Leeds 2011 Report part 0(i): pictures of Whitby

Skyline showing the ruins of Whitby Abbey from the carpark

Skyline showing the ruins of Whitby Abbey from the carpark

Has everyone else finished their Leeds reports yet? Must be time for me to start then! Leeds, in this instance, being for those new to the blog where each year the principal European conference on medieval studies is held, the International Medieval Congress. I have been going for many years and intend to continue to for a while yet, though this coming year taking less active a role. Anyway. I had an excellent Leeds this year but it started early, because for once I had time to go on one of the excursions that are arranged as part of the conference, which was to Whitby. I’d been to Whitby before for a friend’s wedding during the Goth Weekend, and that was, shall we say, not as medieval as it sounds except that as I recall I spent most of the weekend in our room minding my infant son and reading Pauline Stafford’s Unification and Conquest as teaching preparation. In particular, I never got a proper look round the Abbey.

North transept of Whitby Abbey

North transept of Whitby Abbey

As you can see, I fixed that. The abbey is largely thirteenth-century and largely ruined, though more of it stood than now does until 1914, when a German cruiser squadron bombarding the East Coast managed to put this hole in a wall.

Missing sections of wall at Whitby Abbey, removed by German bombardment in 1914

Once were walls...

Not totally clear what they were aiming at, but that’s what they got, apparently. These and other details were supplied by our excellent guide, Glynn Coppack, and we had plenty of time to wander around and appreciate details by ourselves. I took loads of pictures, and can’t share them all, but there are some I took with particular people or facets in mind, so I’ll put them below the cut, along with one snapped by and kindly shared by the estimable Kathleen Neal, international medievalist extraordinaire, famed dancer and warmly regarded by all who know her, who had booked on the same trip by coincidence and who afforded me that vital asset for tourism, someone to point cool stuff out to. There was plenty…

Three stories of arcading from the main nave of Whitby Abbey

Three stories of arcading from the main nave

Where it’s still up it extends, in its full Gothic complexity, to some height in some parts…

Windows viewed through windows in the ruins of Whitby Abbey

Windows viewed through windows

… and in others to some depth.

Graves in one of the side chapels of Whitby abbey

Apparently much of the Anglo-Saxon site’s location is suspected but has not been dug, or even surveyed which I find bizarre and improbable. One part that has, however, is the cemetery, but then that was easier to work out the placing of…

Column bases and ruined arcades at Whitby Abbey

Column bases and ruined arcades

And there were plenty of living people around and about also, wandering the ruins. The ruins are actually quite informative about construction if you interrogate them carefully.

Inscribed stone reused in one of the arcade columns at Whitby Abbey

Inscribed stone reused in one of the arcade columns

Exposed core of a ruined column at Whitby Abbey

Exposed core of a ruined column

But quite a lot has gone however you cut it, and some details can’t easily be recovered. Here, at least, is some vaulting (for Vaulting; sorry, there was no vellum available but then you have as much as you need…):

Detail of vaulting in the north nave of Whitby Abbey

Detail of vaulting in the north nave

And some finer details of the ornament that had escaped me did not elude the eagle eye of Mrs Neal. Heads up!

Heads as ornament of an arched window at Whitby Abbey

Heads as ornament of an arched window

There is also a quite nice little visitor centre attached, to which we also went, and they have some perhaps older things, which I probably shouldn’t have been photographing but hey I’m sure no-one will find out from the Internet, right?

Sculpture fragment found in excavations at Whitby Abbey

Sculpture fragment found in excavations

Memorial to one of the Saxon abbesses of Whitby, found during excavations of the Abbey

For Nicola and Michelle, some memorials of the Saxon abbey, including an actual memorial that has been read as belonging to one of the abbesses, I’m not going to try and guess which.

Textile-working display at Whitby Abbey Museum

For Katrin, the textile-working stuff found in the 1930s digs. And then lastly a short selection from the church of St Mary nearby, which unlike a great many medieval churches, most of which were modified, added to, made over, filled up, padded out, and a dozen other things, has not subsequently had this work removed, and is thus a bit crowded:

Interior of St Mary's Whitby looking towards pulpits from nave

Interior of St Mary's Whitby looking towards pulpits from nave

Pretty much whichever way you look. Mind your head!

Crossing and north transept of St Mary's Whitby

Crossing and north transept

There was also a display of some stuff from the abbey that we might otherwise have missed, some of which is poignant enough even without the captioning:

Stone coffin from an infant burial at Whitby Abbey, on display inside St Mary's church there

But lighter relief was brought by one or two things that just caption themselves:

Display sign describing the hagioscope in St Mary's Whitby

Hagioscope!

And outside back at the bus there was another of those:

Creative labelling of a junction box in Whitby Abbey carpark

What, you mean nobody told you? Well, now you’re told.


The references for Anglo-Saxon Whitby are ageing now but still useful, and are basically Rosemary Cramp, “Monastic Sites” and “Analysis of the finds register and location plan of Whitby Abbey” and Philip Rahtz, “The building plan of the Anglo-Saxon monastery of Whitby Abbey”, all in David M. Wilson (ed.), The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England (London 1976), pp. 201-252 at pp. 223-229 and pp. 453-457 & 459-462, updated by Cramp, “A Reconsideration of the Monastic Site at Whitby” in John Higgitt and R. Michael Spearman (edd.), The Age of Migrating Ideas. Early Medieval Art in Northern Britain and Ireland. Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Insular Art held in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, 3-6 January 1991 (Stroud 1993), pp. 64-73. What you would need to read for the standing structures I’m afraid I’ve little idea but there is a handy English Heritage book that would cover the very basics, Steven Brindle, Whitby Abbey, English Heritage Guidebooks (London 2010).

23 responses to “Leeds 2011 Report part 0(i): pictures of Whitby

  1. So did you think about treading on King Edwin and King Oswiu somewhere around those grounds? I think Hild, Ælfflaed, and probably Eanflaed got moved and probably now lost, but Edwin, Oswiu and the ‘other’ kings are probably still there somewhere under the old floor.(I’m guessing the other kings are probably Oswiu’s sons Alchfrith and Ælfwine. )

  2. Oh, I’ve spent so many hours wandering that site and imagining it all. Lovely to see it through your eyes. I can’t wait to get back (early next year, I hope; though, ooof, it will be *freezing* up there in the wind).

    Right now I’m wishing mightily for the Whitby Headland Project to publish. But I’m getting less and less sanguine about that as time goes by. Don’t suppose anyone reading this has any info about that?

    I loved the Hagioscope!

  3. Even in the absence of the finer details, this kind of building is a dream come true for the more purist of architectural historians because here they can study architecture in its most unadulterated form, without all those annoying “corruptions” like furnishings, stained-glass windows or – God forbid – wall paintings… Well, as the saying goes, one man’s loss is another man’s gain ;-)

    Great photos, by the way…

  4. Pingback: A Carpark with a View « L'Historien Errant

  5. PS. My life’s ambition is to make it onto this blog in a bona fide academic context… But thanks! ;-)

  6. A Saxon stone coffin? Are they sure? Was that all the display said? Were there really such things, for infants or at all, I wonder? It’s been a while since I’ve delved into death/burial scholarship, but this strikes me as quite odd.

    • That is all the display says, at least about this, though this and some other stones came out of the excavations at the site in the 1920s by Clapham Peers, if I remember the church’s signage properly, which I may not. I have been to look at your post before saying anything careless, but yes: to the best of my knowledge, Anglo-Saxon burial did not except in astonishingly rare cases involve stone coffins. We get cists, in the north, which aren’t Saxon but presumably some of the people in them were; we do get occasional reuse of Roman sarcophagi for churchmen, because that’s what they did in Gaul (Cuthbert being the obvious example here); but it seems very unlikely that this is a genuinely Saxon coffin. On the other hand the cavity seems anthropomorphic; the size is indubitably infantile, and it came out of the abbey grounds, allegedly at least. I wonder if a Roman container might have been reused for a sufficiently high-status infant, even though the container itself is clearly not high-status in Roman terms?

  7. Pingback: “infant’s stone coffin” at Whitby? « Slouching Towards Extimacy

    • For those who may be interested, this has turned into an afternoon’s research project between me and Karma with references and quotes from the site reports and everything. We are inclined to disbelieve, but why not go and join in?

  8. Pingback: Leeds 2011 Report 0(ii): back via Lastingham « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  9. Pingback: On not being in Leeds « In Thirteenth Century England

  10. Pingback: Cool Stuff on Other Blogs III « Medieval History Geek

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