Whitby Abbey

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Whitby Abbey's fame rests today largely thanks to the role it played in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Brooding over the town from its location high on a cliff top, it is a naturally melodramatic setting for such a richly gothic story.

In reality, the ruins were originally a Benedictine house established towards the end of the 11th century. An earlier abbey was founded in 651 by the Anglo-Saxon Abbess Hild was sacked and ruined by Danish raiders. Her own life was seems to have been considered of some importance: she died in 680 and by the 8th century was already appearing on lists of saints - and other remnants of her live on local heraldry and folklore.

Caedmon's Hymn

Another notable denizen of the Abbey was Caedmon - traditionally regarded as England's first poet. According to his story as recounted by the Venerable Bede (who himself was located not so far up the coast at Jarrow) Caedmon was merely a cowherd at the Abbey and could not sing. During evensong he would leave the table to avoid having to sing. One night, having crept into the stable where he tended his beasts he fell asleep and during a dream was called to sing a song by a mysterious voice. The voice told him to "sing me creation" and when he awoke, he found that he could indeed sing.

Hild, having heard his song, had the words written down as Caedmon's Hymn - which still survives to this day in Northumbrian dialect as one of English's most ancient literary creations.

Translated roughly from Old English dialect, it reads thus:

"Now we must honour the guardian of heaven, the might of the architect, and his purpose, the work of the father of glory as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders; he first created for the children of men heaven as a roof, the holy creator Then the guardian of mankind, the eternal lord, afterwards appointed the middle earth, the lands for men, the Lord almighty."

Perhaps unlikely to light the charts aflame in this day and age, Caedmon's Hymn is nonetheless a fascinating record of how Christianity had started to become the dominant cultural force in England at this time.

The "Snakestones"

Another legend surrounding the Abbey is that of the snakestones. Today, we recognise the coiled stone shells as fossils of ammonites - an extinct form of marine invertebrate. But in ages past, it was thought that the stones were actually the remains of snakes - turned to stone by the prayers of Hild or, in some stories, St. Cuthbert.

That the snakes lacked heads was also accounted for by the magical effects of Hild's powers and a local tradition has always been to carve images of the stones with heads. Since 1935, Whitby's armorial bearings have been images of 3 coiled serpents, facing left with gaping mouths.

Dracula

Naturally, the story that resonates most strongly in the contemporary mind is that of Dracula. In Stoker's tale, Dracula's ship runs aground in Whitby harbour during a terrific storm - although the hulk is found to be mysteriously devoid of crew. A black dog is seen escaping the wreck and fleeing up the steps to the Abbey - perhaps consciously recounting a further folkloric tradition of phantom black dogs in the area, such as Barghest.

Dracula makes his home at Whitby Abbey for some time, and Miss Harker is subject to several visions and visitations of the Count within the Abbey's locale before the action moves south to London.

Today, the Abbey is a focal point for the annual Goth weekend when thousands of dramatically dressed characters descend on the town for music, dancing and drinking. In the evenings, the church of St. Mary's - adjacent to the Abbey and itself dating back in parts to the 12th century - is lit dramatically and if you are so minded you can cast scary shadows onto its wall for the undoubted amusement of the town below.


See also: folklore

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 20th March 2012 | © Weird Island 2010-2019
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