St Mary’s Abbey
St Mary’s Abbey was first built in 1088.
The ruins we now see are all that remains of one of the wealthiest and most powerful Benedictine monasteries in England.
Its story ties together two of the most important events in English history: it was begun by William the Conqueror to reinforce his hold on the north after 1066 and ended by Henry the Eighth as a consequence of his Reformation of the church.
The abbey estate occupied the entire site of the Museum Gardens and the abbot was one of the most powerful clergymen of his day, on a par with the Archbishop of York. In medieval York, the abbey sat opposite and mirrored the Minster: two great buildings dedicated to worship.
The monks would spend their days working in abbey administration, copying books, trading with merchants, providing food and supplies for the monastery, managing the abbey’s estates and helping the poor.
Abbey Walls and Gateway
Visitors can see the remains of the walls of the nave and crossing of the abbey church, where the monks prayed and sang, and the cloister, where the monks washed their clothes, contemplated and were allowed to speak.
The stone walls that surrounded the abbey were built in the 1260s and they remain the most complete set of abbey walls in the country. They were built to defend the abbey and were used several times when the city and the abbey came to blows over land ownership and taxes.
The gateway on Marygate, next to St Olave’s Church, was the main entrance into the abbey. It was here that the poor could come and claim alms. The building, known as St Mary’s Lodge, is now the headquarters of York Museums Trust.
King Henry VIII banned all monasteries in England in 1530s. The monks at St Mary’s were pensioned off in 1540 and the abbey buildings were converted into a palace for the King when he visited York. Gradually they fell into ruins and were used as agricultural buildings before being excavated by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society in the 1820s.
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