First Inhabitants

On the walls of Whitby Museum you can see the fossilised remains Whitby’s earliest inhabitants coming from local cliffs.


Bronze Age

  In the moors around Whitby one can see the burial mounds of Bronze Age people who may well have visited Whitby or fished here but we have no idea of their language and history.

Romans and  Britons

We know the name of the Briton nation which controlled this area before the Romans. They were the Brigantes, whom the Romans at first found difficult but were later integrated into Roman Britain. As the Western Roman Empire was finding it difficult to keep out the barbarians, it built a line of small fortresses along the northern coastline of England. The ruins of two of these are on either side of Whitby and there may have been one at Whitby which  may have fallen into the sea. The historian monk the Reverend Bede actually interpreted the old name of  Streanaeshalch as meaning the Bay of the Tower. Some Roman coins have been found in Whitby but just a few years ago a small settlement of three dwellings was found near the cemetery.

The Anglo Saxons.

Despite their fortresses the barbarians, coming from where Germany is now, were able to invade most of England, including Whitby, which became part of a kingdom called Northumbria . This kingdom became Christian evangelised by a monk from Iona called Aidan, who followed the tradition of the Irish Christians who had a calendar or listing of festivals which differed from that on the European mainland because of their isolation. 

Whitby first comes into history with the construction of a monastery in the 655 AD The monastery was built by a Saxon king Oswy in thanks for a victory over an opponent. The first abbess Hilda was a member of his family.

The king had married a princess from Kent who followed the continental calendar. This meant that the king and queen celebrated Easter at different times. When a bishop from Gaul or France was visiting, the king called a meeting to sort out the problem.  This is the famous Synod of Whitby. A young monk who had made several voyages on the continent was chosen to represent the continental  practice while the local bishop Colman defended the Celtic. There was no agreement and the king asked “ Who holds the keys to Heaven ?“. Both agreed that they were held by St. Peter so the king decided the matter by saying he would follow the representative of the holder of the keys to Paradise.

 Bishop Colman refused to accept this ruling and left with many of the monks of Lindisfarne to go to Ireland to make a new monastery there.


The Celtic Monastery

The earliest form of monasticism came from individuals who went to live the simplist possible life and spend their time in parayer. The next step came when other individual came to live near a monk to recive help in their spiritual lives.  in the Egyptian deserts.  Accounts were written of their lives and others went to live like them in desolate places. The Irish or Celtic monks were in this tradition. The places they chose to live were often called deserts from their inspiration in the Egyptian deserfs. Different types of use were housed in different buildings. An Anglo-Saxon monastery of this period was more  like a small town rather than the large buildings which we associate with monasticism

Some Britons remained in the Saxon period  because the poet Caedmon seems by his name to be a Briton.

   The Saxon monastery flourished for two centuries until it was destroyed by marauding Vikings. It seems likely that Vikings stayed to live and farm here. In the Domesday Book the names of local landowners were Viking but nothing has been found of the Viking period.

  In the Domesday Book Whitby does not have a church and is listed with another area. The Normans speak of the ruins of the old monastery as forty roofless chapels. The early monasteries were more like small villages with buildings dedicated to various functions of work, accommodation and worship.

 A Norman Reinfrid, a former soldier set out to revive former monasteries in 1073/74. He and his companions refounded the monasteries of Jarrow and Wearmouth  and then set out to refound Whitby.. The local landowner William de Percy was first helpful but the disagreements arose  but eventually it came into existence with Serlo de Percy  the brother of William de Percy as Prior. It became an abbey and the next abbot also belonged to the local noble family. The abbey prospered but does not appear to have produced any notable characters. When it was seized by Henry VIII the monks received pensions.

   The small town below the abbey was the property of the abbey. It was laid out with houses which had land attached. Fishing was the livelihood of the villagers was in fishing and they gave a portion of their catch to the monastery. As time went on they resented the rule of the abbey and persuaded on abbot to give them rights as burgesses but the following abbots fought this and had it taken away but they continued to call themselves burgesses.

 When the abbey became private property the buildings were stripped of lead and left to fall in ruins and the new owners took over the rights of the monks. They received the rents and tried minor crimes in the building in the market place which is often misnamed the town hall.