Date Visited




St Mary's Abbey



The ruins of Saint Mary’s Abbey lie to the west of York Minster in the gardens of York Museum. Incorporating the church of St Olaf, built in 1055, Saint Mary’s Abbey came into being when William II visited York in 1088 and gave the monks land. The abbey was to become one of the most powerful Benedictine monasteries in England until the dissolution of the monasteries and its closure in 1539. 


A church was originally founded on the site, which today lies to the west of York Minster in the gardens of York Museum. When first constructed in 1055, the church was dedicated to Saint Olaf. Following the Norman Conquest in 1066 the church and land was granted to Abbot Stephen and some monks from Whitby. William (Rufus) II (1087-1100), visited York in January or February 1088 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 and the abbey was to become St Mary’s Abbey. 

In 1137 the abbey was badly damaged by fire but reconstructed. In the 1260s the stone walls to defend the abbey were constructed and the walls ran for nearly three-quarters of a mile long. In 1318 the abbot received royal permission to raise the height of the wall and crenelate it. Today they remain the most complete set of abbey walls in the country. 

Between 1271 and 1294 a rebuilding programme which was carried out and all that remains today date from this period.  The main things to see  being the ruins of the walls of the nave and crossing of the abbey church and the cloister. 

The church was 350 feet (110 m) in length, and consisted of a nave with aisles, north and south transepts with chapels in an eastern aisle, and a presbytery with aisles.  To the east of the cloister and on the line of the transepts was a vestibule leading to the chapter house, the scriptorium and library. Beyond the church lay the kitchen, novices' building and infirmary.

The Abbey was to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful Benedictine monasteries in England until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII which resulted in its closure in 1539 and its acquisition by the Crown for the northern headquarters of the King's Council. Subsequently the land was used as private gardens as part of the King’s Manor. In 1828 the Yorkshire Philosophical Society acquired the gardens for the construction of the Yorkshire Museum on the site. The gardens were landscaped by architect Sir John Murray Naysmith and opened to the public in 1835.

A number of excavations have been carried out on the site. The Yorkshire Museum stands in part of the abbey cloister. This and parts of the east, south and west cloister walls were temporarily excavated in 1827–29 prior to excavating the museum's foundations. 

In 1912 excavations of the chapter house were undertaken. Further excavations in the abbey were undertaken in 1952–56 by the then Keeper of the Yorkshire Museum, George Willmot who encountered pre-Norman and Roman layers beneath the west wing of the nave. 

In 1960 the gardens and abbey site passed into the trust of the City of York Council, and it became a public park.


Excavations in 2014 and 2015 discovered an apse in the south transept, large parts of the wall foundations, and numerous residual small finds dating from the Roman to Modern periods. These investigations also encountered fragments of human remains, disturbed from burials on the site. One of the major conclusions of these excavations was the prevalence of in situ archaeological remains at a very shallow depth beneath the modern ground surface; in some cases as little as 7 cm underground. 

Since 2002 the Museum Gardens site has been managed by York Museums Trust.



              All  Photographs were taken by and are copyright of Ron Gatepain

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