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Ancient See of York

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The seat of metropolitan jurisdiction for the northern province. It is not known when or how Christianity first reached York, but there was a bishop there from very early times, though there is a break in the historical continuity between these early prelates and the archbishops of a later date. At the Council of Arles (314) "Eborus episcopus de civitate Eboracensis" was present, and bishops of York ere also present at the Councils of Nicaea, Sardica, and Ariminum. But this early Christian community was blotted out by the pagan Saxons leaving no trace except the names of three bishops, Sampson, Pyramus, and Theodicus, handed down by legendary tradition. When St. Gregory sent St. Augustine to convert the Saxons his intention was to create two archbishoprics — Canterbury and York — each with twelve suffragans, but this plan was never carried into effect, and though St. Paulinus, who was consecrated as bishop of York in 625, received the pallium in 631, he never had any suffragans, nor did his successors receive the pallium until 732, when it was granted to Egbert. After the flight of Paulinus in 633 the country relapsed into Paganism, and though its conversion was once more effected by the Celtic bishops of Lindisfarne, there was no bishop of York till the consecration of St. Wilfrid in 664. His immediate successors seem to have acted simply as diocesan prelates till the time of Egbert, the brother of King Edbert of Northumbria, who received the pallium from Gregory III in 735 and established metropolitan rights in the north.

This metropolitan jurisdiction was at first vague and of varying extent. Till the Danish invasion the archbishops of Canterbury occasionally exercised authority, and it was not till the Norman Conquest that the archbishops of York asserted their complete independence. At that time they had jurisdiction over Worcester, Lindsey, and Lincoln, as well as the dioceses in the Northern Isles and Scotland. But the first three sees just mentioned were taken from York in 1072. In 1154 the sees of Man and Orkney were transferred to the Norwegian Archbishop of Drontheim, and in 1188 all the Scottish dioceses except Whithern were released from subjection to York, so that Whithern, Durham, and Carlisle remained to the archbishops as suffragan sees. Of these, Durham was practically independent, for the bishops of that see were little short of sovereigns in their own jurisdiction. During the fourteenth century Whithern was reunited to the Scottish Church, but the province of York received some compensations in the restoration of Sodor and Man. At the time of the Reformation York thus possessed three suffragan sees, Durham, Carlisle, and Sodor and Man, to which during the brief space of Mary's reign (1553-58) may be added the Diocese of Chester, schismatically founded by Henry VIII, but subsequently recognized by the pope.

The mutual relations between Canterbury and York were frequently embittered by a long struggle for precedence. In 1071 the question was argued at Rome between Archbishops Lanfranc and Thomas in the presence of Pope Alexander II, who decided in favour of Canterbury. At a subsequent synod that the future archbishops of York must be consecrated in Canterbury cathedral and swear allegiance to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and that the Humber was to be the southern limit of the metropolitan jurisdiction of York. This arrangement lasted till 1118, when Thurstan, archbishop-elect, refused to make submission, and in consequence the Archbishop of Canterbury declined to consecrate him. Thurstan thereupon successfully appealed to Calixtus II, who not only himself consecrated him, but also gave him a Bull releasing him and his successors from the supremacy of Canterbury. From time to time during the reign of Henry II and succeeding kings the quarrel broke out again, leading often to scandalous scenes of dissension, until Innocent VI (1352-62) settled it by confirming an arrangement that the Archbishop of Canterbury should take precedence with the title Primate of All England, but that the Archbishop of York should retain the style of Primate of England. Each prelate was to carry his metropolitan cross in the province of the other, and if they were together their cross-bearers should walk abreast. The Archbishop of York also undertook that each of his successors should send an image of gold to the shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury.

The diocesan history of York apart from its archiepiscopal rights presents few features calling for special remark. For its early memories connected with its founders St. Paulinus and St. Edwin, who was baptized on the spot where the cathedral now stands, its canonized prelates St. Bosa, St. John of Beverley, and St. Oswald, its great scholars Archbishop Egbert and Aleuin, reference should be made to the articles dealing with those venerated names. At the Conquest it was Archbishop Ealdred who crowned William I at Westminster, but his successor, Thomas of Bayeux, the first Norman archbishop, found everything in confusion; the minster with its great school was in a ruinous condition, abandoned by almost all its clergy. The celebrated library had perished and the city itself had been devastated in the final Northumbrian rebellion against William. Thomas had to begin everything afresh. The pontificate of St. William gave another saint to York, and in 1284 his relics were solemnly enshrined there. With John de Thoresby (1352-73) a much needed period of reform began, and he began the present choir of the minster. Another popular archbishop was Richard Scrope, beheaded for his share in the rebellion of the Percys against Henry IV. After his death he was the object of extraordinary veneration by the people. Many of the archbishops besides Thoresby and Scrope — Fitzalan, Lawrence Booth, Scot, among them — held the office of lord chancellor and played leading parts in affairs of state. As Heylyn wrote: "This see has yielded to the Church eight saints, to the Church of Rome three cardinals, to the realm of England twelve Lord Chancellors and two Lord Treasurers, and to the north of England two Lord Presidents."

The following is the list of archbishops of York, but there is great difficulty in determining the exact dates before the Norman Conquest and there is no agreement on the subject. The dates of accession given below are based on the recent researches of Searle, but those earlier than the tenth century can only be regarded in most cases as approximate:

The minster occupies the site of the church built by St. Edwin, which as restored by Archbishop Albert was described by Alcuin as "a most magnificent basilica". This perished in the rebellion of 1069. It was rebuilt by Thomas of Bayeux, but few portions of this Norman building now remain. The chief features of the existing building are the Early English transepts with the lancet windows known as the Five Sisters (late twelfth and early thirteenth century) and the west front (early fourteenth century), usually regarded as the finest in England. The nave and chapter-house, containing splendid examples of medieval glass, are of the same date; the Lady chapel and choir, the latter containing one of the finest perpendicular windows in the world, were fourteenth-century work. The towers were added during the following century, and the completed cathedral was reconsecrated on 3 February, 1472.

The diocese, which consisted of the counties of York and Nottingham, was divided into four archdeaconries — York, Cleveland, East Riding, and Nottingham — and contained 541 parishes. The religious houses, which were very numerous, included at the time of the Dissolution (1536-39) 28 abbeys, 26 priories, 23 convents, 30 friaries, 13 cells, 4 commanderies of Knights Hospitallers, and formerly there had been 4 commanderies of the Knights Templar. The abbeys and priories included some of the largest and most famous in England, such as the Benedictine abbeys at York itself, Whitby, and Selby; Bolton Abbey, belonging to the Augustinians, and the Cistercian abbeys at Fountains, Rivaulx, Jervaulx, Sawley, and Kirkstall. The churches of York itself were remarkable for their beauty and size. Ripon and Beverley possessed large collegiate churches, and many of the parish churches in the diocese were noted for their size and architectural features. The arms of the see originally were:

gules, a pallium argent charged with four crosses formee fitche, sable, edged and fringed or.

But subsequently another coat was used:

gules, two keys in saltire argent, in chief a mitre or.

The Anglican archbishops have, fitly enough, substituted a royal crown for the mitre. The city of York itself after the Reformation became endeared to English Catholics for two reasons, one being the large number of martyrs who suffered at the local Tyburn, the other being the establishment in 1680 of the celebrated Bar Convent founded outside Micklegate Bar by the English Virgins, now the Institute of Mary (Loreto Nuns). This community, which still carries on one of the most noted schools for girls in England, has the distinction of being the oldest convent now in England.


DRAKE, Eboracum: Hist. and Antiq. of the City of York (London, 1736); BRITTON, Hist. and Antiq. of York (London, 1810); BROWNE, Hist. of the Metropolitan Church of St. Peter, York (London, 1847); POOLE and HUGALL, Hist. and Descr. Guide to York Cathedral (York, 1850); RAINE, Fabric Rolls of York Minster (Durham, 1859); ORNSBY, York in Diocesan Histories Series (London, 1882); RAINE, Historians of the Church of York and Its Archbishops in R.S. (London, 1879-94); PUREY-CUST, Heraldry of York Minster (Leeds, 1896); Statutes in Lincoln Statutes, II, ed. WORDSWORTH (Cambridge, 1892-7); CLUTTON-BROCK, York, the Cathedral and See (London, 189); WILLIS, Architectural Hist. of York Minster; IDEM, Survey of the Cathedrals, I (London, 1727).

For the history of the archbishops see: ALCUIN, De pontificibus poema in P.L., CI; Fragm. hist. de pontificibus et ecclesiae Eborac., c. 785 in ACHERY, Acta SS. ord. s. Benedicti (Venice, 1734); SIMEON OF DURHAM, De archiepiscopis Eboraci, 627-1154 in R.S. (London, 1882), i, 75; STUBBS, Chronicon pontificum, 1147-1373 in TWYSDEN (London, 1652); DIXON, Fasti eboracenses, I (London, 1863). For archbishops to 1373 see: Registers of Archbishops GRAY, 1225-55 (Durham, 1872), GIFFARD, 1266-79 (Durham, 1904) and DE WICKWANE, 1279-85 (Durham, 1907); GAMS, Series episcoporum (Ratisbon, 1873); SEARLE, Anglo-Saxon Bishops, Kings, and Nobles (Cambridge, 1899).

For religious houses see: BURTON, Monasticon choracense (York, 1758); BAILDON, Notes on religious and secular houses of Yorkshire (London, 1895); GRAINGE, Castles and Abbeys of Yorkshire (York, 1855); LEFROY, Ruined Abbeys of Yorkshire (London, 1891); and the maps at end of vol. II of GASQUET, Henry VIII and the English Monasteries (London, 1888); Certificates of Commissioners appointed to survey chantries, etc., 1546 (Durham, 1894-5); LEACH, Early Yorkshire Schools (London, 1899-1903); and city and county histories, such as BAINES, Yorkshire past and present (London, 1871-7); RAINE, York (London, 1893); COOPER, York (London, 1904), DRAKE, Eboracum (London, 1736); HARGRAVE, Hist. of York (York, 1818); WHELLUN, York (1857-71); SCHROEDER, Annals of Yorkshire (Leeds, 1851-52); SMITH, Old Yorkshire (London, 1881-91), and the new volumes of the Victoria County Histories (London, 1897-).

About this page

APA citation. Burton, E. (1912). Ancient See of York. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Burton, Edwin. "Ancient See of York." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael T. Barrett. Dedicated to those in York who died for the Catholic Faith.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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