Things to Do and See at York Minster Cathedral

I usually hate the words "simply must," in a blog post. But if you go to York you simply must visit York Minster Cathedral. Here are some things to do and see at this wonderful medieval gem that is my personal favorite of the cathedrals I've had an opportunity to visit.

Cheryl
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My final morning in York, I headed out early as the sun peeked out after  a few cold rainy days. I wanted to beat the daytime crowds that assembled in town during that holiday weekend. Walking near York Minster to give it one final “goodbye,” I found myself playing “get-in-the-way” with a couple also trying to take photos.

He had been embarrassing his significant other in an attempt to sound English but then, suddenly, exclaimed in a very American accent, “THIS is a CATHEDRAL!!! We have churches in Atlanta, but…THIS? It’s a CATHEDRAL!”

I share his enthusiasm for visiting York Minster Cathedral. It is a CATHEDRAL at its best. Perhaps some of my interest in this particular cathedral stems from my fandom for Susanna Clarke’s 2004 Hugo Award winner Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell  . York Minster features prominently in an early chapter of the book, and I can see where its many heads and carved kings would inspire fantasies about what they might say if only they could speak!

During my time in York, I spent a significant amount of my visiting York Minster Cathedral and walking around under its magnificent ceilings. Read on for some things to do when you’re visiting York Minster cathedral.

A Bit of History

The present-day Minster, which was built between 1220 and 1472 ((Click here for a timeline on the York Minster website.)) stands on the remains of its predecessors, as old churches often do. York Minster (official name: “Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York,”) stands on the remains of an older stone church that stood on the remains of a wooden church that stood on the remains of a Roman fortress.

York Minster is the seat of the church in the North.

Visiting York Minster: Tickets and Tours

If you want to visit York Minster, you can purchase advance online tickets, or you can try to buy tickets at the door. The York Pass   also includes admission to the Minster as well as other local attractions.

Check the calendar in advance. On some days, the cathedral is reserved for worship services. If you’re attending a worship service, like Evensong, there’s no charge.

If you want more information on the cathedral than a self-tour might provide, you can sign up for a walking tour of York   that includes the Minster. Still, I’d recommend signing up for the hidden minster tour that consists of a visit to the chapter house roof — a part of York Minster you can only access by guided tour.

Visiting the York Minster Chapter House

The York Minster Chapter house should probably get its own post. 

The York Minster Chapter House started construction in 1260 and was finished by 1296. Religious assemblies were called chapters. The York Minster chapter, from what I understand, still meets here today.

Here’s more about some aspects of one of my favorite parts of York Minster cathedral:

The York Minster Chapter House Ceiling

The York Minster chapter house has a freestanding, octagonal ceiling — that is, there is no central pillar holding it up. Surrounded by intricate stained glass windows, it’s an impressive work in itself.

The Carved Heads of the York Minster Chapter House

A Stone Head at York Minster Cathedral

The chapter house, which dates from 1260, is, by far, my favorite part of the cathedral. It’s a circular, freestanding space, with a magnificent ceiling and ringed with (why I love it) quite expressive carved heads.

There are animals, everyday people, people pulling faces. Ordinary people like the merchant and his wife peer out from the pillars. One happy man smirks with a surprised lion atop his head. An eagle is pecking out the eye of another, less fortunate, man. One article suggests that the figures represent virtues and vices. I like to think that many of these figures are people that the stone carvers knew and loved (or didn’t.)

Visiting the York Minster Chapter House Roof: Hidden Minster Tours

When the opportunity to climb up in a cathedral presents itself, I take it. The only way to climb here is to take the hidden Minster tour that includes the chapter house roof (there’s also a new hidden minster tour for the crypt which, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take.)

The roof of the chapter house is a pitched timber roof, so with York Minster’s history of fires, you can be sure they’re always on guard for fire hazard here. The beams here are impressive — it’s hard to take a picture that does it justice due to its scale and low lighting.

Visiting York Minster  chapter house roof

The tour also includes a visit to the stonemason’s loft and tracing floor, where the stonemasons would trace their designs to display to clients. The loft also includes a collection of old cutting patterns.

Visit the Kings of England at the York Minster Kings’ Screen

The choir screen — the screen separating the choir from the nave — at York Minster is unique. Fifteen carved, stone kings grace the screen.  We have a separate post just about this part of the cathedral, with a close-up photo of each king. We wrote a post about this, specific part of the cathedral here.

View Some Spectacular and Well-Preserved Medieval Stained Glass

York Minster is home to the oldest intact stained glass and the largest expanse of stained glass (the recently restored Great East Window) in the UK.

The Great West and East windows are magnificent. But stained glass abounds throughout the cathedral from the five sisters’ window (not pictured) to the windows surrounding the circular chapter house.

I wish I could have spent more time examining individual windows at the cathedral. However, there are plenty of reading resources about the stained glass of York Minster.   The Great East Window  , which depicts scenes from Genesis through the Apocalypse, has inspired the most study.

Attend Evensong

Even if, like me, you’re not a churchgoer, you might find yourself moved by attending Evensong. After a long journey to York, sitting quietly and listening to the choir in the evening offered a space for quiet contemplation. Below is a sample of music from York Minster Evensong from Soundcloud. I was a good girl and, as they asked, did not record the service myself while I was there. The Choir of York Minster offers plenty of their recordings on CD.  There is no charge to enter the minister to attend an evensong service. 

View the King’s Book of York Heroes and the York Gospels at York Minster’s Undercroft Museum

If you love beautifully bound books or medieval manuscripts, these are a must-see. The undercroft museum at the Minster houses these as well as other artifacts including a carved Viking horn.

The Kings Book of York Heroes at York Minster

The King’s Book of York Heroes is a memorial to those fallen in the Great War (WWI). Only the exterior was on display, but it says that 1441 names, biographies, and photos are recorded in this vast tome, beautifully bound in carved oak.

The York Gospels

My notes failed here, but I believe this is a photo of the York Gospel, housed at York Minster, a 1000-year-old, leatherbound, illuminated manuscript.

Visit the Crypt and Various Burials in the Cathedral

The crypt at York Minster has a unique design with columns and arched ceilings. Despite all of my other photos, I somehow failed to take photos of the crypt area. But you can get an idea of what the York Minster crypt is like here.

Of course, old cathedrals serve double-duty as cemeteries, and you’ll find other memorials and tomb effigies here, as you will at other English churches.

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