The Norman Abbey

The Norman abbey church - a model in the Yorkshire Museum, York

1088AD - 1270AD

St Mary's Abbey owes its existence to Reinfrid, one of three monks from the west country who travelled north and began the ‘Monastic Revival’.  Reinfrid was probably a knight in the Conqueror’s army which had ravaged Yorkshire, and was deeply impressed by the ruins of Whitby Abbey.  He settled in Whitby and gathered a religious community around him.

They moved to York in 1080 after a wealthy Norman landowner, Alan Rufus, offered them the church of St Olave in Marygate and nearby land.

William the Conqueror himself gave permission for the move.  It was only ten years or so since York had been the centre of resistance to William following his invasion.  He no doubt reckoned that a Norman monastery under the patronage of a Norman baron and the king himself was a powerful reminder of who was in charge.

So the abbey at York appears to have been something of an imposition on the city from the beginning.  Arguably, it never really become an integral part of it.

When he succeeded his father to the throne William II visited York and decided St Olave’s was too small for a monastery and gave a bigger piece of land alongside the church for a new abbey to be built.  He even laid the foundation stone himself in 1088.

Naturally enough, the Norman abbey church was built in the Norman, or Romanesque, style popular on the continent.

It was demolished and replaced in the late 13th century with a larger church in the Gothic style.


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