Whitby Abbey: Saxon double-house, post-Conquest Benedictine monastery, C17 manor house and C14 cross.


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:


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

North Yorkshire
Scarborough (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
NZ 90316 11231

Reasons for Designation

A pre-Conquest double house is a settlement built before the Norman Conquest to house a community of religious men and women. Its main buildings were constructed to provide facilities for worship, accommodation and subsistence. They included a series of timber halls and perhaps a stone church, all located within some form of enclosure. Those sites which have been excavated indicate that no standard layout of buildings was in use. Rather a great diversity in building form, construction, arrangement and function is evident. The earliest English double houses were founded in the seventh century when the idea of such communities spread to Kent from Merovingian Gaul. By the ninth century most, if not all, had ceased to function, being replaced by the increasingly popular single sex communities. Pre-Conquest double houses are a very rare monument class, only 33 examples having been recognised from documentary sources. Few of these have been studied in any detail and the exact location of many is as yet unknown. Only 6 sites have been examined by excavation. The majority of known examples are located in Kent and Northumbria, although this largely reflects that these areas are well documented for the early historic period. Other sites are likely to have existed in less well documented areas of the country. They are one of the first types of religious community to be established in Anglo-Saxon England and are therefore of considerable importance for any analysis of the introduction of Christianity into the country. All examples exhibiting survival of archaeological remains will therefore be identified as nationally important.

Whitby was one of the earliest religious houses to be established in Northern England. Documentary evidence indicates that it played a major and crucial role in the development of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England. Extensive remains of this early foundation are known to survive beneath the present ground surface and abbey ruins. Subsequently the site became a wealthy Benedictine monastery the remains of which also survive well either as upstanding ruins, earthworks or buried features. Additionally the site preserves remains of activity both pre- and post-dating its religious use, allowing investigation of its changing use over 1500 years.


Whitby Abbey is situated in a prominent position on East Cliff, above the fishing port of Whitby and overlooking the North Sea. The monument is a multi-period site comprising a single constraint area containing a number of features. These include the buried remains of the seventh century monastery of Streonaeshalh and the eleventh century abbey church, the ruins of the later church and associated features of the post-Conquest Benedictine monastery, the ruins of a seventeenth century manor house of the Cholmley family and a fourteenth century cross, situated on Abbey Plain. Streonaeshalh was the first monastic foundation on the site and, typically of the early Anglo-Saxon period, was a double-house of both men and women presided over by an abbess. In 1924-25, partial excavation of the site carried out by Sir Charles Peers uncovered a small area of the Saxon monastery on the west and north sides of the medieval church which, from the material recovered, has been interpreted as part of the women's quarters. At least two phases of development were represented, the earliest comprising timber buildings. Elaborate ranges were served by a network of drains and were split into groups by paths. Four individual cells were identified, each having a living area with an open hearth and a bedroom with a latrine. Another building was either a guesthouse or a store and was partially rebuilt when a new series of rooms was added to its east side. A group of buildings to the west were found to overlie earlier burials and have been dated to the early ninth century. Finds were of a domestic sort and included quernstones, loomweights, needles, pins and writing implements. No clearly communal chapterhouse, refectory or dormitory was found and the relative scarcity of Saxon material suggests that the larger part of the Saxon foundation lies below and to the south of the church, beneath the cloister of the post- Conquest abbey. Similarly, there is no evidence as yet of the pre-Conquest abbey church. It is believed that this will be found beneath the naves of the fourteenth and eleventh century churches. Peers' excavation also revealed the foundations of the east end and transepts of the eleventh century church built soon after the foundation of the Benedictine monastery. He did not excavate the nave but the position of the mid-twelfth century parlour, which would have marked the junction of the north and west cloister ranges, suggests it was as long as the fourteenth century nave which overlies it. The later medieval church, whose ruins are all that is left standing of the post-Conquest abbey, was begun in c.1220 with the rebuilding of the east end, followed, over the next few decades, by the reconstruction of the transepts. The first three bays of the nave were also rebuilt at this time, along with the central tower. The rest of the nave was not rebuilt until the fourteenth century, with a clerestory - a row of windows set above the main storey to let in light - being added in the fifteenth. The west end is also fifteenth century. The church would have formed the north range of a four-sided cloister, with the east, south and west ranges lying to the south. An engraving by Samuel Buck (1711) shows the late twelfth century chapterhouse occupying its traditional position in the east range, below the south transept. There are no visible remains of these ranges but the buried foundations survive undisturbed and preserve the layout of the post-Conquest monastery. By analogy with other abbeys, it is believed that the east range would also have included the dorter (dormitory), the south range the kitchen and frater (refectory) and the west range rooms for storage and cellarage. Other rooms and buildings would have included an infirmary, warming-house, guesthouse and day-rooms whilst, outside the cloister, within the wider precinct, would have lain a variety of ancillary buildings such as a brewhouse, bakehouse and gatehouse. Earthworks to the north of the church, on Abbey Plain, may represent some of these and other earthworks have been located to the west, in the field known as Almshouse Close. Additional features include cemeteries and a fishpond, the latter lying to the east of the church. Excavations at the Saxon monasteries of Jarrow and Monkwearmouth indicate that the cemetery of the double house lies to the south of the church, beneath the medieval cloister. The later monastic cemetery, according to tradition, will lie east or south of the east cloister range. A medieval lay cemetery was discovered north of the church during Peers' excavations. To the south-west of the church lay the abbot's lodging which, after the Dissolution, became part of Abbey House, the residence of the Cholmley family. Adjacent to the present Abbey House, which is not included in the scheduling, is the shell of a building known as the Banqueting House. This is part of the manor house built by the Cholmley family in the 1630s, with the Banqueting House itself being added in c.1672. Constructed in the late seventeenth century classical style, it was deserted in 1743 and gutted in c.1790. Prior to the seventeenth century manor house, a sixteenth century timber manor house stood on the site and its remains will survive beneath the later buildings. North of the church on Abbey Plain is a fourteenth century cross on a plinth of six steps. Although the head is gone, the panelled shaft and capital are well-preserved. The Saxon double-house was founded in 657 by King Oswy of Northumbria. It's first and most illustrious abbess was St. Hild who presided there till her death in 680 when the abbacy passed to Oswy's daughter Aelfled. Not only was the abbey a royal burial place, many distinguished Saxon churchmen and women were educated there, including Caedmon, the most celebrated vernacular poet of Northumbria. The monastery's greatest claim to fame, however, and an indication of its reputation at the time, was that it was the setting for the Synod of Whitby of 664, one of the most important events in the history of Christianity in England at which it was decided that the English Church would follow the Roman rite rather than the insular `Celtic' tradition. Our main written sources for the the Saxon monastery are the histories of the Venerable Bede. Consequently, little is known about the abbey in the years following his death except that it was destroyed in 867 by the Viking army led by the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok. An interval of more than two centuries followed until, in 1078, William de Percy granted the abbey site to Reinfrid, an unlettered monk who had come with two companions on a pilgrimage to visit the holy places of the north. The initial foundation, however, was beset by trouble, not only from sea-raids but also from arguments with the founder and internal strife which resulted in a group of monks under one of their number, Stephen, retiring to Lastingham and, ultimately, St. Mary's in York. The abbey began to flourish when Serlo de Percy, William's brother, became prior and when William's son became abbot. Despite occasional raids, the last occurring in c.1153 under Eystein Haroldsson, King of Norway, the Benedictine abbey quickly became the third in value after St. Mary's in York and St. German's in Selby, and it was not until the fourteenth century that it began to decline. By then it was heavily in debt and, by the time of its suppression in 1539, it was a poor house by Benedictine standards though still rich by those of other Orders. Following the Dissolution, the lease of the abbey and precinct was given to Richard Cholmley who subsequently bought the freehold in 1555. It remained with the Cholmley family until 1791 when it passed by marriage to the Fanes. The medieval church suffered gradual decline,and was damaged by a direct hit from a German cruiser in 1914. The abbey has been in State care since 1920 and the Banqueting House since 1935. Both are Grade I Listed, as is the cross on Abbey Plain. Also Grade I Listed are the almshouses and walls and gatepiers of Abbey House. There are a number of features, within the area, to be excluded from the scheduling. These include all English Heritage fixtures and fittings, the surfaces of all paths and drives, the surfaces of the road and carpark, the fixtures and fittings of the carpark, the buildings of Abbey Lodge, the Almshouses (now the YHA) and Abbey House except for the Banqueting House, all modern walling and fencing, the site exhibition centre and ticket office, the television mast and public conveniences on Abbey Plain and the stiles and waymarks along the coastal cliff path the coastguard houses, St Hilda's Cottages and the Station House. The ground beneath all these features and buildings is included in the scheduling.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


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

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Books and journals
Buck, S, Whitby Abbey, (1711)
Clapham, A, Whitby Abbey, (1952)
Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: Yorkshire: The North Riding, (1966), 393
Brewster, T, 'Medieval Archaeology' in Whitby Abbey (Tv Mast site), , Vol. 13, (1969), 283
Charles, , Radford, , 'Archaeologia' in Whitby Abbey, , Vol. 89, (1943)
Cramp, R J, 'The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England' in Monastic Sites, (1976), 201-252
Rahtz, P A, 'Yorkshire Archaeological Journal' in Whitby Abbey, (1967), 72-73
Rahtz, P, 'The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England' in The Building Plan of the Anglo-Saxon Monastery of Whitby Abbey, (1976), 459-462
Executed 1980s, PIC, Almshouse Close,


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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