Visiting churches might look like a religious interest, and for many I suppose that’s all it is, but for me, being able to step back in time, particularly when I can step DOWN in time, to see the layers of history hidden underneath the present day structure, is a much more interesting reason for visiting old church buildings and the older the better.
York Minster, as we see it today, underwent two massive restoration projects in the second half of last century. The first one required going deep below the structure in order to strengthen and restore the foundations that were put down for the Medieval part of the building. As a result of uncovering those problems, evidence of the original Roman settlement can be glimpsed through small holes in the floor of the undercroft.
Looking at a map of the Roman settlement, called Eboracum, I am fascinated by the fact that today’s minster is situated at least partly, on top of it. Back in the first century AD, when Romans marched into what is now York, deciding to establish their first ‘British’ post there, they chose this same spot. This happens quite a lot throughout history I’ve found. Sometimes the reason is obvious – the highest spot for miles around, therefore good viewing and readiness to defend against attack, or a central place where two or three rivers meet, that sort of thing. With York, this exact spot is not so obvious. Sometimes I wonder if there’s an ancient, mysterious power at force, that the ground is regarded as sacred from ancient times, before history. Whatever the reason, York Minster is built on one of these ‘blessed’ sites.
While digging down in order to remedy the foundations problem, they also uncovered evidence of Saxons who lived in the area but unfortunately no remains have been found of the wooden church that was built in the 7th century. We only know about Christianity’s importance in the area during the 7th and 8th centuries, because of the writings of Bede and Alcuin. To be able to see something made by people who lived that long ago, gives me such a thrill. A Saxon gravestone. Not exciting in itself, but the fact that it was carved by someone who lived and worked and raised his family, hundreds of years ago, makes me want to know about him and the sort of life he led. History is such a fascinating subject.
Next came the Vikings, who raided Eoforwic in 866, taking over the area and calling it Jorvic (hence York) but their settlement was closer to the river and they don’t seem to have had much interest in the church, probably because the whole area had fallen into disrepute. Vikings and Anglo-Saxons intermarried, and soon a new, different community was established. Christianity was adopted by many of the newcomers, but generally the appointed archbishops concentrated on the alternative see of Worcester, rather than battle against the Viking’s pagan practices.
Of course, it was common practice for men of wealth to make valuable donations to the church.( I hope you can read the writing below.) I had thought of the Vikings as warring uncivilised land grabbers, but they also brought wealth and trade, turning Yorvik into a centre of manufacture and commerce. I thought this display of a non-religious artefact in the undercroft of the minster, was a good example of how laymen and the church hierarchy worked for the advancement of each.
In 1069 the old cathedral was burnt and a new, much larger one was built, using Norman principles. Realising that the Romans had chosen the best position in the area for their settlement, the church authorities decided to build this new York Minster on that same site. The Normans, like the Romans, took care to build well. Their layered timber foundations have lasted very well. It was the next lot of builders, for the Medieval extensions, who didn’t do such a good job. Some of the Norman stone work is now on display in the crypt and we could see that it was strong, meant to last for hundreds of years.
Part of a Doomstone which was originally on the external wall of the Norman cathedral, is also now in this museum. Note that the fear of hell fire was a constant threat to be used on sinners (and everyone was a sinner) at the time. The power of the church and its leaders was enormous and unquestioned.
While underground we also found these interesting reminders of the Medieval York Minster. The missal below isn’t very clear I’m afraid, but it shows the sort of fancy print that was used by clerics in creating these books for use in the mass.
After our underground explorations we went back to the main body of the cathedral, which I’ll show you in my next posting.