York Minster's official name is the Metropolitical Church of St. Peter. It is both a Cathedral and a Minster, a cathedral being a church with a bishop's (or archbishop's) throne and a minster being a centre of Christian teaching or ministering. It is the Mother Church of the Northern Province of the Church of England, with the Archbishop of York as its Primate, just as Canterbury is the Mother Church of the Southern Province.
York Minster is the largest Gothic church in England. It is certainly a vast and lofty building, 524 ft (160 m) long and 249 ft (76 m) wide across the transepts. The height from floor to vault is over 90 ft. (27 m). The twin west towers are about 184 ft (56 m) high, the lantern tower 234 ft (71 m).
The cathedral is the biggest of it’s kind north of the Swiss Alps, it has been a kind of magical presence in the city of York for nearly 1000 years, and has survived disasters and the York bombings of World War II. When visiting the Minster you can take part in a special audio tour, giving you a complete history of this marvelous building – perhaps one of its most amazing features is its beautiful stained glass windows, one of which is the largest in Britain. If you can cope with the 365 stairs to the top of the Minster, then do this if you do nothing else during your visit to York – the view of York and the Vale of York on a clear day is nothing short of spectacular.
The Roman Principia
This has always been the site of York's most important building. The Roman Principia, or military headquarters, stood here, of which important relics remain.
The First Minster
There was a Christian Bishop of York in Roman times, but Britain became pagan again when the Legions withdrew.
Kent had again become a Christian kingdom when in 625 Princess Ethelburga came north to marry King Edwin of Northumbria, who was still pagan. She brought her Chaplain Paulinus so that she might continue to worship as a Christian. Within two years they had persuaded Edwin to be baptised.
When a daughter was born to Edwin and Ethelburga, the King of the West Saxons sent one of his servants ostensibly to congratulate Edwin on the birth of his daughter, but with instructions to kill him if he could. An opportunity came as they drank to the baby's health: when Edwin raised his horn to drink, the West Saxon lunged forward to plunge his dagger into the king's heart. But Lilla, the king's chief thane, flung himself in front of Edwin, took the thrust of the dagger, and fell dead. As reprisal, Edwin immediately made plans to attack the West Saxons. This was Paulinus’s opportunity: he and Ethelburga persuaded the king to pray for victory to the Christian God, instead of to the pagan gods he normally worshipped, and to promise to be baptised if he were victorious.
True to his word, on his return as victor he called a meeting of his Council to consider the momentous question of whether or not to accept the Christian faith. This meeting is thought to have been held at Londesborough, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, where Edwin had a palace, and the result was that Edwin was baptised on Easter Day, 627, at one of the wells in his capital city of Eoforwic (York). The little wooden church that was built round the well for the ceremony was the first York Minster, and Paulinus became Bishop.
After his baptism, Edwin began to build a stone church but in 633 he was killed in battle and his church fell into disrepair. It was largely rebuilt by St. Wilfrid about 670 and this church served York until the Norman Conquest, when it was destroyed by fire.
The Norman Cathedrals
Thomas of Bayeux, Archbishop from 1070 to 1100, built the first Norman cathedral; the extent of its apse may be traced in the present crypt.
Roger Pont L'Eveque, Archbishop from 1154 to 1181, built a cathedral with a Norman nave and transitional choir; it is the piers of the undercroft of that choir which are seen today in the present crypt. (Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and Rowena were 'married' in Roger's cathedral).
The Gothic Cathedral
Walter de Grey, Archbishop from 1216 to 1255, envisaged a vast Gothic cathedral in York and about 1220 he began to build its south transept, completing it in 1240. The north transept was then built between the years 1241 and 1260. Both transepts are in the Early English style. Next came the lovely octagonal Chapter House, between 1297 and 1310, an architectural wonder in that, despite its colossal size and the weight of its conical roof, there is no central pillar to lessen the downward and outward thrust onto the buttresses and walls. The Chapter House is in the second stage of Gothic architecture, the Decorated style.
The nave, built between 1291 and 1338, is also Decorated, but the choir, which followed between 1361 and 1450, is Perpendicular. The twin west towers, delicately carved, and terminating in slender pinnacles each nearly 30 feet high, were completed by 1472, and the massive central lantern tower (which replaced one that had fallen) by about 1480. The cathedral had taken over 250 years to build.
The stained glass of York Minster is one of its greatest treasures; about one-third of the vast collection of ancient glass in York is preserved in its 130 windows. There is some modem glass, too, so that the whole field of glass painting from the 12th to the 20th centuries is represented.
A gigantic restoration took place when about eighty of the finest windows were replaced after being taken out for safety at the beginning of the World War II. Working under the surveillance of the then Dean, Dr. Eric Milner-White, the Minster glaziers sought to bring back the windows as nearly as possible to their original beauty. Down the centuries during reloading, glass from other windows had been introduced to replace broken pieces, while other pieces had been put back in the wrong place, so that by this time some windows were just higgledy-piggledy masses of colour. But by cleaning and restoring, by consulting old books on the windows' subjects, by replacing glass with that of the correct period, the glaziers were able to give back to the windows their former glory. The work took over twenty years.
The present bells date from the mid-19th century; the former peal was destroyed during a fire in 1840. Known as the Beckwith peal, they were purchased with £2,000 left to the Minster for this express purpose by Dr. Stephen Beckwith, a York physician.
After the fire an appeal was launched for new bells. Money came in from all over the world, but then Beckwith's bequest was made known, and since it was not practicable to return the money in the fund to the thousands of donors, the Dean and Chapter decided to buy a principal bell for the Minster. That is how Big Peter came to York.
There was great excitement when the huge 11 tonne bell arrived in York in June, 1845, travelling from London on the 'new' railway. From the old station it was taken on a horse-drawn wagon to the west end of the Minster, decorated with two flags.
But something had gone wrong during the casting of Big Peter: it did not match the peal in tone; and since even thirty men could not set it swinging it could only be struck by a hammer. So for eighty years it was of little use except to toll on solemn occasions and to mark the hours of midday and midnight.
But in 1925, the Beckwith peal was recast at Loughborough and as soon as the bells were home again in the south-west tower Big Peter was sent away to be made new. Easier said than done. The chamber where the great bell hung was 140 ft (50 m) up in the north-west tower and, before Peter could be lowered, several floors had to be removed. It was a long hard job.
The recast bell arrived back in York in September, 1927, not quite as heavy but still a giant. It is the deepest-toned bell in Europe, its tone is rich and sonorous and provides a perfect Bourdon for the peal. It hangs on ball-bearings so that one man can set it swinging.
It is rung daily at noon.
Notable brasses in the Minster include Archbishop Wm. de Grenefeld, 1315; Eliz. Eynns, 1585; and Jas. Cotrel, 1595. Brass rubbing is however no longer normally allowed in the Minster.
The Minster suffered two disastrous fires in the 19th century. The first was in February, 1829, when a fanatic named Jonathan Martin, who believed it his mission to destroy the Minster, set fire to the organ, with the result that the choir was completely burnt out. Only two of all the 15th century canopied stalls were not wholly destroyed. Even those two lost their canopies but the seats with their misericords (medieval carvings on the underside of a tip-up seat) were rescued and are now in the Zouche Chapel. The fire burned all night; it was only discovered next morning when a chorister sliding on the ice fell on his back and, as he involuntarily looked upward, saw smoke pouring from the lantern tower.
The second fire was in 1840 when a careless workman left a candle burning in the south-west tower. The tower burned, the bells crashed to the ground 'with a deep hollow sound', and the nave suffered severe damage.
These two fires were all the more disastrous because the vaulted roof of the Minster in both choir and nave is made of timber, being too wide to span with stone; and each was destroyed in turn.
A colossal job of restoration took place in the Minster. The main source of danger was the central lantern tower, which is the most massive in the country, with a weight of 20,000 tons. In 1967 it was found to be settling unevenly, and on examination serious cracks were revealed. The piers were exposed and an entirely new foundation of layers of reinforced concrete introduced. The east end was found to be leaning outwards over 2 ft (70 cm), and here again new foundations were laid. The foundations of the west towers were also renewed and danger spots in other parts of the building made safe. The whole thing cost more than two million pounds, money that was raised through a widely organized appeal. Although 80% of the money raised came from Yorkshire, both from public bodies and private individuals, the rest was received from every corner of the world.
In 1984 a bolt of lightning set the south transept on fire, causing considerable damage and many fears for the safety of the Rose Window; it was due to the excellent work carried out in the late sixties that the architecture survived this fire and didn’t become another Mad Martinesque affair.