Yorkshire Holiday, Part 3: Whitby Abbey
A memorial to Caedmon in St. Mary's churchyard, Whitby.
On Easter Monday, we took a bus from Scarborough to Whitby, further north along the Yorkshire coast. Appropriately, it was at Whitby, in 664, that a synod met to reconcile the traditions of the Ionan and Roman churches concerning the date of Easter. An extensive (and contentious) account of the Synod of Whitby appears in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Bede also preserves for us the only surviving fragment of poetry from Whitby Abbey’s most famous brother, Caedmon—the first English poet to write religious verse in the vernacular.
The iconic image of Whitby Abbey.
Whitby Abbey was founded by St. Hild in 657, and the original Anglo-Saxon monastery—a mixed community of women and men—survived for about two hundred years, until it was sacked by the Danes in the mid-ninth century (ca. 867). It was refounded in about 1077 by a knight of William the Conqueror who saw the picturesque ruins of the old monastery and vowed to rebuild a religious community on the same dramatic headland overlooking Whitby.
The abbey was dissolved with England’s other monastic communities in 1538 and purchased from Henry VIII by the Cholmley family, who began dismantling the abbey to build their stately home. In the nineteenth century, the romantic ruins of the abbey began to attract artists and writers like Sir Walter Scott, who worked “high Whitby’s cloistered pile” into his long poem “Marmion.” But perhaps most famously, Whitby is the scene for a dramatic episode in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, in which the medieval monastic ruins become the perfect setting for Victorian Gothic horror, as Lucy Westenra encounters Dracula in the churchyard of St. Mary’s, in the shadow of the old abbey.
Whitby, as first described by Stoker’s narrator, Mina Murray, is a beautiful place, and not at all sinister:
This is a lovely place. The little river, the Esk, runs through a deep valley, which broadens out as it comes near the harbour. A great viaduct runs across, with high piers, through which the view seems somehow further away than it really is. The valley is beautifully green, and it is so steep that when you are on the high land on either side you look right across it, unless you are near enough to see down. The houses of the old town, the side away from us, are all red-roofed, and seem piled up one over the other anyhow, like the pictures we see of Nuremberg. Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes... It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits... Between it and the town there is another church, the parish one, round which is a big graveyard, all full of tombstones. This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbour and all up the bay to where the headland called Kettleness stretches out into the sea. It descends so steeply over the harbour that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed.
Mina also mentions the famous steps, 199 of them, which curve upward from the cobbled streets of the old town to the churchyard and abbey:
The steps are a great feature on the place. They lead from the town to the church, there are hundreds of them, I do not know how many, and they wind up in a delicate curve. The slope is so gentle that a horse could easily walk up and down them.
I’m not so sure that a horse could easily walk up and down the steps, but as you can see from the picture, they were eventually conquered by my seventy-year old mother with her replacement knee. Fortunately, Dracula was not waiting for her at the top of the steps.
When I got almost to the top I could see the seat and the white figure, for I was now close enough to distinguish it even through the spells of shadow. There was undoubtedly something, long and black, bending over the half-reclining white figure. I called in fright, "Lucy! Lucy!" and something raised a head, and from where I was I could see a white face and red, gleaming eyes...