A Grave Affair
York Minster’s silver collection contains rings, chalices and patens which lay safely enclosed in the tombs of archbishops for many years. Now part of the collection, behind their shiny surfaces lurk stories of violence, destruction and a defining period in the Church of England’s history…
What is the Reformation?
The English Reformation was a period in English history as fascinating as it was turbulent. It marks the official break of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, initiated in the 1530s under King Henry VIII. The following years were full of religious and political conflict, and the treasures of England’s churches suffered as a result.
What happened to church silver during the English Reformation?
Many of the ancient treasures of England’s churches and monasteries disappeared or were destroyed after the Church of England separated from the Catholic Church. The ceremonies celebrated in these churches became greatly simplified, and the luxuriousfurnishings that once played a central role were considered inappropriate. Large quantities of expensive items, especially silver, were sold to private hands or re-crafted into items appropriate for the new English Church. It is therefore rare to find early survivors.
How did they survive?
The items in the Minster’s collection survived the Reformation because they were safely buried with medieval archbishops. Remodeling and repairs in the 1700s and 1960s required the excavation and relocation of some of the tombs inside the Minster. The decision was made at that time to open the tombs, as had been done with burials of saints and other important figures in the past. It is only because these precious items were sealed under stones through some of England’s most turbulent years that we are now able to see and study them. Today you can discover the chalice and paten of Archbishop Walter de Gray (1216-1255) for yourself in the Undercroft, along with other treasures from his tomb.
York Minster is supporting the Remember the Reformation project, which features Minster collections, including Antony Babington’s rosary (also on display in the Undercroft) and a brutally slashed missal.
By Lindsay Kearney, Digital Content Volunteer