History of Whitby Abbey

Imagine the Whitby Abbey Headland protruding another one hundred metres into the North Sea, alternately shimmering blue, whitewashed with pounding waves, invisible under a dense sea fog (locally known as ‘roak’, a word derived from the Dutch word for smoke). It was here that the early Iron Age settlers had there huts 2000 years ago and, much later, the Romans a small fort or signal station, all now eroded into the sea.

The religious history of Whitby Abbey begins with the Anglian monastery for both men and women, founded in 657 CE by St. Hild (now known as St. Hilda), niece of King Oswy of Northumbria. In 664 CE she hosted the Synod of Whitby, a crystalline moment in the history of the Church in England, which lead to the adoption of the Roman form of Christianity.

Whitby Abbey Illumiated (Video from English Heritage)

Hild’s successors, also from the Northumbrian Royal Family, made the monastery a place of burial for Northumbrian Kings. No fewer than five Anglian Bishops were educated here. The fate of this ‘Abbey’ is unsure. it seems to have been abandoned or faded away after Vikings began raiding in 793 CE and then settled about the year 865 CE. Parts of this monastery of Streonshalh were excavated in the 1920’s and some small finds from this are on display in the Whitby Museum in Pannett Park. By 1066 the cliff top settlement of Streonshalh had been re-named Priestby (suggesting some clerical presence) and a new, riverside settlement of Whitby had appeared.

In 1078 the monastery was re-founded as a Benectine abbey. It is the ruin of this Abbey, in the stewardship of
English Heritage, that one sees today. The Synod of Whitby in 664 CE had consequences when Henry VIII, displeased with English membership of the Church of Rome created the Church of England and dissolved the monasteries. The Medieval Whitby Abbey was closed and in 1539 the site and its estates passed to the Cholmley family whose successor, Sir Frederick Strickland-Constable is still Lord of the Manor (and Patron of the Friends of Whitby Abbey).

history of whitby abbey

Whitby Abbey and Church around 1300 (image source unknown)

The Cholmleys converted the Abbot’s Lodging into Abbey House and added a Jacobean banqueting hall, now known as Cholmley House (the Visitors Centre). The Family lived here until the late 1700’s.

Excavations by English Heritage, over the last 20 years or so, have revealed a large burial ground just South West of the Whitby Abbey buildings and a large civil settlement on the cliff edge with evidence of metal and glass working. The burial ground pre-dates Whitby Abbey.

As a footnote, you will not find Dracula or his grave here or in the nearby graveyard of St. Mary’s Church. He arose from the fertile imagination of Bram Stoker and is buried in the Book. But, when a roak drifts in from the Sea and the ruined Whitby Abbey is wreathed in wraiths of swirling mist, one can understand how Bram Stoker was inspired and you never know what denizens of the past 2000 years are now wandering around from all those graves that the archeologists have disturbed or been swept from the crumbling cliffs into the cold waves below.