A Monster Minster

York, home of that famous chocolate bar which, until recently (much like the C of E itself), could get away with excluding girls…

Most of the events relayed below are true.


I can only assume that all the other tourists in York this Sunday the tenth of August are unaware of the particular delights of the inner ring road under black skies and hurling rain. It is so dark and so wet that I am grateful for a soaking from a passing car as its headlights briefly light my path.

The York city walls

The York city walls from Lord Mayor’s Walk

I’m bound for the city walls, which before long loom in the gloom.

The stones themselves are stacked some eight or so feet high and this section also stands impressively atop a steep grass bank. From here, beneath its impregnable battlements, York feels exceptionally uninviting.

It’s been raining since I arrived here two hours ago. Naturally, I headed straight to the Minster, only to find that religion was happening inside and no Knaves were allowed until midday. Loathe to remain immobile for the full two and a half hours until the cathedral opens its tills to the masses, I head to the walls. I had walked their entire sodden circumference before I realized that the best place for getting up onto them was at Gillygate, in the north, the very point from which I had started some 30 minutes earlier.

Climbing the foot-worn, slippery steps, I see again the padlocked, black-grilled gate that had barred my passage last time.

Here is the entrance to what appears to be a dank, dark, leaky cell.

Beyond it lie more steps to the walls themselves. It feels thoroughly medieval. In fact, I’m convinced I can hear the groans of an emaciated criminal who hangs from the cell wall in chains.

But hang on! That actually is whining and screaming I hear. A Chinese couple is hauling a teenage girl, one to each arm, from the stairwell towards the big puddle that is its floor. I rapidly surmise that the cause of the young lady’s distress is not her imminent death but the certainty of a soggy christening for her new white Nikes. A splash, a wail, then the three figures wade towards me. Dad pulls the gate (and its redundant padlock) towards him and they squelch past me, down the steps to the ring road, looking fed up.

Happy in the knowledge that my own footwear could get no wetter, I put away my grappling hook and walk on up.

York city walls

Afraid of the rain are ya? The Knave was all alone on the walls.

The narrow, slimy path leads me northeast. My view is obscured for a few minutes by some new build apartments and the treetops of the Dean’s Parks. But the rain has begun to abate and the sun is trying to pierce the grey canopy of clouds, providing a stark backlight. Before long I reach the triangular tip of the walls, equidistant from gates at the northwest and northeast of the city. For a moment, all below glistens, and the scene serves to highlight the immense bulk of this Monster Minster, dominated by its inelegant, squat, castle keep of a central tower and its sturdy pair of transepts.

York Minster

York Minster from the northeast; the conical-roofed Chapterhouse (which was closed) in front of the central tower; the east end (left) is fully scaffolded for restoration of the masonry and stained glass. © Samuel Mather Photography


 “You’re a rather old looking student”, says the man at the ticket desk, incredulously.

“I’m a mature student”, I reply, willfully holding his gaze.

He cracks first.

Of course, I’m not a student at all – our man has been looking at my University of Cambridge staff card – but what does that matter? A pound’s a pound and he’ll still take nine of my hard-earned.

In an unwitting act of dissent, I remove my camera bag from the ticket desk and its flailing strap disconnects the leads from his PC before he’s had a chance to print my ticket.

“Oh, woops! I didn’t mean to…”, I begin to apologise, but he’s already fumbling frantically behind the computer, seeking out the severed cables as if his very life depends upon it. “Which one is it?” he says breathlessly, his hands a blur of motion.

I half consider stealing away into the minster with my £10 note that now lies unguarded

…but, instead, ask resignedly whether I might take a seat in the nave whilst he proceeds with his resuscitation attempt.

“I shall sit in the southwest section”, I inform him.

York Minster nave

The nave at York (taken from the west) © Samuel Mather Photography



How much of a Knave fan are you? If you:

  • …only really glance at his pieces to be polite, read on below (and thanks for your good manners!)
  • have an insatiable appetite for the Knave and his writings, then read his very own gift to you, ‘Appendix A: On cathedral entrance fees’, when you get to the end of this piece; or now, if you’re really keen!


To continue…

Perhaps the best of York is already behind me, I think to myself, for in the words of Alec Clifton-Taylor,

‘the west front is one of the Minster’s most striking features…’

(and, Reader, there’s not much has struck me about the nave at first sight.)

Alec continues… ‘the big central window [upon which your Knave has just turned his back]… is one of the most remarkable examples of Flowing tracery… its ingenious design embodies a sacred heart’.

York Minster west front

York Minster west front © Samuel Mather Photography

Framed by the two slender, pinnacled, three-windowed towers in the late Decorated style (think complex curves, elaborate patterns; generally fussy ornament) the ‘Heart of Yorkshire’ is breathtaking. Before entering the church, I had taken several minutes beneath it and eventually admitted to myself that it was so impressive it rivalled even the traceries of Thomas of Witney at the Knave’s own Exeter!

Witney at Exeter

Witney’s work at Exeter (it’s the upper wall that’s crooked, not my photo!) © Samuel Mather Photography

But looking east now, down the nave, towards the choir, I think how much more I would have liked the interior in 1080, when Norman was the builder-in-chief.

His mark only lasted until 1215, however, when Bishop Walter de Gray decided to renovate. He wanted to bling the place up a little; impress God with some frills and frippery.

Under Wally’s guidance York was to ‘Go Gothic’.

By the time the new Minster was consecrated de Gray had long since de-cayed. Work was completed in 1472, 260 years after it had begun. That’s quite a timescale, and one that should give you both an impression of the vastness of the place and the motivation of the builders.

At 15m, the nave is wider than many others of 14th century construction in England and appears to be stone-vaulted, albeit in a rather plainly whitewashed masonry, with gold ornamental bosses dotted along it.

York nave

The nave looking west from the King’s screen beneath the central tower; the Heart of Yorkshire resplendent at the far end. © Samuel Mather Photography

The arches say proudly, even pointedly [ahem], “we are gothic”

The chunky piers are exemplary of the Decorated period, carved into clusters of ten or so small columns. This is a finely enough realized nave, but not moving: my gut reaction as I walk east.

That looks pretty impressive… Ah, it’s William the Conqueror! Norman’s old patron, in a royal line-up with Eddy the Bottom Burglar, Bollingbroke the Throne Stealer, Henry the Frog Fighter… In fact, all the kings of England, from Guillaume I to Henry VI, are remembered here, on the minster’s choir screen.

I’d love to take a picture, for the carvings are impressively rendered, but there’s an elderly gentleman gazing up at it wide-eyed and he’s not moved for 5 minutes. Is he catatonic, or maybe one of those performance artists who will stay still until someone gives him a coin?

King's Screen, York Minster

The King’s Screen © Samuel Mather Photography

I don’t have any change, so keeping an eye on him peripherally, I turn south, then north, to ogle the transepts.

And, phwoar, what a big pair they are! If you imagine York’s nave and choir as the fattened body of a Christmas turkey, then you’ll be able to picture its transepts as the ex-gobbler’s meaty legs.

The south transept’s rose window is impressive but appears a little cramped above two tiers of ill-aligned lancet windows. The glass is a little dull, too (and is not a patch on the rose at Lincoln, so painstakingly pieced together after its Civil War shattering!). The lancet windows to the north are slender stonkers, though – long and lithe. A simple, beautiful arrangement.

York transepts

What a pair! The south (l) and north (r) transepts. © Samuel Mather Photography

I note that the old chap has moved on, so take a quick picture and head to the choir to find that I am hot on his heels. In this space, he’s less of an obstruction, and I warm to him for he is clearly a fellow objectophile.

His white hair falls from his crown in thin wisps as he gawps, bespectacled, up along the Perpendicular shafts to the choir’s ceiling, his neck now bent at 90 degrees to his crooked, khaki-bedecked frame.

I ask his name.

“Otto”, he replies.

Choir at York

Otto in the choir at York Minster © Samuel Mather Photography

“Have you come far?”

“Frum Chermany.”

I smile and nod in acknowledgement of this and am just about to ask him “whereabouts”, when he says, “Wilhelm’s shaven” (a surprising non sequitur). He’s hasn’t registered my surprise, however, and carries on, enigmatically omitting any further mention of Wilhelm’s topiary:

Moving his arm in an expansive outward arc, he declaims “ziss iz just VUNDERFOOL!

The emphatic intonation so common to German-accented English is even further exaggerated by his geriatric enthusiasm, the theatrics of which have drawn the attention of an unassuming middle-aged gentleman nearby.

“It’s vast, to be sure,” I respond to Otto, “BUT…” I deliberately raise my voice, so it’s loud enough for our inquisitive new local to hear as well, then unleash a volley of dramatic and withering blows:

“…did you know that the Minster does not even have a stone vault – simply a painted wooden one?!

…260 years of building, spanning entire eras of gothic architectural evolution and York’s sloth-like handymen had to call in the local carpenter to do the ceiling! Bishop de Gray must still be rolling in his grave!”

Even I am a little taken aback by the violence of my sermon but attempt to appear composed and await a response.

Otto looks baffled but the middle-aged gentleman, an American (I don’t ask his name; I don’t have the chance), responds, as if to a challenge, that the nave was vaulted in wood because the builders had had to set its columns outside the ruins of Norman’s now pierless old one, leaving a far wider space (15m) than English masons felt comfortable vaulting at the time (c. 1330).

York Minster crypt

A Norman soul: the piers of the old cathedral are still evident in the crypt.

Thus was his defence of York as fervent as my own excoriation.

I wondered if he was a volunteer in disguise or perhaps a New Yorker with ancestors in this older version.

Before I could ask, he receded with a smile that seemed to say, “I took no pleasure in owning you, sonny, but now I have other fools to school”. Although I briefly considered shouting after him:

“But French masons stone-vaulted the same distance 100 YEARS EARLIER!


Nearly as wide and twice as high: Amiens’ 14.6m stone vault (c. 1250). Do you think 40 more centimetres really made all the difference at York? © Barnyz on Flickr

I am happy to say, Reader, that I checked myself (a rare occurrence) and chose to occupy my moral high ground silently, hoping that you would take my side. It was no use looking to Otto for approval, anyway, as he had already scuttled off to scrutinize the choir stalls, his jaw agape, as if ready to sing. Instead, I dropped off a calling card at the Bishop’s throne and headed for the door.

Follow the Knave, Mr Sentamu! Long live, Norman! Onward, to Durham!

Durham Cathedral

Durham has been awaiting the Knave for over 900 years. © Samuel Mather Photography


Appendix A: On cathedral entrance fees

Treasurer York Minster

The Treasurer of York Minster

York Minster attracts an average of half a million tourists per year.

It’s as chunky and macho as a Yorkie but costs significantly more to get into, taking an average annual visitor income of around £5,000,000. To hit this heady figure the Treasurer relies upon a large number of volunteer shepherds to herd flocks of paying (not ‘praying’) sightseers into his museum, during those times when the Dean and Chapter is not using it as a cathedral. And they do a thorough job. Having arrived at midday, I had been assertively informed by a herdswomen – she was holding a staff (I kid you not) – that, no, I could not be admitted for evensong 3.5 hours early and would have to rejoin the queue for fleecing.

Does charging for entrance to a cathedral not bring into question the very notion of what a cathedral actually is?

In medieval times you certainly didn’t have to pay to get into them, only for the optional added extras – relics, indulgences, pilgrimages (in other words, the dupery of avaricious Catholic monks).

Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin

Once Luther had opened his can of Worms and Henry had made a Boleyn ball of Anne’s head, such ‘wool-pulling’ was no longer tolerated.

Anne Bowlin

Anne Boleyn

Townspeople would use cathedral naves as shortcuts to get from one part of town to another; traders might be seen bartering inside them; locals nattering, who knows, maybe even reading a Bible. All the while the liturgical hum of religious business was taking place at t’other end.

So, that’s the historical context, now for a few incontestable truths.

(1) The cathedrals of the old foundation are, well, old

(2) many of them have spent much of their lives falling down – Ely, Norwich, Lincoln, St Albans, Winchester, Chichester (I’ll not labour the point).

The fact that there has been no major cathedral collapses in England since Chichester’s tower imploded in 1861 is a debt we owe entirely to the Victorians. Ruskin, Pugin, Bodley, George Gilbert Scott were all ardent admirers of the gothic style and set about restoring (or aping) it across the land.

Sir George Gilbert Scott

Sir GGS (by George Richmond, chalk, 1877)

Gilbert Scott, in particular, was a tireless dynamo of a man, until he died of exhaustion, that is.

By George! He worked on over 800 buildings in a 67-year life, which included the restoration of 18 of our 26 medieval cathedrals.

GGS et al. were trailblazers, Victorian icons, motivated by a special reverence for our architectural heritage (hooray to them!), whose work has ensured that cathedral catastrophes should remain a thing of the past. To say that they, ahem, laid strong foundations on which future experts have built is our third incontestable truth.

But, aye, there’s the rub! What does expertise cost? Money.

These days, highly skilled masons are employed to tend to the church fabric all year round. Expert surveyors earn a bean keeping a regular eye on structural integrity (“Grab the joists! The ceiling’s sagging!”).

Artisanal scientists are on the payroll to keep the glass stained. Archivists are paid to look after medieval colouring books (monks were pretty ace with bright crayons). Choirs are costly, as is the task of keeping their organs in good order. (Yes, that’ll need paying for, too.) The Bishop, the Dean, the Vergers, etc, etc, all the way down to the local children employed on rotation to catch any blocks of falling masonry.

A figure?

£1.5m a year, for day-to-day running costs; more for major restoration projects.

And even despite £20m from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, there’s still a £67m shortfall for repair work on England’s cathedrals that is only going to get bigger.


The Right Honourable Mr George Osborne MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer, in full Bullingdon Club regalia.

Who pays? York, St Paul’s, Lincoln (to name but three) says you.

Can’t they get some better fundraisers?

Find some rich Christians – or objectophiles – to endow them? A £50m donation would earn a cathedral £2m a year at 4%. Sorted. Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg is devout (‘The Zuckerberg Minster at York’); does Carlos Slim get kinky when thinking of old buildings (‘St Slim’s, London’)? Or how about approaching a company? If Lincoln were canny it wouldn’t even need to change its name… much: ‘Linkedin Cathedral’. Boom. Problem solved.

Or ask the Queen?

It was her great13 uncle who lumbered the Church of England with all these old buildings in the first place.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII, after breakfasting on Catholics (c. 1540)

Doesn’t that make it her problem?

Or will she bat it back to her government’s door?

Helen Mirren as the Queen

“Now look hhhyere, Mr Osbyorne…”

“Hell-air?! Is th-yat Mr Osbyorne, spyeaking? Now lyook hhyere, young mmm-yan my tyax collyectors […that’d be the HMRC to us] raise £600 byillion a yair and you’re only gyiving 0.0033 pyercent of thyat to my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great y’uncle’s cathyedrals? Shyame on you! Quadruple it. YAT ONCE.”

Easy as that.

Or not.

But I don’t think it appropriate that I (representing the general public) am forced to pay[1], for these are the churches of England and I am an Englishman. They were built for me, dyamit! And don’t charge the tourists either, for they are your modern day pilgrims.

Might we agree that these are not just religious buildings?

I, for one, don’t visit them to rehearse Christian liturgy, but I don’t care that some do. I represent just another non-believer visiting to marvel at some national gems, objects of history, many of which are every bit as important as Tower Bridge, the Roman Baths, Big Ben or 10 Downing Street

Stump up the cash, Dave. George is being a tight bastard. And just think of how good it’ll make you look.

(© Steve Bell)

(© Steve Bell)

[1] The majority of cathedrals ask for donations only (albeit with vastly different levels of insistence…). I gave Durham a £15 donation, on account of the unassuming way in which it begged it…

If you were one of the really keen ones…

Click here to return to where you were before I took you off on a tangent.

2 thoughts on “A Monster Minster

  1. beckathon says:

    I want to know what happened to Otto! Will we meet him again on your travels, I wonder?

    Your point about cathedral entrance fees is an interesting one, and linked, I’d say, to the question of pricing access to any form of material heritage that requires conservation. Whilst I love the idea of free access to cathedrals, castles, historical buildings of all kinds, as well as free access to art, sculpture and craft, I’m equally aware of the price tag of their care. I have the means to acknowledge this cost by offering a donation proportional to what I earn, and in an ideal world others would do the same, such that no-one is excluded from these opportunities because of their inability to meet a set fee. But we live in a world where many of those with the means to financially safeguard our heritage are reluctant to do so. Sad but, I fear, true…

    Great Knaving, though… 🙂

    • I wish I had met Otto again! I can only imagine that he ran back to Wilhelm…

      Thanks for your thoughts on the fees issue. I think the idea of a donation proportional to one’s income is an interesting one. For instance, were I earning £28k per annum, a £5 contribution to each cathedral I visited would represent 0.0179% of that annual sum. I would be very content to part with such a nominal amount, particularly if I knew that someone earning £280,000 a year would be be happy to contribute £50! Of course, means testing at a cathedral entrance would hardly be appropriate, however, the subtle placement of a sign next to a donation box showing various different amounts (£5, £10, £100) categorised as percentages of a wide range of different example salaries might not be a bad idea…

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