The History of Whitby Abbey

The History of Whitby Abbey

The imposing Abbey remains sit on the headland overlooking Whitby town and sea. With its long history and prominent location carefully selected by the Anglo-Saxons, Whitby later developed into a successful medieval monastery.

The first monastery was founded by King Oswy of Northumbria. He made a vow to found 12 monasteries and if he defeated Penda, King of Mercia, he was to give his baby daughter, Elfled, to religious life. He did defeat Penda at the Battle of Winwaed in 655, and two years later Hilda, Abbess of Hartlepool, took the young princess Elfled and established a monastery at Whitby for both men and women.

This monastery soon achieved a high reputation and was chosen as the venue for the Synod of Whitby in 664. This was convened by King Oswy to reconcile Celtic and Roman differences and to determine the future direction of the English Church. It was at the synod that the dates for Easter were decided. The monastery was later destroyed by the Danes in 867 and was re-established in 1078 by Aelflaed, one of William the Conqueror’s knights who became a monk.

The first stone buildings went up in the late 11th/early 12th-century. A programme of rebuilding began in the early 13th-century, starting with the east – the most important end – followed by the north and south transepts, the central tower and, 20 years later, three bays of the nave. By then the cost of the work had driven the abbey into debt. The remainder of the nave was not completed until the 14th-century, and this can be seen by the different style of windows. The great west window was inserted in the 15th-century and this is a different style again.
In the 12th-century the number of monks reached to just over 40, but after the Black Death hit Whitby in 1349, there were only about 20 left. The abbey was surrendered to the King’s Commissioners on 14 December 1539, when there were 22 monks and domestic staff in residence.

In 1540 the Abbey site was leased to Richard Cholmley. He bought it outright in 1555 and his family held it until the end of the 18th-century. Their home was rebuilt several times, using stones from the domestic buildings of the Abbey. A fine new wing, the so-called Banqueting House, was added in the 1670s as a major modernisation of the house. Its fine, symmetrical fa├žade still stands. The ruins of the church were probably left because they served as a landmark for sailors.


Whilst staying in Whitby, Bram Stoker would have heard all about the Russian from Narva called DmitryThis ran aground on Tate Hill Sands below East Cliff, carrying a cargo of silver sand. This became the Demeter from Varna that carries Dracula to Whitby with a cargo of silver sand and boxes of earth.

So, although Stoker was to spend six more years on his novel before it was published, the name of his villain and some of the novel’s most dramatic scenes were inspired by his holiday in Whitby. The innocent tourists, the picturesque harbour, the Abbey ruins, the windswept churchyard and the salty tales he heard from Whitby seafarers all became ingredients in the novel. 

In 1897 Dracula was published. It had a poor start as a play calledThe Undead', in which Stoker hoped Henry Irving would take the lead role. Unfortunately after a test performance, Irving said he never wanted to see it again. For the character of Dracula, Stoker retained Irving’s aristocratic bearing and histrionic acting style, but he redrafted the play as a novel told in the form of letters, diaries, newspaper cuttings and entries in the ship’s log of the Demeter.

The log charts the gradual disappearance of the entire crew during the journey to Whitby, until only the captain is left, tied to the wheel, as the ship runs aground below East Cliff on 8 August – the date that marked Stoker’s discovery of the name ‘Dracula’ in Whitby library. A ‘large dog’ bounds from the wreck and runs up the 199 steps to the church, and from this moment, things begin to go horribly wrong. Dracula has arrived …

Rumour has it that Dracula's grave can be found in the graveyard of St Mary's Church at the top of the 199 steps.

The 199 Steps

One of the most famous landmarks in Whitby are the 199 steps that lead up to St Mary’s church, also known as the ‘Church Steps’. The reasons for walking up the steps have differed over the years, but now they are used to capture one of the most beautiful views of Whitby you can achieve.

The first record of the steps was in 1340, some historians believe that St Hilda would have used the steps to test the faith of her followers (climbing up the steps would prove your faith, a simple task these days).

The steps were originally made of wood and stood that way for hundreds of years until 1774 when the steps were replaced with Sneaton Stone. There has been many years of dispute as to how many steps there are, some believe there are 198, and others believe 200 (depending on how you count the steps). In 1761 John Wesley counted 191, and in 1800 guide books of Whitby 194 were counted. When you visit you will have to count them just to make up your own mind.


Throughout the year there are several different events going on at the Abbey to keep the whole family entertained. Whether you like Dracula, Vikings or just want to see the Abbey Illuminations there is something to please everyone, and being just a short walk away from us here at Whitby Holiday Park makes us the perfect holiday destination.

We have Static Holiday Homes for hire in Platinum, Gold and Pet Friendly categories and they sleep anything up to 8 people. We also have an access plus caravan which sleeps up to 6 people and has a ramped decking access and a walk in shower.

As well as our static caravans we also have our touring field with 119 grass pitches for tourers / motorhomes and campervans, and 4 separate hard standing pitches for motorhomes and campervans.

We are already taking bookings for 2018 so if this is something you have been thinking about then pick up the phone and give us a ring today on 01947 602664.

Alternatively you can contact us by via of the following:

Twitter: @whitbyholpark 

We'd love to hear from you!