West Riding of Yorkshire

Selby Abbey, West Riding of Yorkshire

Selby Abbey is one of the forgotten gems of Yorkshire, perhaps because it is hidden amidst an unremarkable town, or perhaps because it is off the beaten track, but this church has none of the fame of, say, Beverley Minster and yet is older and just as beautiful.

It began life when a monk from the Abbey of Auxerre was granted land in the village by no less an authority than William the Conqueror. This was the first monastery to be established in Northern England since the Norman Conquest and, considering William’s definite dislike of the north, it marks an important change in the Norman attitude to the lands north of the Humber.

By the time the 12th Century was underway it had been decided, by Abbot Hugh, to rebuild in stone. The church was built quickly and much of Hugh’s construction survives today – particularly the nave and crossing tower which are amongst the most spectacular ecclesiastical Norman survivals and are often mentioned in the same breath as Durham Cathedral.

The major part of the church which is not Norman are the west towers which are clearly Early English style and date to the mid-14th Century. By this time the Abbey was very much the building you can see today.

By the time of its completion in the mid-1300s Selby Abbey had become the wealthiest and most influential Benedictine monastery in Yorkshire and had already seeded a number of daughter churches. The Abbey is built on rather poor ground and so centuries of subsidence have given it a distinct lean and there has always been a fight to keep the Abbey upright.

In 1539 the Abbey was one of the first in the North to be dissolved and the buildings were all destroyed – the church, however, was saved as it became the parish church for the town. But with the loss of the monks and the revenue brought in by the monastery the church began to deteriorate. By the time of the Civil War it was in particularly poor condition and in 1690 the upper part of the tower gave way and landed on the south transept destroying it and part of the choir.  It was replaced by a bell tower, although the bottom part of the tower is still Abbot Hugh’s original. The new tower was completed in 1702 but the church was scarcely used in this period with the nave being used for storage and the choir performing ecumenical duties.

It was not until the Victorians arrived that the ancient stones of the Abbey began to be appreciated and in 1871 the ubiquitous Sir George Gilbert Scott was called in to oversee reconstruction of the church – this he did with his usual fastidiousness and, perhaps recognising the importance of this particular project, he bequeathed Selby Abbey some of his very best work.

In 1906 a disastrous fire robbed Selby Abbey of its medieval roof and carved wooden choir screen – so hot was the fire that the bells in the tower literally melted. Thankfully, by this time, the people of Selby and the surrounding areas had come to love their Abbey and the repairs were all paid for by public subscription – taking only four years to complete.

Photo - Andrew J. Müller

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