The remains of St Mary’s Abbey, one of the wealthiest Benedictine monasteries in medieval England, can still be visited inside York’s Museum Gardens. The majority of one wall facing the north-west is still standing and is now protected by regular preservation, with many of the foundations still protruding from the grass like tree stumps.
The abbey’s construction finished in 1088. Its estate occupied the entire site of the Museum Gardens and the abbot was one of the most powerful clergymen of the time, rivalling the authority of the Archbishop of York. The abbey was built to mirror the Minster, two large, religious and powerful buildings to protect William the Conqueror’s hold in the north. It is estimated that the monastery held between forty and sixty monks as well as up to fifty scholars, plus servants, craftsmen and tradesmen in the daytime. There was no vow of silence, but rather in the cloister they were permitted to speak, listen to a daily reading and discuss business within the abbey. In 1132, the current prior led a group of thirteen monks in a dispute: it is speculated that they wished for a return to a more modest, poorer way of living and wanted to give away much of the abbey’s money. After, they left the monastery and went on to found another, stricter abbey in North Yorkshire. The stone wall still standing today was built in the 1260s to protect the abbey and remain one of the most complete set of abbey walls in the country.
In the 1530s, King Henry VIII banned all monasteries as a result of his Reformation of the church and all the monks at St Mary’s were pensioned off. The abbey became a visiting palace for the king and gradually fell into ruins. What remained of the buildings were used as agricultural houses until the 1820s when they were excavated by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society.