The old city of York is great to wander around, because it’s so medieval in its layout. You can pretend for a while that you’ve been transported back in time (until you stumble across The Shop That Must Not Be Named in the Shambles, that is). Part of the illusion comes from the Minster.
The word minster simply means church. It comes from an Old English word denoting a religious building and community devoted to praying the offices of the church (i.e., the hourly prayers of the Catholic Church), but in modern usage it’s used to describe grand churches in Britain, such as Westminster, Southwell Minster, and, of course, York Minster.
York Minster stands on the site of an old Roman basilica, which stood in the fortified Roman camp. To the Romans, basilica simply referred to the style of building: oblong, with a long hall and column supports. Basilicas were often used for official business, and Christians adopted them as houses of worship (thus the Christian usage of the word to describe churches). Because the basilica was used for important matters, the land it was built on was considered prime real estate (much like important government buildings today), and when it was destroyed in the 8th century, a church was built on the same site. The site became so important, in fact, that it was later granted the rights of a town unto itself, separate from the city of York that surrounded it, and became known as the Liberty of St. Peter (the church is dedicated to St. Peter).
The church was then destroyed several times after that – remember, York was considered the capital of northern England, so when the Vikings came in from the north, and the Normans came in from the south, and the Danes came in from the east, York was Ground Zero for any and all attempted coups. Historically speaking, the church of the town was the last stronghold, and people would often retreat to the church if the city walls were breached. As such, the church was often attacked first, to make sure there weren’t any hold outs. When the Minster was rebuilt again in the 13th century, it was finally left to stand uninterrupted, although it was gutted and many decorations removed during the Reformation.
Today, the Minster is a Church of England parish, and many important functions are still held within the church, such as graduations from St. John University. There’s also a library with an impressive special collections attached to the Minster (our tour guide who told us all about Eboracum had been a director of the York Minster Library, and was very excited to find out I studied book history; naturally, he told us all about it).
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go inside York Minster while we were there, because the church was being used for St. John University’s fall graduations. Even so, walking around the outside of the Minster and around the grounds was enough to occupy us for a couple of hours. The gothic architecture ensures that there’s always something to look at from every angle, the restoration work that’s being carried out gives an insight into the artistry that created the church in the first place, and the grounds are lovely. Had we been able to go inside that day, I’m sure we would have spent all afternoon wandering about.
There’s a reason York Minster stands tall above the city. It pulls you in, and provides a focal point for you meanderings.
Visiting York Minster
Getting there: Just follow the signs. There’s not much parking around York Minster, but York is a very walkable city, so don’t worry about parking somewhere that’s more easily accessible and walking the rest of the way.
Admission: There is a charge of £10 to enter the church, which goes towards restoration work.
Opening hours: York Minster is open for sightseeing Monday through Saturday from 9am to 4:30pm and on Sundays from 12:45pm to 3pm. You are, of course, welcome to attend one of their services, and you can find the schedule on their website. Note that the church is occasionally closed to visitors, as it was when I was there. Closures can also be found on their website.