English Churches - North Yorkshire

St Mary's Church, Whitby - Part One


Some history and the pews


Forget the Dracula connections (Bram Stoker used the churchyard as the setting for his novel) this is a lovely church that is older than the abbey ruins next to it. Standing high above the town on the East Cliff, it is a well loved local landmark. Most people reach it by climbing the 199 steps, the route taken by coffins for burial in the old graveyard.

St Mary's Church, Whitby

Whitby was a major Christian centre from the C7th and the famous Synod of Whitby held here in 664 AD confirmed the Roman form of Christianity rather than that of the Celtic Monks. It is possible that the original Minster church was on or near this site.  In the C9th the area was destroyed during Danish raids. St Mary’s Church dates from 1100 and was built by the monks of Whitby Abbey. It is older than the ruins of Whitby Abbey which tower over it.

The nave, chancel and tower date from this first church and still have the round topped doors and windows.  

St Mary's Church, Whitby

The north and south transepts were added in the C13th and C14th. The battlements round the top of the tower and church are C16th. There were concerns about the stability of the tower in the C17th so the top stage was removed, giving the tower its rather squat appearance. The old high pitched roof of the nave gave way and was replaced by the present flat roof. The line of the old roof can still be seen on the east side of the tower.

There was a major extension at the start of the C19th when the north aisle was extended and the galleries built. These were reached by external stairways. Large square windows were inserted in the walls, making the church much lighter. Dormer windows in the roof  give extra light. The box pews were added as well as the three decker pulpit.

St Mary's Church, Whitby

The inside of the church is a complete surprise with box pews tucked into every available space and a gallery around all the walls. It can seat up to 3000 worshippers.
 
St Mary's Church, Whitby

St Mary's Church, Whitby

St Mary's Church, Whitby

The pews were sold by public auction and the money helped pay for the alterations. Those around the pulpit were larger and had green baize coverings. Further away, pews were smaller with plain wood seats.

St Mary's Church, Whitby   St Mary's Church, Whitby

A few free pews were kept for the poor. Strangers to the church had their own pews. At the back of the nave was a pew allocated to the church maid. Some of the pews in the north extension were used by local communities who did not have their own church and are marked by the village name. Their church wardens retained any money taken from these pews during the collection.
 
St Mary's Church, Whitby

St Mary's Church, Whitby

St Mary's Church, Whitby

One of the duties of the Church Maid was to uncover and cover the privately owned pews for the Sunday service , preventing smuts from eh cottages below the church settling on the pews and marking the clothes of the occupants.

St Mary's Church, Whitby

In front of the chancel arch and supported on barley sugar columns is the Cholmley pew. The Cholmleys had bought the abbey lands after the Dissolution of the Monasteries and turned the abbey house into their family home. As befitting their social status, they erected a family pew in the most dominant position in the church, and blocking views of the altar. This was reached by their own private external stair.

St Mary's Church, Whitby

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