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Perched high on a cliff, the gaunt remains of this once magnificent abbey stand high above the picturesque seaside town of Whitby.
The first abbey was founded in 657 by the formidable St Hilda, a princess of the Northumbrian royal house, whose Saxon name Hild means ‘battle’. Recent archaeological research undertaken by English Heritage suggests that it was once a bustling settlement, as well as the burial place of monarchs, the setting of an epoch-making international meeting between Celtic and Roman clerics, and the home of saints such as the poet Caedmon.
The Saxon abbey was destroyed during a Viking invasion in 867, but one of William the Conqueror’s knights refounded it in the late 1070s. By 1220, his Norman church proved inadequate for the many pilgrims, and the building of the present church began. After its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1538, the abbey did not suffer as much destruction as many other monasteries, as it was (and still is) used by shipping as a navigation marker. The site then passed to the Cholmley family, who built a mansion largely out of materials plundered from the monastery.
An imaginative visitor centre now sits within the walls of the Cholmley family mansion, part of a major interpretation and access project encompassing the whole of the headland, hailed as one of the most important archaeological sites in England. One of the aims of the project has been to enhance and protect the natural beauty and historic character of the headland. English Heritage’s research excavations have added to our understanding of Whitby’s complex history, including the discovery of a rare 17th-century ‘hard garden’, inspired by Cholmley’ visits to France and Spain and now restored. Continuing research may yield further insights into this multi-layered site.