The Minster after the Reformation

By the early 1500s, Dean Higden noted the Minster was in need of a good spring clean as dust and cobwebs hung from the walls and altar coverings were worn and neglected.  For the next two centuries the decorations and other symbols within the Minster were at the center of a strange, drawn-out, political tug-of-war.

In 1534, when Henry VIII broke from Rome, there was little immediate change.  The first real concession to the new Protestant orthodoxy came in 1541 when the shrine of St William was broken up. 

With the appointment of Archbishop Holgate in 1544, more changes followed.  In 1547, the 60 chantries of the Minster, which were used to say prayers for the souls of the dead, were abolished.  The liturgy of the cathedral also changed under Edward VI, with two new service books being issued in 1549 and 1552.  The books reduced the number of daily services to three: Matins, Communion and Evening Prayer.  York Minster also lost much of its silver, vestments and altar frontals during this period.

But when the strongly Catholic Mary I came to the throne, normality resumed at the Minster and there was little resistance to the Catholic revival.  The High Altar was replaced and the collections of altar frontals and vestments were built up again. 

The belief of the monarch changed once more on the accession of Elizabeth I.  Unlike her father she did not claim to be Head of the Church of England, maintaining that Christ held that position.  Even so, in 1559, when Elizabeth’s commissioners arrived in York asking the clergy to swear allegiance to the queen half of the Chapter and Archbishop Heath refused.  They were ousted, but it was 1567 before York could be considered as truly under Protestant control.  This meant the replacement of the High Altar with the Communion Table, the disappearance of vestments and altar frontals again and the substitution of statues and pictures with text.

The Minster and the Civil War

Worship was a fundamental issue in the British wars and the Minster remained a prize to be fought over.  In 1644, when the City sided with the King and was besieged by Parliamentarians, there are records of canon balls coming through windows during services.  When the city finally surrendered, it was agreed in the terms of negotiation that no further damage would be inflicted on the Minster, so protecting the medieval stained glass.

During the Commonwealth, under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, the Minster became a preaching house rather than a cathedral.  The archbishopric was abolished and the Dean and Chapter disbanded, with the City given control of the Minster.  The Directory for Public Worship replaced the Book of Common Prayer, and the sermon became the focal point of a service.  With singing no longer appropriate, the organ was also dismantled. 

The final change of direction came with the Restoration of the Episcopal Church of England, in 1660, and the Monarchy in 1661, when the Chapter were reinstated.  The vestments and furnishings also returned, as did a new version of the Prayer Book.