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Before Dracula: The Rise and Fall of Whitby Abbey

By Minjie Su

If you have ever read or watched anything about Dracula, Whitby must be a familiar name. Located at the mouth of the River Esk in North Yorkshire, Whitby has come to be known as the birthplace of Dracula, for it is where Bram Stoker conceived the idea of the story, when he brought his family to Whitby for holiday in 1890. He also chanced upon a book called An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia in the local library, which provided him with the name and background of Dracula.

Whitby Abbey – photo by Darren Flinders / Flickr

On one of Whitby’s awe-inspiring cliffs perch the Gothic ruins of Whitby Abbey, surrounded by silent tombstones in St Mary’s Graveyard. It is among these very graves that Lucy Westenra walks in the shadows, clad in her blood stained white dress. The Count himself, upon arriving in England by the ill-starred Demeter, disappears into the Abbey ruins in wolfish shape.

But in addition to Bram and Dracula, Whitby Abbey has more stories to tell; and they are much more ancient than the immortal Count.

The name of the town comes from the Old Norse hvít-býr (or hvít-bœr), meaning ‘white town’ or ‘white settlement’, probably because of the colour of the houses, or maybe it is the sand. But the history of Whitby goes much farther than the Vikings. The town is first mentioned in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People), but it was then known as Streoneshalh. Bede mentions that Oswy (sometimes spelled as Oswig), King of Northumbria from 642 to 670, founded an Abbey in the honour of St Peter there. When Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, invaded Northumbria, Oswy made a vow to God that, should he defeat Penda, he would build an abbey and dedicate his daughter Eanfled, scarcely one year old at the time, to the Lord. Although Oswy was dangerously outnumbered, God granted victory to him at the Battle of Winwæd on the 655. According to Bede, Penda was killed; nearly all of his thirty commanders were slain in battle, including Edilhere, heir to the East Anglian throne. In 657, King Oswy fulfilled his promise by founding the Abbey of St Peter in Streoneshalh; and the town is also called Presteby, the town of priests. Oswy died on the 15th of February 670 and was buried in the Abbey.

St. Hilda monument in Whitby. Photo by Wilson44691 / Wikimedia Commons

Lady Hilda, the niece of Edwin, King of Northumbria, was appointed abbess when the Abbey was finished. Before that, she had been the abbess of Hartlepool and gained great fame. St Hilda organised the Abbey extremely carefully; as a result, the monastery of Streoneshalh became known as a holy place, where St Hilda taught ‘the strict observance of justice, piety, chastity, and other virtues’. Five bishops were selected from there during her time. St Hilda died there after a six-year illness in 680. On the night of her death, a nun at Streoneshalh had a vision that St Hilda’s soul ascended to heaven, accompanied by a group of angels. St Hilda is so famous that the Abbey has gradually become known as St Hilda’s Abbey. Even today, local legends have it that, on the stormy nights, the ghost of St Hilda will be seen wander among the graves near the Abbey ruins, guiding the ships to the harbour.

Another medieval celebrity that Whitby can boast off is Cædmon, the first known poet in English history. Again, according to Bede, Cædmon joined the Abbey at a considerably old age; as a layman, he had never learned anything about poetry. Whenever he was at a feast and was requested to join the others to sing, he would leave the table quietly. One day, when he was attending the cattle, he fell asleep and had a vision. From then on, he composed ‘delightful poetry, full of compunction and sweetness, in English, which was his native language’. Many were inspired by his songs and started to ‘despise the world and desire the life of heaven’. When he revealed his vision and showed his newly gained gift to St Hilda, the abbess persuaded him to become a monk. He later died and buried at the Abbey. In 1898, a memorial cross was erected in his honour, which you can easily find in St Mary’s Graveyard near the Abbey ruins.

At some point between 867 and 870, Streoneshalh monastery was sacked by the Viking Great Army that was raiding across Northumbria and East Anglia around that time. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the leaders were Hingwar and Hubba – whose dealing with Edmund, King of East Anglia, was recorded by Ælfric. The pair are also known as Ivar the Boneless (Ívarr hinn beinlausi) and Ubba in the Norse language; those who have been following Vikings should recognise these names very well. The Abbey was not rebuilt until after the Norman Conquest, when the site was assigned to Guillaume de Percy, who arrived in England in 1067 and would eventually become known as the founder of the House of Percy, Earls of Northumberland. The new abbey was dedicated to St Peter and St Hilda and stood proudly on the cliff for centuries, until it was destroyed in 1540 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

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