Whitby through the ages

Summer, twilight, 1890: A man paces through an English seaside town. His long legs move briskly, alive with the thrill of the new discovery that propels him homeward to his writing desk. Bram’s mind ran through the scene he had just left at the library. The book he had been reading had fascinated him, ‘An account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia’ by William Wilkinson. Particularly enticing had been the section on a creature called Dracula: Devil in the Wallachian language. 

Recognising the Royal Hotel looming up ahead, his current home away from home, Bram quickened his step. Since arriving in Whitby he had no lack in inspiration for his new vampire novel. The eerie stillness of the night, the red roofed houses huddled on the edge of the treacherous North Sea, the bleak beauty of the wild Yorkshire moorland, all provided the perfect backdrop for his gothic horror masterpiece. Even now the billows of fog caught at his imagination, rolling in off the ocean in great swathes to cast a protective veil over the land.

Bram turned the door handle and stopped cold, a sudden chill overwhelming him on this summer’s eve. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled his nerves. Turning to the hill that rose up over Whitby to the east, his mouth dropped in wonder. There, seemingly suspended on a cloud of fog, cloaked in the embrace of the full moon, glistened the ruins of Whitby Abbey. A fantastical scene of great beauty and great destruction, of light and dark, all captured in one. It would be the perfect lair for his Dracula.

***

OK, so I have no idea if that is what really happened, but what I do know is that Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker did stay in Whitby during the summer of 1890 with his wife Florence. Not only that, but the town provided him with much inspiration for the setting of his famous horror novel ‘Dracula’ and it is even where he first found the reference for such a name in the local library. But Whitby is much more than the sleepy little fishing town that inspired one of the most famous and memorable stories and villains of all time. It is at the very heart of early English history and of the evolution of Christianity in England.

Part of Whitby on the River Esk with the Abbey ruins in the Background (Source: Theuardian.com)

Whitby is a small town in Yorkshire, commanding the western side of the River Esk as it opens into the North Sea. This position was integral to the Whaling industry that flourished here in the 19th century, yet long before this there is evidence of Whitby being settled. The outlines of circular houses (aptly named round houses) enclosed by a ditch are evidence of a late Bronze Age settlement on the headland east of modern day Whitby. During the 3rd century AD it is thought that a Roman signal station had once perched along the cliff tops, similar to those found at nearby Goldsborough and Ravenscar.

During both of these periods Jet was mined from the cliffs and surrounding countryside of Whitby. Known formally as lignite, Jet is made from the decayed wood of Araucaria trees which have been fossilised under the pressure of the sea bed to create hard black rocks. Indeed Whitby is firmly entrenched along the Jurassic coast and is home to many fossils of crocodiles, plesiosaurus, ammonites, nautilites and even dinosaur footprints.

Once it is unearthed, Jet is then polished to make glossy beads and other objects and is known to have been traded from the Bronze Age and Roman period through the Anglo-Saxon period (notable examples have been found in excavations at York), to reach the zenith of popularity in the 19th century.

Aerial view of the eastern headland which was the location for Streoneshalh and its successor, Whitby Abbey (Source: english-heritage.org.uk)

The Anglo-Saxon settlement of Whitby was actually a monastic community on this eastern headland. Known alternatively through the ages as Streanaeshalc, Streneshalc, Streoneshalch, Streoneshalh, and Streunes Alae in Lindissi, one of the pervading theories of the meaning of this name is ‘Streane/Streona’s headland’ (Streane/Streona being a male name of the period). Another however, is that the name might mean Fort Bay, Tower Bay or Lighthouse Bay (as suggested by Bede) in reference to the Roman signal station that had once been visible. The monastery was founded here in 657 by King Oswy of Northumbria in thanksgiving for his victory at the battle of Winwaed over the still pagan King Penda of Mercia.

King Oswy (Source: earlybritishkingdoms.com)

It was built of wood originally and like most important sites it was rebuilt later in stone with other important buildings for the running of the complex. Streoneshalh was also known as a double monastery, meaning that both monks and nuns lived, worked and prayed here, albeit in separate parts of the complex. Even more importantly it flourished under several very important women, the most well known of which was Saint Hilda.

When King Oswy built Streoneshalh he also gave his daughter Aelfflaeda into Christian service at the monastery. Here she was under the care of Abbess Hilda, the first Abbess of the monastery and herself a member of the royal family. Her father was a prince called Hereric and her mother was Breguswith (also known as Beregus). Hilda was the grand niece of the first Christian king of Northumbria, King Edwin, and could even call herself sister-in-law to King Aethelhere of East Anglia. Having been baptised at the newly erected wooden minster at York in the Roman Christian tradition, Hilda went on to practice in the Celtic tradition and rose through the ranks to become Abbess at the monastery at Hartlepool. It was from here that she arrived at Streoneshalh in 657 and continued in the Celtic teachings.

St Hilda (Source: stalbansparish.wordpress.com)

The famous Synod of Whitby was also held here in 664AD and hosted by Abbess Hilda herself. King Oswy of Northumbria and many other notables from his court and from the Christian religion came here to settle once and for all the type of Christianity the kingdom would choose. Would it follow the way of Roman Christianity which was beginning to flourish in the kingdoms south of the Humber, or would it continue on in the Celtic tradition followed by its northern and western neighbours? The King’s wife, Enfleda (Eanflaed of Kent), despite being the daughter of the first Christian king of Northumbria had been brought up by her uncle in Kent in the Roman tradition. Bede suggests that her alternative views on Christianity had added to the disunity of the Northumbrian court. Certain festivals such as Easter and Lent for example, were being recognised twice within Northumbria at separate times. This led to the King ending the 40 days of fasting whilst the Queen and the Roman Christians were still fasting. There were also many other practices within the Celtic church that were not in line with the Roman philosophy. For example the practice of tonsure, where a small circle of scalp at the top of a monks head was to be left bald, was neglected in favour of long hair such as the styles adopted by the nobility. This was seen as vain and distracting the monks from the sacrifices and teachings of Jesus. The Synod of Whitby was called to resolve such problems once and for all.

This event caused Northumbria to ally itself at least religiously if not politically with the other Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms in the south and more importantly with the Pope in Rome. Abbess Hilda was forced to give up her Celtic affinities for the Roman way of teaching, yet the monastery continued to flourish. It was because of her continued care that Streoneshalh became the home to the earliest recognised English poet, Caedmon. Caedmon started life as a cowherd who one night whilst dreaming, claimed that God spoke to him. Through this vision he was able to compose what is today called ‘The song of creation’. A memorial cross was erected at St Mary’s church near Whitby Abbey to his memory in the 19th century and can still be seen today.

Caedmon’s cross looking from the eastern headland over the town of Whitby (Source: Wikimedia commons)

Hilda died in 680. Her body was first buried at Streoneshalh until it was later moved in the 10th century to lay as religious relics at Glastonbury. Queen Enfleda, the wife of King Oswy and also a distant cousin of Hilda’s, had retired to the monastery after her husband’s death and became the second Abbess after Hilda, no doubt putting her knowledge of the Roman Christian faith to further use. Her daughter, Princess Aelfflaeda, who had been given over to the Abbey many years before in thanks for her father’s victory over Mercia, became its third Abbess.

There is still evidence of this 7th century monastery very near the later Norman abbey ruins we see today, taking the form of early Anglo-Saxon gravestones. English Heritage have conducted excavations around the site in a bid to learn more about the Abbey and its history and they found that the civil settlement of Whitby that serviced the monks and nuns of Streoneshalh was in fact quite large and closer to the cliff edge. Here evidence of metal and glass working shows the craftsmanship and skill of the people who once lived here.

Streoneshalh and its civil settlement were destroyed sometime in the 9th century. There are no definite indicators of how or why this happened, however it is generally believed that it was through the devastating havoc caused by the Vikings during this period, particularly in the 870s.

It seems the cliff top location was left unoccupied until the Norman Conquest, though a small coastal settlement had since moved to its present location on the river mouth. In 1078 William de Percy granted the land to be used as a Benedictine monastery dedicated to St Peter and St Hilda. It was during this time that there are references to the area being called Presteby, Old Norse for ‘settlement of the priests’. Later in the 12th century this would be changed to Hwitebi and Witeby (Domesday Book 1086), Old Norse for ‘white settlement’ and possibly a reference to the stone buildings and/or white-washed walls (as is the case for Whithearne in Scotland). The first prior of this new Norman Abbey was called Reinfrid. He noted how all that survived of the monastery of Streoneshalh were 40 roofless and ruined buildings reminiscent of the Celtic style, including numerous chapels and cells.

The inside of the Norman ruins of Whitby Abbey (Source: english-heritage.org.uk)

The new monastery was to be built in the Romanesque style and later in the 13th century it was rebuilt once more in the Gothic style that we recognise today. With the dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry the VIII in 1539, Whitby Abbey (as it was now called) was destroyed. Some of the notable people who are thought to have been buried here are Saint Edwin King of Northumbria, King Oswy of Northumbria (who founded Streoneshalh), his wife Enfleda the daughter of Saint Edwin and an abbess of Whitby (Streoneshalh), their daughter the Abbess Aelfflaeda of Whitby (Streoneshalh), and the Norman knights Sir William and Sir Richard de Percy.

Yet just as the town survived after Hilda’s monastery was destroyed, so it survived the dissolution. Whitby continued as a fishing port and by the 18th century it was famous for its whaling and fishing industry. By the end of this century it was also close behind London and Newcastle as the third largest shipbuilder in England. Captain James Cook called Whitby home for a time whilst he learned his trade on the coal ships, and it is here that two of his own ships were made: HMS Endeavour and HMS Resolution.

For such a small coastal town, Whitby has proven to have played a large role in History.

Captain James Cook monument, Whitby (Source: whitbyonline.co.uk)

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7 thoughts on “Whitby through the ages

  1. Fabulous post! I live in York and go to Whitby fairly regularly. It’s somewhere I really love and I thought I was pretty well informed about it until I read your post! Some fascinating information, thank you :-)

  2. Pingback: The White Goddess | The Etymon

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