Read the first part here: Whitby, in the footsteps of Dracula (Part 1)
“Perched high on a cliff, it’s easy to see why the haunting remains of Whitby Abbey were inspiration for Bram Stoker’s gothic tale of Dracula,” states the English Heritage website.
The story of Whitby Abbey in itself could be the subject of a book. This story begins in 657 with the foundation of a monastery by Hilda of Whitby. This monastery became one of the most important religious centers in the Anglo-Saxon world. Following the withdrawal of Roman legions from Britain, Northumbria emerged as a powerful independent kingdom. Members of the Northumbrian royal family were buried at the Whitby monastery, which shows the symbolic importance this monastery had at that time. The layman Cædmon, the earliest English poet whose name is known, lived and died in Whitby in the 7th century. The memorial to Cædmon has been preserved and can be seen in St Mary’s Churchyard.
Whitby monastery was abandoned in the 9th century, probably because Viking raids. In 1078, when Viking invasions were already history, a monk named Reinfrid founded a new monastic community at Whitby. Initially the monastery was built of wood, but in the 12th century it was rebuilt in stone in the Romanesque style. Later, in the 13th century, the monastery was rebuilt again, this time in the Gothic style. As many Gothic buildings, Whitby Abbey was built in stages, and the work continued with interruptions until the 15th century.
Following the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the abbey was abandoned and its buildings sold to Sir Richard Cholmley (1578). During the Civil War (1642–51), the Parliamentarian troops captured Whitby and looted the Abbey House. After the war Sir Hugh Cholmley II restored it and added a new wing, known as the Banqueting House.
The Cholmleys abandoned the place in the 18th century. The Abbey House suffered from storms and part of its roof was removed. Weakened by erosion, the shell of the abbey church also started to collapse. The south transept collapsed in 1736, the nave in 1763, the central tower in 1830, and the south side of the presbytery in 1839.
In the 19th century, the Strickland family, descendants of the Cholmleys, entered in possession of Whitby Abbey. At that time, the abbey ruins became a popular tourist destination.
In 1914 Whitby was shelled by a German fleet. The abbey ruins were hit and the west front was damaged. In 1920 the Strickland family handed the abbey over to the Ministry of Works. English Heritage carried out archaeological excavations and surveys at this site between 1993 and 2008. The visitor centre was built during that period.
Such is the story of Whitby Abbey. The symbolic importance of this building changed constantly over the centuries. Place of spirituality and knowledge, place of power, place of violence and tragedy, place of hope, place of leisure, place of artistic inspiration.
Why did Bram Stoker find inspiration here, among the ruins of Whitby Abbey? The past haunting the present—such has always been the main motif in Gothic fiction. Medieval ruins remind us that we cannot break from our history, at least not completely. Dracula is an intruder from our past; he brings with him the memories of troubled times and the ways of our ancestors. Yet we cannot ignore our medieval heritage. Whether it causes awe or fear, the medieval culture is still an important part of our civilization, and it will remain part of our culture for the decades to come.
Read also: Whitby Goth Weekend, April 2015 (Part 1) and Part 2.