Medieval Realms

A History of St Mary's Abbey

St Mary’s Abbey was founded in the 1080s when a powerful Norman nobleman called Alan Rufus granted land in York to a group of monks to set up an abbey. The land he gave was where St Olave’s church was built along with some adjoining land. This church, though rebuilt, still stands on Marygate in York and the ruins of the abbey church stand next to it in the Museum Gardens.

In 1088, when William II visited York, he decided that St Olave’s was too small and granted a bigger piece of land next to the church. Alan Rufus also gave them further land and then gave up the monastery to the patronage of the king. From then on, St Mary’s was regarded as a royal monastery.

During the first fifty years of the abbey, it acquired many lands across England as well as many benefactors, including the local powerful families in Yorkshire. It also attracted many recruits and set up some other small houses in various parts of England. The abbey also enjoyed many privileges granted by the king and for many years was the site of the royal treasury for defending the North.

The abbey church also underwent alterations. The church had originally been built in the Romanesque style with rounded windows. However, in 1270 it was decided to extend the church once again and the old church was demolished. In its place was built a new Gothic church, much bigger than the old church. It was completed in 1294 and it is the ruins of this church which stand in the Museum Gardens today.

The abbey was in constant dispute over land and rights with both the city of York and the Archbishop in the Minster. In 1343 and 1350, the abbey was actually besieged and the monk’s food supplies were cut off! However, the abbey also provided a much needed source of employment for the city as it needed many craftsmen to help maintain the buildings and servants to work in the abbey, including the laundry and bakery. It also provided shelter for travelling noblemen and pilgrims on their way to St William’s Shrine in the Minster.

In 1539, the abbey fell victim to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and was handed over to Henry’s commissioners on the 26 November.

Despite being destroyed by Henry, there are still the ruins of the abbey church in the Museum Gardens in York and underneath the Yorkshire Museum.

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Document icon Learning article provided by: Yorkshire Museum and Gardens |  The Guildhall, Leicester | 
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