Visiting Selby Abbey: nearly 1,000 years of history

posted in: Blog, UK | 10

One of the joys of travelling is stumbling on gems you don’t expect to find. That’s what Jess and I did last week in Yorkshire.

We were on a trip to make macaroons (yes, really) in the glamorous Carlton Towers near Selby and will tell you all about that another time. We had a few hours to kill before our train back to London, and luckily a helpful taxi driver was on hand.

“Did you know that we have a near 1,000 year old abbey here?” he asked us. Funnily enough we didn’t, but we asked him to take us there to have a look.

We arrived at Selby Abbey 3.50pm and were disappointed to see that it closed at 4. Fortunately we were then told we could stay as long as we wanted and we found it fascinating. It has rather an impressive, and turbulent, history, as well as marvellous architecture and beautiful stained glass windows.

Selby Abbey was the first monastery to be founded in the north of England after the Norman conquest and was initially erected in 1069 (I think this astonished Jess, who studied the Normans at school this year, and couldn’t believe we were actually standing in something which had been in existence so long ago).

Between 1069 and 1539 the Abbey was ruled by 34 Abbots and became a famous (and very wealthy) monastery. It was visited by monarchs, became the focus of the local area and over the years, saw many changes, adding new windows and chapels.

What is amazing is that the Abbey survived, architecturally unscathed, after the dissolution. As those of you who remember your 16th century history will know, Henry VIII decided to close or “dissolve” the monasteries, appropriate their wealth, and in many cases destroy them, during the Reformation. In Selby however, the last Abbot was Robert Rogers, who appears to have been a good friend of the King, and who signed the petition calling for Henry to be able to divorce Katherine of Aragon. Coincidentally (or not), Selby was not destroyed (although obviously its purpose changed) and the church was left alone.

It became the parish church in 1618 and still is, although it’s probably the most impressive parish church we have ever seen.

The roof of the abbey was, unfortunately, destroyed in 1906 when the bells in the central tower melted. However, it was brilliantly reconstructed, and there are reminders of that inside and outside the Church, including  in the stained glass windows, which contain images of the (then) Royal family (including Queen Victoria and Edward VII).

We particularly liked the Washington Window, which contains the heraldic arms of the Washington family (yes, that Washington family!). If you look up, you can see the original 14th century glass containing three red stars above two red bands on a white shield, and these are supposed to be the model for the American Flag – one of the first known representations of the stars and stripes. The window is thought to commemorate John Wessington, Prior of Durham (1416-1446).

We were also fascinated by the a leper squint. Lepers were not allowed in the Abbey to pray. Instead they stood outside and looked down a hole in the outer wall. This connected to a narrow opening which meant that lepers could see the high altar. You can still see into the leper squint today.

The Abbey offers lots of easily available information (including a family trail) and the staff are friendly, knowledgeable and more than happy to chat, even after closing time! We felt very fortunate to have stumbled on a place so full of interest. Once again I felt that England has so much to offer.

Selby Abbey is free to enter (although donations are encouraged) and is open daily from 9am to 4pm. There are services throughout the year.

Read about another Washington connection at Sulgrave Manor

And read more about another historical visit with our blog (and video) on Hever Castle


10 Responses

  1. Tinuke

    I didn’t knwo about the Abbey either! Great find, really enjoyed reading this post and finding out something new. The leper squint is really interesting, I can imagine people taking it in turns to look through and catch some of the service.
    Stopping by via UK Bloggers FB page xx
    Tinuke aka Circusmum

    • Sarah Ebner

      I know – but it’s sad they were kept outside and ostracised. It’s lovely to find new and interesting places, isn’t it?

  2. Gem

    wow this looks fantastic, so much history in one building. I really want to visit Tewksbury which is close to where I live. It’s such a shame that so many of our churches were whitewashed or left to ruin x

  3. Mums do travel

    I didn’t know about Selby Abbey even though I lived in Yorkshire for four years. It sounds like an amazing place. How on earth did the bells melt though?!

  4. Trish Burgess

    What a great place – I love all the detail about the Washington family and the Leper Squint. Gorgeous stained glass windows.

    • Sarah Ebner

      Me neither – there is something very tragic about it, but I suppose they were doing the best possible, trying to include everyone. The abbey is stunning, you are right!

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