York Minster and St Mary’s Abbey

Today’s plan is to drive to York to visit the Minster and St Mary’s Abbey. We set off early so that we can be back in time to explore Harrogate, on our last day here. We drive 24 miles to the edge of York, and park in the Askham Bar Park & Ride, taking the bus into the city centre. We’ve been to York before, but it’s always good to see it again, to walk on the ancient city walls and through the medieval streets around The Shambles. When we arrive at the Minster, we’re faced with the usual annoyance of having to pay to enter the house of God: it’s £11.50 for adults and £10.50 for seniors. It’s not so bad, when this is only virtual money. But in the real world I guess Jesus would have had something to say about it. At the very least, what about a means tested admission charge? The poor widow could get in for a farthing, which was ‘all her living’. (Mark 12.44) And the billionaire tax-dodging financier would be assessed at the same rate. That would surely fund the whole Cathedral for a few years, and until that contribution was all spent, they could let visitors in free of charge.

Approaching the Minster through York’s medieval streets
York Minster, the Nave

Cathedral websites in the virtual world are different from the ones we see in the real world, too. They show you not only the location of the gift shop, the café and the toilets, but also the places where you can pray quietly. That’s what we’ve come for. It’s often great to pray at the shrine of a favourite saint – like those of St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede in Durham Cathedral. The only shrine in the Minster is that of St William of York, about whom we know nothing except that the purpose of establishing his shrine was chiefly to compete with Canterbury (who had Thomas Becket’s relics) as a centre for pilgrimage. So we pray briefly, before setting off on the 7-minute walk to St Mary’s Abbey in the Museum Gardens.

Ruins of St Mary’s abbey church

St Mary’s Abbey used to be the richest abbey in the north of England. The first church was founded in 1055 and dedicated to St Olaf of Norway; but it wasn’t long before the conquering Normans put their own mark on it. The land was given to some monks from Whitby, who established a Benedictine monastery on the site. Apart from the ruins of the church, all that remains is the Abbot’s House built in 1483, which became the seat of the Council of the North in 1539. In the Museum you can also see one of the former treasures of the Abbey, the 13th century figurine of Christ.

The Abbot’s House
The St Mary’s Abbey figurine, 13th century

It’s time to talk about the Dissolution of the Monasteries, especially after reading The Mirror and the Light. The great project of tackling the wealth and supposed corruption of the medieval Church, embodied in the monasteries and other religious houses, features largely in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy as one of the major schemes masterminded by Thomas Cromwell. At the same time it must be one of the greatest acts of vandalism, corporate greed and theft in the whole history of England, rivalled only by the enclosures of the common land. (About which George Orwell wrote, ‘Stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.’ Quoted from his essay On the Origins of Property in Land, 1944.)

It would have been one thing to legislate so that excessive wealth held by the Church should be shared with the people of England. But no: the Dissolution of the Monasteries was all about stealing that wealth and sharing it out among the rapacious King and his cronies. You could argue (perhaps) that the wealth of the Church belongs to all God’s people; that’s certainly not true of the same wealth once it had been seized by the rabble of dukes, earls, barons who are the self-styled ‘aristocracy’. Some of the wealth may have been used to provide hospitals, hospices and schools – which had often been provided by the monasteries – but more of it went to line the pockets of the rich and powerful.

So, was Thomas Cromwell a Good Guy, or one of the baddest of the Bad? It’s yet another example of the truth that there are no easy, simple answers. There is no good intention in human history, but that it’s capable of producing evil results. I’d like to hope there is no act so evil that it cannot equally have some unintentional good result. But I’m not so sure. Cromwell’s passion for Reformation and for making the Bible available in English were admirable. But the Dissolution of the Monasteries was not the only ill effect of the Reformation, after all.

Where will we have lunch in York? wagamama is a favourite, so we go to the one in Goodramgate, where Alison has a Yasai Pad Thai and I a Ginger Chicken Udon.

Then we get the bus back to the Park & Ride and drive back to Harrogate where there’s plenty of time to explore. Harrogate is ‘the capital of northern posh’, according to a character in Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog. So we take a stroll around the Valley Gardens and the Montpellier Quarter. We’re looking forward to teatime, so that we can visit Betty’s Café and Tea Room, one of Jackson Brodie’s favourite places. (In the same book, we read about his project of visiting all the Betty’s Tea Rooms in Yorkshire. It’s a different kind of pilgrimage.)

Betty’s Tea Rooms

We won’t need any more to eat for the rest of the day after enjoying Betty’s set tea. Well, maybe an evening drink before bedtime…

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