St Mary’s Abbey, Museum Gardens, York

St Marys AbbeyThe peaceful and picturesque abbey ruins of the Yorkshire Museum Gardens belie their illustrious past.

St Mary’s Abbey, York, the largest and wealthiest of all Benedictine institutions in northern England certainly wielded the most power. Its abbot was recorded in the Domesday Book as being one of the city’s leading landowners. The abbots were notoriously self indulgent being mentioned in early medieval ballads of the outlaw Robin Hood, often featuring St Mary’s Abbot as Robin Hood’s arch rival.

The abbey’s foundation dates to1080 when prosperous Norman baron Alan Rufus presented Abbot Stephen from Lastingham with St Olave’s Church, York. By 1088 the abbey had outgrown St Olave’s and King William II granted them new lands nearby. After the King laid the new abbey church’s foundation stone in 1089 Alan Rufus bequeathed it more lands, in Bootham, handing the King his role as its benefactor. The new abbey, dedicated to St Mary, was built in the Romanesque style as was the rebuild of the nearby Minster.

St Marys Abbey Column

An abbot ran the abbey assisted by a prior, with 40 to 60 monks, around 50 boy scholars and several servants. Although the Benedictine order was less strict than others the chief condition was for ordered prayer with eight prayer sessions held daily. The monks would have worked on administrative duties while servants assisted with the community’s granaries, barns, mill and bakery, brewery and tailor’s workshop.

In 1132 several monks including Prior Richard attempted to introduce the humbler Cistercian lifestyle at the abbey. With no success they left to found the Cistercian community of Fountains Abbey. St Mary’s continued its hedonistic existence with an abbot whose power equalled that of the Archbishop of York.

By 1266 almost three-quarters of a mile of defensive walling enclosed the abbey, a stretch of which still runs along Bootham and Marygate down to the River Ouse. In 1270 a new, larger abbey church was built in the Decorated Gothic style, completed by 1294; its partial remains lie in the Museum Gardens.

Sunbathing within Museum Gardens
Sunbathing within Museum Gardens

Local merchants resented the abbey’s prosperity, leading to ransacking of the Abbot’s house in 1262, and in 1343 and 1350 St Mary’s was practically besieged.However, the Abbey provided employment for many and its charitable works were welcomed. The poor claimed alms at the Abbey’s gateway Marygate, now St Mary’s Lodge – the York Museums Trust headquarters.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1530 saw the abbey’s decline; the monks were pensioned off in 1539, the buildings converted for Henry VIII’s visits to York, one of which was in 1541. St Mary’s, then worth more than £2,000 a year equalled many wealthy landholders. The Abbot’s house survived as the ‘King’s Manor’– the seat of the Council of the North in 1539.  Gradually the abbey’s stone was reduced, some was sold, more was stolen and the ‘wasteland’ became known as the Manor Shore, used for grazing animals.

The north and west walls remain, plus the West Gate, Pilgrims’ Hospitium, the Abbot’s House (King’s Manor), St Mary’s Tower and a polygonal water tower by the river. Other artefacts can be seen in the Museum.


York resident and regular contributor. Fascinated by this historic city and always keen to promote local, independent businesses. The man taking the photographs and tweeting from jorvik

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Hi, my name is Horace. is my guide to York. It's a unique look at what this historical city has to offer in the way of places to visit, sights to see, activities to take part in, shops to shop in, pubs to drink in and restaurants to dine in. York independents all the way – no big chains here. Get in touch...

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