway to the archbishop’s palace. At all events it seems tolerably certain that St. Sepulchre’s lay close to the north-west corner of the nave and that both the foundations uncovered by Browne and the building mentioned by Hargrove formed part of it, though not necessarily, it must be remarked, contemporaneously.

    One other building lay close to, but did not perhaps actually adjoin, the minster—the church of St. Mary-ad-Valvas. It has been suggested that it lay on a site adjacent to the Old Residence and that the doors referred to in its name may have been at the east end of Archbishop Roger’s choir. The church was united with St. John-del-Pyke in 1365 and its parish may well have been that part of Minster Yard marked by the Ordnance surveyors on their plan of 1852 as ‘attached to the parish of St. John-del-Pyke in 1365 and separated from it in 1585 [recte 1586]’. If this was in fact the case the precinct was in early times a good deal more restricted than it later became.