Restoring the past – York Minster


York Minster, or to give it its full title ‘The Cathedral and Metropolitan Church of St. Peter’, is not just a hugely significant place of worship, but a gigantic repository of architectural and artistic splendour. There has been a church on this site since around 627 AD, when a wooden structure was erected over some part of the Roman city of Eboracum (the Roman ruins may be seen in the Minster’s undercroft). The first stone church was built in 637 AD, but subsequently destroyed by Danish invaders in the 11th century.

The wave of religious fervour which swept across Europe in the 13th century gave rise to great Gothic cathedrals which slowly rose - sometimes taking hundreds of years to complete – in almost every land. Masons, wood-carvers, and other artists, wandered from country to country seeking employment, constructing a chapel here, painting a fresco there. The present York Minster, the seat of the Archbishop of York, was begun in 1230. It was a gigantic undertaking, on a such a scale that it seemed to dominate the Vale of York for miles around. Indeed, it is often said to be the most significant Gothic building north of the Alps, containing as it does, in the Great East Window, the largest expanse of Mediaeval stained glass in existence. Generations of artisans, skilled carvers and masons worked on the site, which took so long to complete that successive styles are built on the traces of a Norman foundation. They include a Decorated Gothic nave, a Perpendicular Gothic choir, and Early English north and south transepts. The work was finally ‘completed’ (if any cathedral can be said to be complete) in 1472.

This magnificent church is mainly constructed of Magnesian Limestone, a creamy-white doleritic sedimentary rock, quarried in nearby Tadcaster. As with all limestones, this is subject to weathering and erosion, particularly by acid rain. The rise of industrial activity over the last two and a half centuries, and the exhaust from internal combustion engines, has caused a lot of damage to parts of the structure. The photograph you can see here is of a modern-day Masons’ Lodge and Stoneyard adjacent to the Minster. This is an approximation of a Mediaeval masons’ lodge similar to those which would have been erected at every work site around Europe. Workmen would come to this place to be hired, carrying their own tools, and identify themselves to the Master Mason on site. To prove their level of skill, they would usually pass some secret sign, known only amongst those of their craft; that done, they would be accepted, and hired, if work was available. As an aside, it was on this foundation, and other ideas, that the modern organisation of Freemasonry would be established.

As you can see, by the stock of stone blocks, and the semi-finished work, this is a very active site. There is a scheme currently running to completely conserve the stonework of the 14/15th century East Front for future generations. This is part of a comprehensive plan, devised by Alan Baxter Associates, which will also involve reconstruction and repair of many areas of stained glass and a formal scheme of school visits and adult education using these works as teaching tools. Craft apprenticeships in stonemasonry and glass conservation are also part of this plan. The whole effort is called ‘York Minster Revealed’, and is being funded by a £10 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

I doubt that either St. Bosa or St. William of York – who are both buried in the Minster – could have envisaged the modern world that their church exists in today, but the magnificence which is York Minster will continue to dazzle and amaze all who come to look on its beauty.

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2 comments on “Restoring the past – York Minster”

  1. Wonderful building and wonderful restoration work. Would I be right in that one can watch the stonemasons while they carve the stone. Points too from this geologist for the use of the term “doleritic” :)

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  2. Thank you for your kind comments, John. Yes, you can indeed watch the stone being worked but I was there on a Saturday, unfortunately. York Minster is an amazing building, and it is great to see such a ‘sympathetic’ restoration taking place. I was happy to use the term ‘doleritic’; it shows that all those field trips were useful for something, after all (I had a fanatical geology teacher!)

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