St Mary's Abbey


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Statutory Address:
Yorkshire Museum, Museum Gardens, Museum Street, York, YO1 7FR


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Statutory Address:
Yorkshire Museum, Museum Gardens, Museum Street, York, YO1 7FR

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

York (Unitary Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:
SE 59917 52086


Benedictine monastery founded in 1086 which was surrendered to the Crown to form the Kings Manor in 1539, being the seat of government for northern England for the next 200 years. Developed as an early tourist attraction in the C18, the abbey formed the basis of a pioneering museum established in the early C19 by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society: managed by the Yorkshire Museums Trust since 2002 as a public park.

Reasons for Designation

St Mary's Abbey is scheduled for the following principal reasons:

* Architectural: the ruins of the abbey and other structures such as gateways and the Hospitium represent very significant survivals of medieval monastic architecture;

* Historical: from its foundation in the eleventh century St Mary's Abbey remained one of the most prominent and wealthy monasteries in England until its Dissolution in 1539;

* Archaeological potential: the site retains buried remains which have the potential to increase our knowledge and understanding of the abbey, its precinct, and of other sites of this type.


St Mary's Abbey was founded in circa 1086 when Count Alan Rufus granted St Olave's Church (adjacent to the abbey church, Grade I Listed, but not included in the scheduling) to a community of Benedictine monks which had been trying to re-establish the monastery at Lastingham on the North York Moors. In 1088 William II visited York and made a further grant of land adjacent to St Olave's, personally laying the foundation stone for a new abbey church. This royal grant established the extent of the monastic precinct which is thought to fossilise the extent of a defended annex to the Roman legionary fortress lying immediately outside the western defences of the city. It is suggested that this was the pre-Conquest Earlsburh: the seat of the English earls who governed York from 954, and that by strengthening the foundation of a Norman monastery, William tightened his control over the city in the second year of his reign, at a time when he faced widespread unrest. St Mary's Abbey prospered under royal patronage, expanding rapidly through the C12, establishing a number of dependant cells across Cumbria, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, even with some property as far away as East Anglia. It was also involved in the origin of Fountains Abbey. A community of 13 monks broke away from St Mary's to establish a new foundation at what is now known as Fountains Abbey, Ripon, in the hope of living a poorer and stricter rule. It is not known if St Mary's escaped the fire that swept through York in 1137, although finds of large quantities of mid to late C12 sculptural stonework suggests that the abbey did see significant building work soon after the fire. This stonework includes a remarkable group of life-sized statues which were excavated in 1827 and are thought to be the earliest examples of life-sized statues dating to the medieval period in England. These were deliberately buried, perhaps during the course of an ambitious rebuilding programme in the late C13 when the church was completely reconstructed. The new abbey church was built between 1271 and 1294 to the design of Simon of Pabenham who is thought to have been a relative of the assistant architect of the same name who oversaw the construction of the Angel Choir at Lincoln Cathedral in the 1260s. The earliest sections of the precinct wall are thought to date to 1266 (built shortly after the murder of some of the abbey's tenants by people from the city), but the circuit was extended and fortified after the grant of a licence to crenellate in 1318. The precinct walls are scheduled as a separate item (see NHLE 1004920). Relationships between St Mary's and the city were not always cordial, for instance the abbey was blockaded in 1343 and 1350, but generally the abbey was a significant contributor to the medieval city, with the abbot also having a role in national affairs, regularly attending parliament in the later Middle Ages with a seat in the House of Lords. By the time of the Dissolution, St Mary’s was the richest abbey in the north with an annual income in excess of £2000 a year. The abbey was one of the last in the country to be dissolved with the last abbot, William Thornton surrendering St Mary's to the Crown on 26 November 1539.

Following the Dissolution, St Mary's Abbey was retained by the King, being known as the Kings Manor, becoming the headquarters of the “Kings Council of the Northern Parts” governing northern England. When Henry VIII visited York in 1541 he stayed in the hastily converted buildings around the cloister. Later in the C16, the choir and transepts of the abbey church were demolished along with the nave roof; the side aisles being retained as two ranges of chambers. By the early C17, the cloistral buildings were in poor repair and so the former late C15 abbot's lodging was greatly expanded to form the complex of buildings that are now called the Kings Manor (which lie mainly outside the area of the scheduling, being Listed Grade I). The Kings Manor remained a seat of government and occasional royal residence up until the English Civil War when the precinct walls were re-used as part of the city's defences. These withstood a 12-week siege by Parliamentarian forces in 1644, the precinct being breached, but unsuccessfully assaulted, on 16 June, York only surrendering after the Royalist defeat at the Battle of Marston Moor on 2 July.

In the 1660s a commercial plant nursery was established amongst the ruins of the medieval abbey. Flourishing through into the C19, this nursery supplied plants to many country house estates but also developed into a tourist attraction of exotic plants and romantic ruins. In 1827 the Yorkshire Philosophical Society (YPS) purchased part of the nursery and some of the abbey ruins, conducting archaeological excavations in 1827-29 and constructing a museum which opened in 1830. This Grade I-listed neo-classical building by William Wilkins was one of the country’s first purpose-built museums and contains the in situ remains of the monastic warming house in its basement. The museum and gardens were developed and expanded through the C19. The gardens, designed in 1844 by Sir John Nasmyth (Registered Grade II), were originally intended as private pleasure grounds for the learned members of the YPS: designed as a scientific and antiquarian garden, along with displaying botanical specimens and the abbey ruins, they also included architectural fragments and geological specimens gathered by members of the society. Along with reconstruction work of the Hospitium (included in the scheduling and Listed Grade II*), a number of new buildings were also constructed such as the Observatory of 1832, for many years housing the largest refracting telescope in the world (Listed Grade II). Excavations in the early C20 uncovered further remains including the ruins of the vestibule to the chapter house which were preserved in situ as a museum display in the basement of the Tempest Anderson Hall (part of the Grade I-listed museum) built in 1912.

In 1961 the YPS gave the museum and gardens in trust to the citizens of York. Management of the grounds passed to Askham Bryan College of Agriculture which oversaw a number of changes to the planting and restorations of various buildings. The museum and grounds passed to York City Council in 1996 who leased it to the Yorkshire Museums Trust in 2002.

Designation History: Around two thirds of the precinct of St Mary's Abbey was scheduled in 1915. This is thought to have been the area that was in the ownership of the YPS, including the ruins of the abbey church and the Hospitium which were Listed Grade I and II* respectively in 1954. St Mary's precinct walls were part of the original scheduling but this designation was confirmed in 1922 following a query from the Corporation of York who had taken over responsibility for the walls in 1918-19. These were listed Grade I in 1954 and are now separately scheduled. Areas of the monastic precinct not part of either scheduling include: the Church of St Olave with its churchyard (listed Grade I); St Mary's Lodge (listed Grade I); a rectangular area in the south western corner formerly occupied by a C19 swimming baths (included in the Registered Garden); and the north-eastern quarter of the precinct partly occupied by the Grade I-listed Kings Manor, and the Grade II-listed City Art Gallery and Headmaster's House. Two abutting areas to the east were also designated in 1922 as part of the scheduling for York City Walls, this designation also including remains of St Leonard's Hospital. Within the area of the scheduling for St Mary's there are three additional listings, all at Grade II: the Observatory (in 1972); the Railings and gates forming south-west boundary of Museum Gardens (in 1973); and the Drinking Fountain (on Museum Street, in 1983). In 1984, Museum Gardens was added to the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens at Grade II.


The monument forms the greater part of the public park (Museum Gardens) with the Yorkshire Museum to its centre. Like most of the medieval churches of York (with the exception of the Minster), St Mary's Abbey church is aligned north east-south west, apparently following the alignment of the Roman legionary fortress rather than being more conventionally east-west.

The ruins of the abbey church lie to the north west of the museum building which is built over the eastern cloistral range, with the vestibule to the chapter house and other standing remains being preserved in situ as museum displays in the basement. Almost the full footprint of the C13 abbey church is exposed, mainly as base courses; the higher standing remains being concentrated around the northern aisle of the nave. These remains include the north western pier of the central crossing (which stands up to the springing point of the vault); the eight bay northern aisle side wall standing to the crowns of its main windows; and the western front including the northern jambs to the west door and great west window above, with a lower fragment of the southern side of the west front also still standing. An arched opening through the aisle wall provides a view of the Grade II Listed table tomb of one of the founders of the museum: the artist William Etty, died 1849.

The medieval abbey originally had two main gateways into the precinct, ruins of which are included in the scheduling. The abbey's principal gateway faced away from the city and was at the west end of St Olave's Church, straddling the line of a Roman road which led to the bridge over the Ouse. The gateway arch survives spanning between fragments of the gatehouse attached to St Olave's Church and St Mary's Lodge. The lodge, circa 1470 and Listed Grade I, was built to house important guests to the abbey. Guests of lower status are thought to have been accommodated in the Hospitium which is sited next to the ruins of the abbey's secondary gate, the Watergate, which provided direct access to the river. The Hospitium (Grade II* Listed and included in the scheduling) is a large, two storey building with a stone built ground floor and timber framed upper floor, mainly dating to circa 1300, but altered by restorations in 1840 and the 1930s. In 1497 a third major gateway was constructed, known as Queen Margaret's Arch, this is close to Bootham Bar and is included in the scheduling for the precinct walls. The entrance to Museum Gardens from Museum Street is modern.

The ruins within the basement of the museum and those of the exposed northern side of the cloister show that the modern ground surface is generally higher than the medieval ground surface. However there has been extensive landscaping so that there is no clear relationship between the modern ground surface and underlying medieval surfaces. Buried remains of the southern and western cloistral buildings as well as those of the outer court (auxiliary buildings such as barns, bake and brew houses) are less well understood but are considered to survive beneath the lawns and other planting between the museum and the river. The scheduling extends beyond the abbey's riverside wall to the southern boundary of Museum Gardens. This area is expected to include buried remains of medieval and earlier waterfront structures and associated waterlogged deposits. The scheduling also extends beyond the line of the precinct wall on the eastern side to include the intramural ditch and the outer rampart of the City Wall to abut the separately scheduled area for the City Wall. The scheduling further includes the southern courtyard of what is now known as The Kings Manor. This area is not part of Museum Gardens, but includes the buried remains of the chapter house. The northern part of the Kings Manor is not included in the scheduling, nor is the northern quarter of the precinct. The use of this northern area in the medieval and early post-medieval periods is poorly understood.

Throughout Museum Gardens there are numerous fragments of medieval architectural stonework used as path and border edging or rockery stone. Although much originates from St Mary's, some is thought to have been collected from excavations of other sites across Yorkshire and beyond. Just south of the museum building there is a very good example of a prehistoric cup and ring marked rock which is also thought to have been an archaeological find from elsewhere. At least some items placed about the grounds, such as Roman stone coffins near to the Museum Street entrance, are more recent introductions.

Exclusions: Modern road and path surfaces, and items of street and park furniture such as fencing, gates, benches and litter bins are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath is included. The Hospitium and all sections of ruined medieval walling, including that attached to roofed buildings and that within the basement of the Yorkshire Museum, are included within the scheduling. The roofed buildings of the Yorkshire Museum (including the Tempest Anderson Hall), the Observatory and that part of the Kings Manor which lies within the area of the monument, are excluded from the scheduling (but remain designated via Listing), although the ground beneath remains included in the scheduling.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
YO 12
Legacy System:


Books and journals
An Inventory of the City of York II Defences, (1972)
An Inventory of the City of York V Central, (1981)
Christopher Wilson, , Janet Burton, , St Mary's Abbey York, (1988)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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