St Mary's Abbey (York)

From International Robin Hood Bibliography
Coordinate 53.962222, -1.08793
Adm. div. North Riding of Yorkshire
Vicinity In York; NE of the Ouse, SE of Marygate, S of Bootham
Type Church/monastery
Interest Literary locale
Status Extant
First Record c. 1500
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Ruins of St Mary's Abbey, York

By Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2019-05-09. Revised by Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2021-01-07.

St Mary's Abbey, York, is the scene of the greater part of fytte II (sts. 84–125) of the Gest of Robyn Hode. It is mentioned by name in sts. 54, 84, 233, and indirectly referred to in sts. 55 and 129 of that poem. Robin entertains, and in his own manner robs, the high cellarer of St Mary's in fytte IV (see sts. 213-61 and 271-73).

The ruins of St Mary's Abbey are situated on a steeply-sloping site to the west of York Minster in what are now the York Museum Gardens. This Benedictine monastery was once the richest in the north of England and often served as the administrative and financial headquarters of the royal administration when the latter moved north during periods of war or impending conflict with Scotland.

Brief history

A church dedicated to Saint Olaf II of Norway was founded on the site in 1055. After the Conquest it came into the possession of Alan Rufus, an Anglo-Breton magnate, who granted the lands to Abbot Stephen and a group of monks from Whitby. The abbey church was refounded in 1088, when William II (Rufus) visited York and gave the monks additional lands. The following year he laid the foundation stone of the new Norman church and the site was rededicated to the Virgin Mary. The monks moved to York from a site at Lastingham in Ryedale in the 1080s. After a dispute and riot in 1132, a party of reform-minded monks left the abbey to establish the Cistercian monastery of Fountains Abbey. St Mary's Abbey was badly damaged by a great fire in 1137, the surviving ruins dating from a rebuilding programme begun in 1271 and finished by 1294. The abbey was valued at the then enormous sum of £2,000 a year in 1539, when the abbey was dissolved during the dissolution of the monasteries.[1]


The abbey occupied an extensive area immediately outside York city walls, between Bootham and the River Ouse. In the 1260s, a walled circuit was constructed above the original boundary, which had included a ditch and a narrow strip of ground. The walls, c. 1.2 km in length, were increased in height and crenellated in 1318. A stretch of the wall still runs along Bootham and Marygate to the Ouse.[2]


The gatehouse in Marygate and its lodge formed part of a range of buildings that linked the abbey to the older church of St Olave by a chapel dedicated to Mary. Work on the chapel and gatehouse was under way by 1314 and completed in 1320, but the surviving structures are mostly of fifteenth-century date.[2]

Abbey Church

In order to fit within the site the abbey church was aligned northeast-southwest. Rebuilding began in 1270 and was completed within 24 years. The new abbey church was 110 m in length and consisted of a nave with aisles, north and south trancepts with chapels in an eastern aisle, and a presbytery with aisles. To the east of the cloister and on the line of the transepts were a vestibule leading to the chapter house, the scriptorium and library. Beyond the church lay the kitchen, the novices' building and infirmary.[2]

The Abbot's House or Lodge

The abbot's house, built of brick in 1483, is now known as the King's Manor, a name which reflects the fact that it became the seat of the Council of the North in 1539.[2]

The abbey in the Gest

The impoverished knight befriended by Robin in the Gest of Robyn Hode borrows £400 from the outlaw to repay his debt to the abbot of St Mary's. A brief intermezzo involving the abbey porter must be imagined taking place at the Gatehouse. Then follows a scene in which the knight feigns poverty in order to test the character of his creditors: if they are civil and humane towards the supposedly defaulting debtor they will receive a little extra 'for courtesy', essentially the medieval equivalent of interest. Several high monastics and men of law are in leagues with the abbot, all except one treat the knight with condescension and indifference to his plight. There is no indication that this scene takes place at the abbot's lodge, but it should probably be imagined to be in some relatively private part of the large monastery to which only leading members of the community had access.


[Gest; c. 1500:]
My londes both sette to wedde Robyn
Untyll a certayn day
To a ryche abbot here besyde
Of Seynt Mari Abbey.[3]

[Gest; c. 1500:]
Then spake that gentyll knyght
To Lytel Johnn gan he saye
To-morowe I must to Yorke toune
To Saynt Mary abbay.[4]

[Gest; c. 1500:]
Saynt Mary abbay sayd the monke
Though I be symple here
In what offyce sayd Robyn
Syr the hye selerer.[5]





Also see


  1. This account is in all essentials based on Wikipedia: St Mary's Abbey, York.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 This paragraph is a paraphrase of Wikipedia: St Mary's Abbey, York.
  3. Gest, st. 54.
  4. Gest, st. 84.
  5. Gest, st. 54.