Selby, Yorkshire – Selby Abbey, St Mary & St Germain

Selby Abbey, the parish church of St Mary the Virgin and St Germain is at the centre of this little Yorkshire town – SE 615324. It has a good website. We met our friends Jean and Adrian there on 20 April, and found disabled access is on the south side, clearly signposted.

In the north transept is a little shop and café – where else do you start? A very nice, full colour, Jarrold guidebook – a Pilgrim’s Guide (a simple A4 sheet with a little about each section and an appropriate prayer), a “What Christians believe” sheet, a children’s guide, and a sheet pointing out that Simon Jenkins England’s Thousand Best Churches  says “Selby’s glory is that of a stately old lady, retired to the country with her dignity and memories intact.” Please could someone make an app of these churches? Selby was a station on the East Coast Railway Line until a diversion was built in the early 1980s as they started excavating the huge coalfield – excavation that last less than 20 years and produced a quarter of the coal it was going to. Let’s have a railway poster.

We spent several years living in the middle of a Benedictine Abbey (Bury St Edmunds) – this was a similar sized one. It would have been an amazing place. Shortly after the Norman Conquest a monk called Benedict experienced a vision in Auxerre Abbey and received instructions from St Germain to go to Selby and build an Abbey. Germain was a French nobleman and soldier, born about 378 AD, who became a Christian in 418, then Bishop of Auxerre, and visited England twice. When Benedict came, there was a small Anglo-Viking settlement here, the area was not willing to bend to Norman rule (despite the fact that Henry, William the Conqueror’s youngest son was born here in 1068 (his mother was Queen Matilda)). William had founded the abbey at Battle, so to found an abbey in Selby would be a sensible move. This window in the North Transept is a St Germain window, showing lots of the stories of his life. It is an early C20 window, and there are close up photos here.

The original church was wooden, a stone one was built by Abbot Hugh in the early C12. The stone came from Monk Fryston, about 8 miles away. Apparently the first thing they did was build a canal – that would be an interesting research project.

Abbot Hugh got the church built at speed – by the time of his death only the Nave needed finishing. Can you imagine starting a building project today, knowing that it wouldn’t be finished in your lifetime? Let’s start with an exploration of the east end – I walked slowly along the north aisle. There’s a fascinating leper squint, but that is not easy to photo. An interesting selection of War Memorials – David Wilkerson was a Wing Commander, DFC, and a member of the congregation here. The details are here. Above is a fascinating WW1 window, with some interesting images. The crucified Christ is almost the same as the one at Slaley – see this blog – and I’m sure I’ve seen the Chaplain image somewhere before.

I failed to photo a window which has the original stars, as in stars and stripes – have a look here. I enjoyed these lovely carvings – how do you carve so beautifully, and how do you carve inside a carving? There was a major fire in 1906. To quote the guidebook “The central tower looked like a huge chimney as smoke poured out, bells came crashing down and molten lead poured like streams of silver. … The choir lay open to the sky, charred beams were all that was left of the roof of the nave. The choir screen, like most of the ancient previously carved timber, lay in ashes.” Thank goodness that they had the vision to rebuild. I think the mason was Tom Strudwick, obviously an incredibly talented man.

This is a charred roof boss from the fire. The Chapel of the Resurrection, at the east end of the North Aisle, has a fine French C17 altar cloth.

The East Window is a Jesse Window – to quote the website – “The Jesse Window at Selby Abbey is generally thought to be the second finest window in England (the West Window of York Minster being the first).” I am watching TV as I type this and we have the adverts – “99% of 159 women believe …”. Whether it is the second finest window or not may be debateable, but it is certainly a gorgeous window, sadly not easy to photograph. It dates to 1340 – what an incredible achievement. How did they make it, how did they produce the glass, how did they build it? I need to find a History of Art course that covers the history of stained glass – any recommendations? Jesse sleeps at the bottom, and the whole of Jesus’ family tree reaches up from him. King David with his harp, right up to Mary at the top.

They had produced some excellent displays with an Easter theme – never a bad idea to remind us that there are not just historic buildings, but we are there to tell the story of Christ, the story of faith. Simple ideas – must do something similar next year.

Going back to the history of this lovely church – the rest of the church was finished by the early C13. Some of the arches are good solid Norman, later ones are more complex and elegant Early English. The Abbey was rich – wealthy benefactors, rents, tolls to cross the Ouse, wool, markets and fairs. Henry VIII wanted this wealth – the first Act to close the monasteries dates to 1535, and many of the smaller ones succumbed. On 8 December 139 five of Henry’s commissioners were staying in Selby and wrote: “we have dissolved the houses of Hampole, Fountaunce, Sancte Maries in Yowrke, Nonappleton and Selby”. Land was confiscated, valuables seized, buildings demolished, but the church survived as the town’s parish church. However the financial resources were no longer there, and maintaining the structure was impossible. During the Civil War, the Royalist army used the Church to barrack troops and stable horses – that line in the guidebook surprises me; we often hear of Cromwellian troops stabling in church, I would not have expected that of Royalist troops. In 1690 the upper part of the central tower collapsed, it was repaired, but for many years services were held in the quire while the nave was used as a store for the market stalls.

In 1871 George Gilbert Scott was appointed to start the restoration of the Nave, John Oldrid Scott (his son, and brother of the other George Gilbert Scott) supervised work on the quire in 1890. Then there was the 1906 fire, and John Oldrid Scott led the work to rebuild after that. Work has continued, and now there is another appeal – click here.

The quire (I was always told that a choir is what sings and a quire is where they sing) is rather dominated by the High Altar – a replacement for the one destroyed in 1906, by John Oldrid Scott and Peter Rendl – must admit, I would prefer to see the East Window. All the woodwork is post-1906 as well. Lovely carvings high in the roof.


A wooden chair, and a window dedicated to Victoria and Albert. At the bottom of the left side panel is a steam engine – and my camera failed to focus on it.  Here is a cropped version of the main window. [I am today – 17 November 2018 – able to add a better photo, with thanks to Shaun]. We have spotted train windows at Byrness, Chesterfield, Cadeby – I feel a PhD coming on. My current plan for an MA dissertation is something to do with the rise of the railways, church tourism, and guidebooks – and Selby Abbey has a collection of previous guides on display.







Making our way down into the Nave, enjoy this lovely memorial tablet – Brian digs the ashes holes at St Edmund’s and Pete the graves at St Matthew’s, they both deserve memorials when their time comes. Look up at the Nave, enjoy the shapes, and wonder at the workmen who built it all.

They have a good Easter Garden, and what a brilliant idea to use previous Paschal Candles in a display. You usually end up with a large, half burned candle – no one dares throw it away, so it gets dumped in a cupboard to gather dust. When we were at the Cathedral a young Gareth had a candle making phase. The Vergers gave him a whole pile of half used candles and he melted them down to re-use. One of his candles was our 9/11 candle. That is a long time ago!

Various other tombs and memorials. Abbot Barwick (abbot 1522-26),  Abbot Lawrence Selby and Abbot John de Shireburn (same picture, I think),  Hugh de Pickworth on one side of the nave and his wife Margery on the other, and Lord Darcy, High Steward of Selby Abbey who was executed for opposing Henry VIII during the Reformation. One hopes the Paschal Candles shine for him.

Let’s finish this lovely church with a Green Man, high in the roof.


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One Response to Selby, Yorkshire – Selby Abbey, St Mary & St Germain

  1. Raymond says:

    Hugh de Pickworth and wife Margery (maiden surname Usflete ) and their son Thomas :
    Via go to Reedness & Ousefleet, or via my name locate it, e.g., postings July 2022, etc.

    Kind regards,
    Raymond E. O. Ella.

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