History of Selby Abbey

Between 1069 and 1539 the Abbey was ruled by 34 or 35 Abbots. The monastery became a very famous one, and gifts of all kinds were made to it, so that in time the House became one of the wealthiest in Yorkshire. Many of the English Kings made visits to Selby; the northern nobility frequently found their way to the place; and in the balmy days of the Abbey its Church windows were resplendent with blazons of the coat of arms of the chief families in the northern counties.

One of the most defining honours conferred on the Abbey was the grant of the Mitre. This was bestowed on 31st May, 1256. After 1256 Selby was therefore a “Mitred Abbey,” an honour which it shared in the north with St Mary’s Abbey, York. The bestowal of such an honour made the Abbacy of Selby a much envied position in England, and yet, though the grant was made “in perpetuity”, the privilege was allowed to fall in abeyance for a number of years after the cession of the Abbot in whose time it was conferred. However, on April 11th, 1308, Archbishop Grenefield, with the consent of the Dean and Chapter of York, confirmed the grant, and till the time of the “Dissolution” Selby remained a “Mitred Abbey”.

In the early part of the fourteenth century the new Choir was erected, but shortly after its completion in 1340 a great calamity befell the Abbey, in the shape of a disastrous fire (not the last to befall the Abbey), when the Chapter House, Dormitory, Treasury and other buildings suffered greatly and the church became in part “ruinous.” But steps were taken to obtain funds for the work of restoration, and, among other things, the “rectory” of Brayton came into the hands of the Abbot in 1346, and the services at Brayton were conducted by the monks, with emoluments so obtained being used for the repair of the damage done by the fire. It would be at this time that the beautiful decorated windows in the south isle of the Nave were placed, those on the north side having already been inserted when the new Choir was built.

In the fifteen century certain alterations were made in the Abbey. The large perpendicular window in the North Transept was built. And the arch between the north aisle of the Nave and Transept was altered. The perpendicular window at the west end of the Nave was also erected, and the Aumbries near the High Altar were added, the beautiful Sedilia on the opposite side of the Sanctuary being also built. Then about the same time the last addition to the fabric was erected – the Lathom Chapel, dedicated to St Catherine – to the east of the North Transept, its date being 1465.

The Abbey now began to decline, and at the Dissolution it fell. The last Abbot was Robert Rogers, or, as he was sometimes called, Robert Selby. He seems to have been a good friend of King Henry VIII, and was one of those who singed the petition, on July 13th 1530, in favour of the divorce of Queen Katherine. When the Pilgrimage of Grace arose to oppose the Dissolution of the Religious Houses, the Abbot of Selby does not appear to have joined the rebellion, and the Abbey was surrendered on December 6th 1539. At that time there were 23 monks in addition to the Abbot. All except two were in Priests’ Orders. The Abbot received a pension of £100 a year, the Prior one of £8. Some of the monks received pensions of £6 6s. 8d., some of £6, some of £5, and the two monks who were not in Priests’ Orders received £2 13s. 4d. Each.

The Abbot sat in the Parliament of 1539 and is said afterwards to have fled to France. But, if so, he evidently returned, for on July 27th, 1543, he was living “at his house in Gowthorpe, in Selby,” Sir George Goode, one of his old monks, being then his chaplain.

But though the monks were well treated financially, the Abbey was bereft of all its emoluments. The Church, happily, was left standing in its entirety. But, without revenues, decay naturally set in. For some time the beautiful edifice would be unused, the small building on “Church Hill” doing duty as the Parish Church. In 1618, however, in the reign of James I, the Abbey Church became the Parish Church. During the Commonwealth period the sacred edifice passed through a trying time. One of its finest windows, the one in the North Transept, was destroyed, and the statues on the brackets in the Choir were all demolished. Time also began to do its work on the fabric of the church, and in 1690 the Central Tower fell, destroying the South Transept. The Tower was rebuilt, though in poor style of the time: the Transept was unrestored. During the eighteenth century the church continued to be used, though it was rapidly decaying. But eventually the Choir Arches were built up, and the Choir, with galleries erected, was used for Divine Service, the Nave going into disuse except for secular purposes.

But in the middle of the nineteenth century brighter days dawned. The church was overhauled and repaired, and again it was used in its entirity. Then in the Vicariate of the Reverend A. G. Tweedie there was a thorough restoration and once again the church was beautiful. But, alas! 1906 came, with its awful fire; and at first it seemed as though Selby was to be another addition to Yorkshire’s long catalogue of ruined Abbeys. But the optimism and zeal of the Reverend Maurice Parkin and his co-workers prevailed, and at the cost of over £40,000 the church was completely restored, the Nave being reopened on October 19th 1907, and the Choir on October 19th 1909.

In 1912, through the generosity of the late Mr William Liversedge, the beautiful South Transept was rebuilt, being consecrated on September 26th, 1912. Its great south window had been filled with fine stained glass, the side windows being inserted later on with the representations of members of the Royal Family: Queen Victoria, the Prince Consort, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. In 1914 “Germanus Window”, or St Germain Window, was inserted by Miss Standering. The church is now in the care of a new generation, facing new challenges keeping this beautiful Abbey Church maintained and in good order. Once again the parishioners are privileged to worship here, surrounded by the “beauty of holiness,” in the only entire Benedictine Church of Yorkshire which has come down to us from “the years that past.”