REFLECTIONS ON THE YORK MINSTER FIRE
Authors: B and M Gittos
During the night of 9th July 1984, a spectacular fire destroyed the roof of the south transept of York Minster and caused £3 million worth of damage. It is believed to have been caused by lightning but after a great deal of initial publicity, very little further detail about the condition of the fabric and fittings affected by the blaze been forthcoming. It is perhaps, therefore, appropriate to consider the importance of the south transept and its contents in the light of what has happened so that when further information is made public, its significance can be more readily appreciated. The following description has been set in the present tense rather than the past in the hope fittings the fittings are still extant, if damaged.
The south transept is the oldest part of the present Cathedral, excepting the Norman work in the crypt. It was built during the second quarter of the 13th C. by Archbishop Walter de Gray (1216-55) and, although it still retains much of its original architectural character, it has undergone a number of significant alterations and considerable restoration. One curious addition, was the building of a number of town houses against the south wall of the transept. Such unrelated additions to major churches were not uncommon but seem very foreign to modern taste. Fortunately, the houses were demolished early in the 18th C. Major repairs were carried out in the south transept following the collapse of the central tower in 1407 and a thorough restoration took place in the early 1870s. Dean Duncombe was responsible for the restoration and G.E. Street was the architect. The extent of this work can be judged by the test that the vaulting was replaced, re-using the 15th C. bosses. Street was also responsible for the addition of the octagonal turrets. The Minster was repaved throughout, between 1731 and 1738 and the fittings have undergone many changes and re=arrangements.
The most interesting features of this part of the Cathedral are the monuments in the east aisle and stained glass. Also of interest are the memorial to the West Yorkshire Regiment in St.George’s Chapel (west aisle) and the wooden screen, dividing off the east aisle. The latter is believed to have been carved c.1525 by William Drawswerd. There is late 13th/early 14th C. glass in the windows of both the east and south. walls. The five lancets above the early glass in the east wall contain figure glass of 15th century date. Two windows in the west wall contain mid 15th century glass from St.Martin Coney Street, a church which was seriously damaged by bombing in the second world war. It has, therefore, survived one conflagration only to be beset by another. There is 16th C. glass in the south wall rose window and in the lancets below. Also in the south wall there is 18th C.glass by William Beckett, 19th C. glass by Kempe and 20th C. glass by Tower.
The important monuments are all located in the east aisle, commemorating one dean and four archbishops. The earliest is the fine Purbeck Marble canopied tomb with an over life size effigy to the builder of the south transept Archbishop Walter de Gray. This is an outstanding piece of 13th century sculpture and was set up following the death of the Archbishop in 1255, before the altar of St.Michael, in a chantry founded by de Gray in 1241. The tomb was opened in 1968 and in addition to the remains of the Archbishop and his relics a life size painting of de Gray was found on the lid of his coffin beneath the effigy. To the south of the de Gray monument are two grave slabs with floriated crosses to Archbishops Sewal de Boville (d.1258) and Godfrey de Ludhar (d.1265). Two 19th century monuments commemorate Dean Duncombe (d.1880) and Archbishop Thomson (d.1896). The remarkable gilt bronze effigy to Dean Langton (d.1279) which was formerly in the chapel of St.John the Baptist at the south end of the east aisle has long since disappeared.
It only remains to speculate on the nature of the damage. Aerial photographs taken on the morning after the fire showed that the central roof of the transept had been totally destroyed but that the roofs of the two aisles were intact. This should mean that the early glass and monuments in the east aisle may have escaped the worst of the damage. However, mention was made in press reports of cracking of the glass in the rose window which has some 8,000 separate glass pieces and doubts about the safety of the south end gable itself. One final consideration is the prospect of flood water damage to the undercroft which is entered through the south transept. A great deal of water would have been used to control the blaze and a second storm several days after the fire is said to have caused flooding in the south transept before a temporary covering could be arranged.
Full details of the damage should soon emerge and it is to be hoped that additional precautions can be taken to give the Minster more effective protection in the future.
G.E. & Cant R. A History of York Minster, 1979.
N. The Buildings of England, Yorkshire : York & the East Riding, 1972.
Morris J.E. York, 1924.