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The Years of Debauchery at Whitby Abbey

Over the centuries, the Roman Catholic church steadily grew in power, not just in Britain, but on the continent as well. Monarchies began to base their legitimacy on the concept of Divine Right, the idea that they ruled because God willed it, which gave the Church, and the Pope in particular, a tremendous amount of political clout. If the Pope grew displeased with the policies of one monarch, then he could decry them and remove their legitimacy, incite rebellion and depose them. After all, the peasantry owed much of their livelihood to the generosity of the Church.

This greed extended beyond the political realm however, and into the financial. Catholic churches and monasteries were in part funded by tithes, a tax collected from the local peasantry in return for prayers and services to the community. In times of famine, locals could be fed meagre fair from the religious institutions stocks, in times of sickness they could be treated, and in times of war they may be sheltered. But the measly tithes that the upper echelons of the Church collected couldn’t reflect the majesty of their political clout. Priests began to offer prayers for monetary offerings, institutions began to claim that they had the bones of Saints available for worship and blessings in exchange for gold and jewels, they could guarantee a place in heaven for a price. The highest in these institutions began to live as Princes and forgot their Spartan lifestyles and pledges to God. They began to hunt and feast on a regular basis, refused to pray and give offerings to God, held lavish parties for nobles and dignitaries and revelled in the material pleasures that should, by their own teachings, deny them entry to heaven.

But what does this corruption have to do with Whitby? The current ruins of the Abbey are the skeletal remains of this debauched excess and corruption. When William the Conqueror rebuilt the monastery, it was only as a small, solid stone building, quiet and unimposing. Over the years, the Benedictine Monastery began to expand and grow into a stunning, expansive building that overlooked the sea, a beautiful assembly of huge arched windows and tall spires and towers, a confection of lavish stained windows and intricate paintwork. One could argue that this stunning construction was a requirement to celebrate the pure majesty of God, a testament to his wondrousness that could barely be captured on earth.

But in attempting to capture his majesty, the Abbey became a symbol of the dangerous excess of the religious orders, a far cry away from its more simple roots, as a place to pray and dedicate oneself to God. Yet despite this corruption, the Abbey was essential to the wellbeing of the local populace. Though we have little records in regards to Whitby specifically, we can make a number of assumptions regarding the impact of proximity to an important religious institution on the local populace. The Abbey was, as previously discussed, obliged to help the community in times of hardship. It was a centre of learning, producing and reproducing religious texts to be maintained, with knowledge disseminated amongst the locals. And as a place of pilgrimage, it would have helped bring in much needed trade to the area to maintain some semblance of a local economy.
This would all change because of the actions of a man hundreds of miles away.

Not all members of the religious orders were corrupt. Many priests, monks, nuns and abbots dedicated themselves wholly to God, helped the poor and needy and held their vows sacred. Many were displeased with how the Catholic Church could be administrated, the wealth and the excess and the political clout that no man of God should focus on attempting to wield to serve his own purposes. God granted salvation, not to reward material generosity, but out of his own grace. One such believer was named Martin Luther, and popular legend would have it known that he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses, an academic rejection of the Catholic Church’s practices, to the door of The All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg in October 1517. These began to be distributed throughout Germany, and then throughout Europe. Martin Luther was excommunicated by the Pope for refusing to retract his statements, and so, the Protestant Reformation was born, so called because of their ‘protests’ against the practices of the Catholic Church.

Just over a decade later, the Church found its power slowly being chipped away at by a displeased monarch, not for the noble cause of ideological differences and a means to remove corruption, but because the reigning monarch wanted to divorce his wife. Henry VIII is probably one of the most famous English monarchs, known in his early reign for his handsomeness and athleticism, and in his later reign for his consumption, pride, and his unfortunate six wives. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was initially married to his brother and first in line to the throne Arthur. However, when Arthur died of illness not a year later Catherine was wed to the future King Henry as a means to preserve an alliance with Spain. Henry was happy with Catherine, for a time, until it became evident that she was not going to be able to give him a male heir. Normally, a monarch would have to seek approval from the Pope to divorce, however when he was unwilling, Henry established the Church of England, annulling his marriage and leaving his only surviving daughter, Mary, a disinherited bastard.

With the power of Roman Catholicism diminished by his appointing of himself head of the Church, the King took to systematically dismantling and taking the previous churches wealth for himself. Whitby Abbey was one of the last to suffer this fate, its riches plundered to fuel his lavish expenses and the establishing of the new dominant Church. Papers were confiscated and lost to time, hundreds of years’ worth of history lost in the sacking of the Abbey. Even the land itself, described in paperwork as ‘the liberty of Whitby Abbey’ was auctioned off, first to the Earl of Warwick in 1550, then to Sir John York a year later, before finally finding its way into the hands of the Chomleys.

Perhaps the most tragic consequence of the loss of the Abbey is the loss of much of the local history. We know that Whitby developed into a small port that supported local whaling and fishing industries, and we know that in the 1540s the town supported a small population of around 200 (compared to the upwards of 13’000 today), but beyond that there is little information beyond what we can only assume about coastal town life. To go from being one of the most important sites in English history, full of rich legend and literature, to a town about which we can only make murky assumptions and estimations, is a tragic loss of centuries of people and important events.

Luckily, following the dissolution, a new and intricate history begins to emerge.

 

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