Although Selby Abbey is now a parish church, it was one of England’s great monastic churches, built on a grand scale and to a high level of architectural and artistic mastery. Founded in 1069 by William the Conqueror, three years after the Norman Conquest, and added to over time, it is a key building illustrating the transition from Romanesque, or Norman, to a fully developed Gothic style. It is also significant for surviving intact the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s. The painted and stained glass of the fourteenth-century east window illustrates the Tree of Jesse and is held in place by one of the best example of curvilinear tracery in Britain. There are also rare examples of fourteenth-century carved figures, which sit astride the parapets within and outside the choir. These important features have been affected by centuries of industrial activity as well as atmospheric salinity from the nearby North Sea, which has seen deterioration of the exterior stonework, highlighted by one of the pinnacles falling from the central tower onto the transept. Fire damage to the abbey in 1906 created long-term issues in some surviving stonework that has become problematic in recent years. Furthermore, as a parish church within a community badly affected most recently by the closure of the area’s coalfields, Selby Abbey lacks appropriate funds to for its restoration.
2002 World Monuments Watch
One of the main problems facing Selby Abbey is that despite its size, it is a parish church supported only by its parishioners. It therefore lacks the financial and technical support necessary for its upkeep. World Monuments Fund first intervened by listing the abbey on the Watch in 2002, providing much needed momentum for the campaign to save it from further deterioration. WMF followed up this initial advocacy with technical and financial support of funding from the Robert W. Wilson Challenge to Conserve Our Heritage. These funds in combination with local matching support resulted in the recarving of the abbey’s gargoyles, restoration of the abbey’s stonework, reglazing of the stained glass windows, and repairs to the roof. Other funders included the Heritage Lottery Fund, Prince of Wales Charitable Trust, and numerous private donors. As a result of these efforts the abbey has been made safe for parishioners and visitors. Some restoration campaigns have yet to begin, but the bulk of major work has been completed.
Selby is a relatively rare survivor of intact medieval monastic architecture in England on a large scale. Selby’s importance before the Reformation cannot be overstated. In addition to its architectural merits, including close parallels with the iconic Durham Cathedral, it was also a mitered abbey, a papal privilege allowing the abbot to sit in the House of Lords. Beyond its architectural and historical significance, Selby Abbey is a parish church, open for prayer and worship everyday of the year. It is an integral part of the town. However, the parish suffers from a significantly higher than average level of unemployment. The town has been dependent in the last fifty years on four major industries—ship building, power generation, mining and cattle food production, all of which have declined dramatically. With Selby’s social and economic problems standing in tandem with the worst of the northeast of England, it is vital that the abbey be able to remain open to offer help to anyone in the community.