The Norman Minster

The Norman Minster built by Thomas

1075AD - 1095AD

On Christmas Day 1066 the Saxon Archbishop of York, Ealdred, anointed and crowned William the Conqueror in Westminster Cathedral.  However, William’s claim to the English throne was met with resistance in the North.  William began the ‘Harrying of the North’ in 1069 and the Normans took control of York in the same year.  The Saxon church was burned and pillaged during this period.  William realised that to establish himself he would have to have support and he therefore appointed Thomas of Bayeaux as the first Norman Archbishop in 1070.

Archbishop Thomas set about repairing the Minster and gathered together the scattered clergy so that daily office could continue.  However, in 1075, the Danes made a final attempt to regain power in the North.  The Danes were defeated but the Minster was again destroyed.  Archbishop Thomas decided it was time for a new Minster.  He chose to build his cathedral on the land the Roman fortress had occupied.

Archbishop Thomas took only 20 years to build his cathedral, something which could only be achieved by employing a large workforce.  The new building was a political statement which demonstrated the Normans’ cultural and political superiority.  The cathedral was built on a raft of timber filled with rubble and mortar to create the strong foundation necessary to hold the weight of such a building.  The current cathedral still stands on these Norman foundations. 

The cathedral was heavily influenced by Archbishop Thomas’ French background and included three semi-circular apses in the eastern arm, and a large nave with no aisles.  The new building was 365 feet long and was decorated lavishly with illustrations in bright colours, such as red, white and black, depicting biblical scenes and Gospel illustrations.  This was important in a largely illiterate society to enable people to understand the word of God.  The windows of Archbishop Thomas’ cathedral were also richly decorated.  The exterior of the building was plastered white and had red lines drawn on it to indicate the stones’ edges.  This can be seen in the Undercroft Museum at York Minster, as can examples of the glass.  When Archbishop Thomas died in 1100 he left a magnificent building and an efficient system of government which is still largely used today. 

Competition with Canterbury

Thomas's successor Archbishop Thurstan looked to tackle the question of supremacy between Canterbury and York.  The case was taken to Rome and Hugh the Chanter wrote that the Canterbury monks used forged documents to try to prove their case.  The case was thrown out when the court asked why these documents did not contain the seals necessary to show they were authentic.  The Pope therefore found in York’s favour and since then the Archbishop of York has never stated obedience to his counter-part in Canterbury.


York Minster was again badly damaged by fire in 1137 and the Archbishops of this period again set about repairing it.  Archbishop Roger Pont L’Eveque  set about remodelling the Quire and crypt in 1154.  The eastern end of the cathedral was completed in 1175 and saw the Quire gain side aisles, as well as being lengthened by 40ft.  The eastern end was squared off and below the Quire a large crypt was created.  Archbishop Roger also extended the transepts by 40ft and added two western towers.