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Abbey of Whitby

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Whitby (formerly called STREONESHALH), Abbey of, a Benedictine monastery in the North Riding of Yorkshire, England, was founded about 657, as a double monastery, by Oswy, King of Northumberland. The first abbess was St. Hilda, under whom the community seems to have reached a considerable size, the conventual buildings being large enough to accommodate the Council, held in 664, to determine the controversy respecting the observance of Easter. On St. Hilda’s death, about 680, Aelfleda, daughter of King Oswy, succeeded as abbess, and the monastery continued to flourish until about 867, when it was entirely destroyed by the Danes. The community was dispersed, the abbot, Titus, fleeing to Glastonbury and taking with him the relics of St. Hilda. No attempt was made to restore the monastery until after the Norman conquest, when this district of Yorkshire was granted to Hugh Lupus, first Earl of Chester, who assigned Whitby to William de Percy, ancestor of the earls of Northumberland, by whom the monastery was refounded towards the end of the Conqueror’s reign. Reinfrid, a monk of Evesham. was appointed prior of the restored foundation, which was richly endowed by the founder. William the Conqueror himself also granted to the monastery a charter of privileges. These were confirmed and extended by Henry I, in whose reign the priory was raised to the rank of an abbey, but the abbot, though regarded as one of the spiritual barons of England, did not sit in Parliament. The story of the house during the Middle Ages does not call for any special comment, the only exceptional circumstances in its history being occasional damage by pirates, to which its position on the coast laid it open. When the lesser religious houses had all been suppressed by Henry VIII and it became clear that the same fate awaited the greater ones, the Abbot of Whitby obtained permission to resign his office so that he might not be called upon to hand over the house to the king. The surrender was therefore made by the prior under date December 14, 1540, the net income at the time being returned as £437 2s. 9d.; the site and ruins being granted some years later to John, Earl of Warwick. Among the monks of Whitby the most famous is the Saxon poet, Cwdmon.

The Monastery of St. Hilda was so completely destroyed by the Danes that nothing even of its foundations is known to remain. Of de Percy’s building the greater part was pulled down and the monastery rebuilt on a larger scale in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. At the dissolution the roofs were removed, but most of the walls remained standing until 1763, when the entire western side of the monastery was blown down. Since that date the destruction has been rapid owing to the very exposed position of the ruins. In 1830 the remains of the central tower collapsed, and nine years later a large part of the choir also fell, so that only a small part of the church still stands on the cliff some two hundred feet above the sea. The arms of the abbey, three snakes rolled up, are said to have their origin in the number of fossil ammonites found in the vicinity. Of these Camden writes in his “Britannia”: “Here are found stones resembling snakes rolled up.. you would think they had once been snakes, covered over with a crust of stone”.



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