Whitby Weekend: Within the Abbey

We did not visit the Church of St Mary, perched on the edge of the cliffs. I have to wonder for how much longer it will stand and was glad to have spent some time there on our previous visit to Whitby… even if it is one of the strangest and most claustrophobic churches I expect to see. With that cliff edge coming ever nearer as the land erodes, it has been suggested that the Whitby headland, along with its archaeology, could fall into the sea by 2030 and there is a lot of history to explore before it disappears.

There was an Iron Age settlement at the site that seems to have been used for metalwork and glassmaking. Before that, archaeologists have found carved stones that may be either boundary markers or ritual stones, dating the human use of the headland back to a thousand years before the birth of Jesus.

However, neither the church nor the headland was on the itinerary for this visit. Instead, we entered the converted seventeenth-century manor house of the Cholmleys, passing through the unusual pebble garden graced by a replica of the Borghese Gladiator.

The manor now houses a small museum, tracing the Abbey’s history back to its founding and beyond. Oddly, there was a greater press of people packed into the shop selling gifts and replicas than we saw at any other time over the weekend and I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

The Abbey itself is a beautiful but empty shell. We have visited so many ancient sites and churches over the past few years that I have lost count, but I have never felt a place as empty as this one, as if it had been scoured of all life and sanctity. I loved the place as a child and was especially drawn to the well… I do not remember it feeling so skeletal and lifeless, as if even its ghosts had gone, erased by the sea winds and the passage of many feet. But even as a child it was never the grand ship of stone that attracted me, so much as the older ghost of the first Abbey and beyond.

Although we were following ‘in the footsteps of St Cedd’ for the weekend, examining how to find unity from division, the Abbey is most associated with St Hilda, or Hild. Her name means ‘battle’ yet although she was a strong character, she was a woman of peace, called to be Abbess of the Celtic religious community founded here in AD 657. She was a princess of the Deiran royal line, but took the veil to become the Mother of her community of monks and nuns, sharing a life of faith together.

Nothing now remains of her Abbey, a wooden building, sacked and destroyed by Danish invaders in the ninth century. What stands there now is the ruin of a grand affair, built between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, which fell into disrepair after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the monasteries, and was further damaged when it was shelled by German battlecruisers in 1914.

St Hilda, from St Mary’s Church

We wandered through the Abbey ruins for a while, seeking a spot that would symbolise what we had learned from the sequence of words we had chosen at random the day before. Each of us found a place and explained it in terms of how it might relate to our own lives, both in a general and personal sense.

For all the Abbey had been the venue for the Synod of Whitby that chose to follow the Roman model of Christianity rather than the Celtic version, there are many Celtic-inspired symbols still clinging like apologies to the crumbling masonry. At the time of the Synod, Christianity itself was but a few hundred years old and they were already arguing over exoteric details. I wonder what was lost by focussing on the form, rather than the spirit, of their faith?

Drawing a dark veil…

“Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.” Pope Gregory’s letter to Abbot Mellitus, 6thC, on the conversion of Britain.


You have to admit, Pope Gregory was sneaky. The mission to bring the blessed isles of Britain into the Christian fold was not to be accomplished so much by conversion as subversion. To ‘convert’ means to turn in a new direction, to subvert means to destroy from below… and that, is pretty much, the definition of sneaky.

The instructions to the missionaries were clear… take and use the old sacred places for the new worship. The letter was quite detailed in how this should be done, but basically it meant allowing the people to celebrate the same festivals, in the way they had always done, and in the same places. The only difference wa that, while they were doing so, the clergy of the Church could gradually add a Christian gloss to the festivities. Many of the old gods were adopted as Christian saints and their stories rewritten accordingly, magical places were rendered ‘officially’ sacred by appropriating them for Christian myth and the symbolism of ancient festivals was reallocated to the Christian story.

Gregory was right. The people were soon turned to the new religion.

They may have neither noticed nor cared; when you worship God made manifest in Nature, the names and stories of the gods matter less than natural and cosmic force they represent… and Britain already had a long history of accepting ‘foreign’ gods into the pantheon. The new Jesus-god was little different from many who had come and gone before, after all. Miraculous births abound in religious history, across the globe and throughout the ages. Gods who walk the earth as men are not uncommon, nor are the gods who come to teach. Saviour gods and sacrificed gods were ten a penny, and Jesus was not the first to be hung upon a tree.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

Gregory must have been well aware of this ready acceptance of new gods into the pagan fold. Throw in a few incentives…and eternal life isn’t bad for starters… add a dash of hellfire and brimstone to put the fear of God into the laggards, put learning, healing, economic and political power into the hands of the priests, and he was right; within a generation or two, the conversion was pretty much complete. The old gods faded into myth and their altars were forgotten…or repurposed.

But, let’s be honest, Gregory was not exactly the first to bring Britain to Christianity, whatever his letter might suggest. The process had been going on for quite some time. There were already Christians in Britain before the Romans left in 410AD. The very earliest missionaries, according to the legends, had arrived much earlier than that, when Joseph of Arimathea had come to Glastonbury, bringing with him relics of Jesus’ life and mission, and founding the first Christian oratory there. Joseph, according to the Bible, was the man who asked Pilate’s permission to remove Jesus’ body from the Cross… so, if the legends are true, then Christianity came to these shores within a few years of the Crucifixion.

Celtic Christianity, which carried a greater love and respect for the natural world, was already firmly entrenched in these isles before Gregory wrote to Mellitus. The last pagan warrior-king was Penda of Mercia…and he died in 655AD. So it was not so much Christianity that Gregory wanted to bring to the land, but Roman Christianity. be that as it may, after the Synod of Whitby in 664, Britain was officially under the sway of the Bishop of Rome and the spiritual landscape was confined to the churches and chapels.

For those who seek a greater understanding of our spiritual past, Britain is particularly rich in archaeological remains dating back thousands of years. There are over a thousand stone circles, innumerable barrows and many other ancient monuments to baffle, intrigue and illuminate the seeker. Sacred sites continue to document the evolution of belief throughout the Roman Occupation, then you hit what was known as the Dark Ages (until political correctness renamed it the Early Medieval period) and nothing much remains except the imported Norse and Saxon gods and the earliest beginnings of the Church. The lines between them blur as the one blends with the other and our original spiritual story sinks further into myth… and the seeker is left with the task of unpicking the resulting tangle.

Unfortunately for Pope Gregory, his directive had an unexpected result. By building his churches on sites of a far more ancient sanctity than the sanction of Christianity, many of those sites were preserved. We not only know where they were, they are still there.

There are barrows in churchyards, ancient yews, once held sacred, still cast their shadows on holy ground, sacred springs run beneath foundations and local saints with strange names and even stranger stories leave a trail of breadcrumbs for us to follow.

And follow them we do, finding mysteries and motes of ancient light as we delve into the origins of belief. Why do we search? What can such ancient beliefs offer us, and how do they relate to the modern world? You have only to look at the political evolution of ‘official’ faith to see how murky the waters can be and how the minds and hearts of a nation can be quietly subverted.

But somewhere beyond all the chicanery, beyond dogma, beyond all organised religion, when we reconnect to our ancestors, we touch a time when the questions we still ask today were first being explored. Their world was simpler… everything was either sacred or magical, or both. There were spirits in stone and tree, there was healing in the waters. Everything was seen as connected. Animals, even the hunted, were held in reverence and the green and growing land was the body of a goddess. Nature was the self-expression of divinity and mankind no more than a part of that expression. With humankind seemingly determined to despoil and destroy our home, I believe that perspective to be more than relevant today.

Going west – An uneasy peace

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Where do you begin when you have to write about a cathedral? Each chapel, every corner, every nook and cranny is replete with art and history. The sensory input is so much that all you can do is walk and attempt to catch the aura of the place and snippets of information as you marvel at how much of the past is preserved in wood, stone and colour. For me, outside is a good place to start. Apart from places like Lincoln where the outside is overwhelming as what lies within the walls. It gives a chance to get a feel for the place and seems to put what you will find into context.

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Not that we had a lot of choice… the mayor-making was taking its time and, until they were finished, we were left with the refectory and the exterior to play with. The refectory is a lovely space, with high, clear glass windows overlooking the cloisters. It now holds a cafe and an art exhibition was in progress while we were there, but instead of mangling the ancient architecture, a floating, self-contained mezzanine has been installed that barely touches the old walls. It does spoil the proportions of the lofty space… but it is a practical and not unattractive compromise that allows modern usage of an otherwise impractical height. It also serves tea and, while several of the party lingered over that welcome beverage, I wandered off to look at the walls.

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Not just the cathedral walls, but the remnants of the old town walls built by the Norman lords not long after the Conquest. The walled enclosure dates back to at least the 12th century, and the contours of the earthworks still remain visible. The tower that now houses the bells was added a century later and was once the consistory court of the bishops and also houses the bishops’ dungeon. The gatehouse and taller south tower came a hundred years after that.

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The first religious community here was founded by St David himself. The saintly bishop died in 589, which makes this one of the oldest known religious sites of Christianity in Britain. Between 645 and 1097 the monks faced the incursions of raiders, seeing their brothers and bishops killed, one after the other. A beautifully carved stone that marries the older, Celtic art with the newer, Roman iconography is now housed in the gate-tower, that once marked the grave of the sons Bishop Abraham, Hedd and Isaac, who were killed by the Vikings in 1080.

Image source: castlewales.com

You can see the antiquity of the place… but only at close quarters. The lower courses of the walls show their earliest origins in places. It has seen much destruction during the past thousand years. The cathedral building itself was begun in 1181. In 1220, the new tower collapsed and less than thirty years later, an earthquake caused further damage. Relics of St David and St Justinian were inhumed in jewelled shrines… until in 1538 Bishop Barlow, seeing their veneration as superstition, had the relics removed and the shrines stripped of their riches. For the next few hundred years, successive bishops added chapels, improvements and extensions, making the building reflect its importance at the heart of the religious and political life of the area…until the forces of Oliver Cromwell devastated the building during the years of the Commonwealth of England.

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It was not until 1783 that John Nash, best known in his later role as architect to the Prince Regent, was commissioned to restore and rebuild the cathedral. He re-used medieval traceries for his great west front and the cathedral rose again. Even this was not the end of its troubles. Nash’s work was not up to standard and began to deteriorate rapidly. It was to be George Gilbert Scott who would finally restore the building in the 19th century; born in a vicarage not far from my home and whose work we have seen at so many places we have visited.

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The great west front now looks back to an older age, wearing the same style as the Norman archways of the north and south doors. It is a curious thing to see the shapes and symbols copied. From one perspective, their uneroded state gives a glimpse of what the older stonework  may have looked like…yet it is as if a child has tried to copy one of the Old Masters.  The form is there… but no more than that. the soul is missing, the understanding of the symbolism not present….or, if present, it is an intellectual comprehension rather than  the knowing of the heart. The carvings do not speak, they merely show.


After the wonders of the carved doorway and corbels of Kilpeck just a few days before, the contrast is stark. Beautifully executed by their craftsmen, they lack heart. They tell no stories, inspire no affirmation. There is no life, no joy and no humour in the reproduction of these symbols., just the posturing of form that mimics a fluid expression of faith.

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The 12th century south door and its northerly counterpart are completely different from the west front. In spite of centuries of weathering, they are alive with movement, detail and expression. The contrast between the old and the new makes me wonder about how we have chosen to live, pursuing the outward forms of integration and conformity, while leaving little place for joy. In the organised forms of religion, we now see mostly the rigidity of ritual. Through the years that we have been wandering ancient sites and visiting the holy places of our forefathers, we have seen how the representations of an inclusive reverence for nature and the life of both body and soul, have given way gradually to a culture of sin and the need for repentance, illustrated by many of the medieval wall paintings depicting hell and damnation in no uncertain terms and with graphic detail for the sinner to contemplate.

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I do not subscribe to the doctrine of eternal condemnation for sin. Of the saints whose stories we know form their own writings, few have entered into beatitude without struggling with their very human demons. We do not see the whole story of humanity, so cannot see how our little fragment of the tale fits into the whole, taking its unique place in the completion of a greater picture than we can perceive. We do not always see the good that may come from the seemingly bad, even if it serves only as a contrast by which we can appreciate the difference between light and shade, rigidity and movement. We make mistakes, take a wrong path, commit harm and it is from having made such choices that we can choose to learn and grow. We do repent. Not in the mundane sense of the word, where we admit guilt and say we are sorry, but in the true sense of turning ourselves around with a change of heart and mind. A change of consciousness. Like the cathedral, we live an uneasy peace, ever poised on the edge of change, but like the cathedral, the light shines within, opening the doors to a promise of beauty.

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