York Minster

Arriving in York it’s only a short walk over to the Minster. You soon see it looming over the other buildings as you approach it’s western end with its two tall towers. You really can’t mistake it for anything other than a Gothic building, with it’s massive structure,  flying buttresses, tall towers, pointed arches and pinnacles.

North Transcept Lancet window

Built in creamy, local limestone, the Minster looks impressive today – it must have seen something out of the world to the ordinary people of York and the surrounding countryside when it was first constructed. The Medieval cathedrals were no doubt meant to induce a feeling of “shock and awe” to intimidate and dominate the ordinary peasants and keep them firmly under the thumb of the Church in the same way as the medieval castles played that role for the secular rulers. The builders of York Minster certainly achieved this objective.

View from walls

The Minster is built on the site of an older Norman Romanesque cathedral which was demolished and replaced by the current building. The older cathedral, which was slightly smaller than it’s Gothic replacement, was itself built on the site of the Roman fortress of Eboracum. There are no traces of the Romanesque building left, other than some fragments of the foundations and remnants of the round piers, carved with geometric patterns characteristic of the late Romanesque period, displayed in the Undercroft.

The Undercroft, Treasury & Crypt

Romanesque piers in the Undercroft showing the carved geometric patterns. Source: York Minster website

The Gothic cathedral built over a prolonged period between 1220 and 1472, has features from all three Gothic styles – “Early English”, “Decorated” and “Perpendicular”.

Entering through the South Entrance through an ornate doorway , the first thing that struck me was the cluster of long, narrow lancet windows dominating the north wall of the Tansept, which are very characteristic of the Early English period. The windows in the south wall are different and include the round “Rose window”.

North transcept Lancet window

Lancet Windows in the north Transept wall

The central tower stands above the “crossing” where the Transept is intersected by the Nave and Quire. It’s possible to buy a ticket to climb the tower as part of an escorted tour (weather conditions permitting) but I didn’t take the opportunity during my visit.

The nave, which is the highest in England, and one of the widest, was built between 1280 and 1350 and is typical of the Decorated Gothic period.Its lit by large windows in the aisles and in the Clearstorey (the upper level of the nave, built above the roofline of the aisles). The roof is supported by fancy rib vaulting fitted with ornate, gilded bosses which cover the intersections of the ribs. The ribs are supported by complex piers, made up of several elements.  The walls of the aisles and the large West Wall are decorated with carvings. All these are characteristic of the Decorated Gothic style.


Looking along the Nave

The large window in the West wall has complex patterns including the characteristic “Heart of Yorkshire”. According to the guidebook the stained glass illustrates the authority and purpose of the Church in the form of a hierarchy going up the window”.

West window

The West window with the "Heart of Yorkshire"

The Chapter House was also built in the Decorated Gothic period and was my favourite part of the Minster. This is the room where the Bishop and the other members of the Dean and Chapter meet. It’s octagonal and is built so that it doesn’t need a central column to support the highly decorated roof. The seating is arranged around the walls so that the Bishop is only the “first among equals”.

Chapter House

The Chapter House ceiling

The walls seem to be made up entirely of windows containing colourful stained glass set in elaborate tracery.

Chapter House

Inside the Chapter House

There are very extravagant carvings all round the walls between the windows and the seating of foliage and gargoyles – including some comic faces.

Chapter house ornamentation

Gargoyles inside the Chapter House

suspended over the East Wall to give an impression of what it is like.

The Quire is the most recent part of the Minster, built during the “Perpendicular Gothic” period It is filled with the choir stalls which have complex carvings.


Inside the Quire

The windows in the Nave and the East end of the building have less complex tracery, more rectilinear than in the Nave and Chapter House. Major restoration work is currently being undertaken so the Great East Window was covered over, although there was a giant photograph draped over the scaffolding that gave a good impression of what it looked like.

The Quire is separated from the Transept and Nave by the Quire screen, which incorporates the almost life size statues of 15 English Kings – from William the Conqueror to Henry V.

Quire screen

The Quire screen

There’s a small museum in the Undercroft that contains some interesting exhibits, including sections of stonework from the Roman and Romanesque buildings that once stood on the site. There was also a model showing what the Romanesque cathedral would have looked like.

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