Selby: the wonkiest abbey in Yorkshire

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire
The original wonky arch: the eastern bay of the north arcade, early twelfth century. The third storey was added in the third major campaign to finish the nave a century later.

Selby featured at the very top of my infamous great mistakes post which may prove to be the early highlight of my career. While most of the “great mistakes” were due either to changes of plan, or the medieval building process of establishing decorative systems rather than designing a whole building down to the last detail, Selby’s most alarming semi-collapsed arch is due to bad planning and surveying. I re-visited the Abbey a few weeks ago, and discovered that the bad land caused the Abbey problems well into the fourteenth century, and also that it has some of the most eccentric architectural designs you will ever find in medieval England. It also seems to be the only church in the world to make such a comic turn out of a choir aisle vault.

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire
The west bays of the nave south arcade, showing not-quite-as-severe, but still rather alarming differential settlement

Selby today is a unassuming market town in the county of North Yorkshire between a Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and a Tesco on the site of reclaimed agricultural land, the cattle market and the inner railway line/workhouse/mills respectively. On the plus side, it never even had a Marks and Spencer to lose. Yet it does have one of the few abbey churches of a great monastery that has survived largely complete despite not being upgraded to a cathedral. The earliest parts of Selby Abbey date from the turn of the twelfth century, when across the country the Norman conquerors were consolidating their power by refounding the administration of English cathedrals and monasteries to substitute their own prelates as administrations make way for colossal new Romanesque churches. We know from the Historia Selebiensis Monasterii, preserved in a letter sent from the abbey to its mother house of Auxerre in the twelfth century, that it was the second abbot of Selby, Hugh, who decided to move the monastery across town in the late 1090s and construct something approaching the scale of what was going up at Durham Cathedral. It claims that he even rolled his sleeves up and helped the workmen out by carrying stones and mortar. Whether that’s literally true or not, it shows that he certainly was decisive in getting Selby Abbey a church among the top rank. Problem is that Hugh did not get very far with his thumping great Romanesque arcades. In the nave today, you’ll see only two bays of the nave were completed in the Romanesque style, along with the standing piers of the next bay. The reason for this is that as soon as they started building up the central tower, the west piers of the nave began to sink into the high water table under Selby, leaving the arcades showing what architectural historian Roger Stalley called “a spectacular example of differential settlement”. The open arches of the elevation of the nave were blocked in, and basically much of the twelfth century must have been spent by the monks looking at what had been built whilst sucking air through their teeth.

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire
The Early Gothic/Transitional Romanesque gallery of the north arcade, with “carousel” pier in the centre, 1180s. Here constructed over Romanesque piers from the early twelfth century.

Towards the end of the twelfth century, probably the 1180s, is when the monks finally regained the confidence to call the builders back in. Architecture had obviously changed a lot in that time. But unlike what was going on at Ripon with fancy Frenchified Gothic, what Selby got was a lot more along the lines of old-fashioned Romanesque to match what had been built already: still very much big round arches and old motifs such as that old chestnut zig-zag. The most curious feature is in the gallery, where the massive yawning openings over each bay are connected by lots of freestanding piers around a core, which look bizarrely like a merry-go-round. Putting something basically so fiddly, clunky and let’s be honest here, downright daft into a building would have reduced a French architect at this time, accustomed to accentuating height and slenderness, to hysterics (although there are weird compound piers in the gallery of Noyon, they’re not this weird).

You’d think at this point everything would go well and they could finish off the nave. However, for unknown reasons, these builders stopped before they’d started the galleries on the south side. This means that the nave must have left looking very odd for a good number of years. It’s difficult to explain so I’ve gone and done a picture. The arcades on the north of the Abbey church would be raised to gallery level, but only to first-storey on the south, making it absolute puzzle how they would have put a temporary roof on, if indeed they did.

The Abbey Church (I've sort of ghosted in the cloisters that would have been there) in the early thirteenth century after the departure of the second campaign. It is not a cutaway. The north gallery is roofed, as is the Romanesque bay of the south, the rest is open. The tower was definitely not that wonky but since this isn't being peer-reviewed I thought it might be funnier if it was.
The Abbey Church (I’ve sort of ghosted in the cloisters that would have been there) in the early thirteenth century after the departure of the second campaign. It is not a cutaway. The north gallery is roofed, as is the Romanesque bay of the south, the rest is open. The tower was definitely not that wonky but since this isn’t being peer-reviewed I thought it might be funnier if it was.
Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire
The hybrid elevation of the south nave arcade – Early Gothic arches of the 1180s and Early English gallery and clerestory, 1220s-30s.

So it would be around another half-century until the next lot of builders came in to finish the job. By then Gothic architecture had become established in England; but not as Early Gothic in the French sense, but as the peculiar national style we call Early English. In the 1220s or 30s (not documented, we’re going off style here), this lot added a second-storey gallery to the south side, and then a third storey all the way round. The weird thing about the new south gallery, is that for reasons difficult to fathom, they decided to superimpose a great whopping drainpipe-like pole that slices through the elegant subdivided arches and their quatrefoil spandrel to support the ceiling. This vertical articulation is essentially the sort of thing that French architects were always trying to do with their vaults. This is an unhealthy combination of English horizontality combined with French verticality. But you don’t really need to know that to realise it somehow manages to look even more daft than the carousel piers on the other side.


Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire
The south choir aisle, looking east, probably c.1310s

Their nave finally complete, the Benedictine monks of Selby did not rest on their wonky laurels. Instead, possibly because a passing Cistercian made an unkind remark about their totally out-of-date apse and how they need to get to the times with a square ambulatory, the monastery embarked on yet another drawn-out campaign. The interior aisle walls of the choir are one of the most spectacular survivals of medieval vegetative carving outside of Southwell Chapter House. Every arch of the pointed dado arcade rests on a capital of stunning undercutting, a forest in stone. Yet the cohesive feeling you get is misleading. The windows above show subtle changes in style. Those in the north aisle are of the late thirteenth century, with what was then rather up-to-the minute bar tracery of slender quatrefoils. The windows of the south aisle however are reticulated – a net-like pattern of the same motif spread over the head of the window – a date in the early decades of the fourteenth century. The east window and great arcades that wedge through the choir however, are of the most pure Yorkshire Curvilinear Dec of the 1330s. Essentially, much like the nave, there are at least three different sets of contractors working here on the choir, but with much shorter gaps. What is left is a slightly uneven mix of styles, as if you’d got dressed so slowly that you put some flared bell-bottom trousers on in the 1970s, but not got round to your top half until you could afford to put a Nirvana t-shirt and plaid flannel jacket in the early ’90s.

This is really quite fascinating because it again needs an “artist’s” “impression” of what it would have been like. Presumably the aisle walls were built around the old apse, which was kept in use and not demolished until the main arcades were built inside. The north aisle in particular must have stood as a completely useless wall doing nothing for a good few decades, as I show here, with commencement of the south aisle.

Selby Abbey, from the east in the early fourteenth century, with the north aisle wall standing and the south aisle in slow progress, behind is the aisled Romanesque apse and apsed chapels of the transept, all later demolished
Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire
The real north aisle and completed choir
N aisle vaulting
A totally exaggerated and completely unmeasured demonstration of the potential problem with the vaulting of the north choir aisle

This is what no doubt led to the following problem in which quick thinking averted a complete cock up. Presumably because the north aisle had been standing free for so long, it appears to have settled into the water table again – it can be seen from the outside to be rather wonky. When the final workshop came in in the 1330s to build the arcades, demolish the apse, refashion the Norman transepts and top off the aisles it posed a huge problem.

Aesthetic concerns about things being straight are all well and good to dismiss, but it really matters for vaults. If the two essential arches that make up a rib-vault are not equal, you’re going to have problems in the two balancing each other out. Because the north aisle wall is not perpendicular with the choir arcades, it’s fine in the middle bay, but in the west bay, the vault overshoots the wall responds, and in the east bays, it undershoots them.

What to do? Rebuilt the wall and start again? Well, since this is Selby Abbey, which couldn’t even be bothered to demolish those horrendously semi-collapsed arches of the nave, they’re not going to lose all those lovely windows and capitals. Instead they came up with an ingenious solution: vault it as if the wall was straight, but just alter the responds.

In the west bays, it’s not too bad. The vault sits towards the back of the respond. Sure, looks a bit disconnected, but no one will notice.

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire
The “overshot” western bays of the north choir aisle vault

In the eastern bays, if you shot the vault over from the choir it would miss the capitals completely, and land on the floor inside. So what the masons did is send out a curve to catch the vault on tiny ickle capitals, then start a new arch from there that would accurately cover the space. Now, you might not find this as funny as I did, but you have to admit it is pretty funny.

Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire
The “undershot” bays of the north choir vault, with miniature capitals “catching” the ribs
Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire
North aisle vaulting, arcade side – vestigial mini-capitals

On the arcade side of the springs, the masons have put vestigial little rings intended to balance out the mushroom-like eccentricities on the other side to try and convince you it was supposed to be like that all along. Now I’ve pointed it out, it looks completely ridiculous. But it’s rarely noticed. Even Pevsner does not mention it. It’s all somehow incredibly stupid and extremely clever at the same time.


Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire
Looks cool no? Unfortunately it was completed in 1912, so like a good medievalist we’re going to have pretend it isn’t there

Selby had no major rebuilding after the magnificent Decorated choir was finished, except for some fifteenth-century tidying-up of the north transept with a honking great Perp window. The central tower finally gave way in 1690 and toppled to the south-east – ironically totally away from the most famous wonky arch – taking out the south transept and part of the south aisle. The Abbey had a plethora of work done to it by the Victorians. The south transept was rebuilt in a pure 1330s Dec style that undoubtedly never was and the humble 18th-century belltower was re-medievalised. A fire ripped through the Abbey church in 1906, causing enormous damage. Despite what the church might say in their guide books, in the east window – which had previously been one of the most magnificent Jesse Tree windows in England – not a shred of medieval glass remains. What we have now is what stained glass specialist David O’Connor called a “very clever fake” made by the stained glass firm Ward & Hughes in 1909. Anything that looks old has been artificially aged with acid pitting: all that survived the fire were figures that Ward & Hughes had taken out in their 1891 restoration (hence why they knew the window so well), and some panels that had been pinched earlier (preserved in the Nelson collection held by National Museums Liverpool). So although you have a good (but still altered) facsimile of the programme, and indeed many of the figural compositions are accurate, the true jewel-like quality of the medieval glass is gone forever from Selby’s east window. It is a great shame that the church continue to pretend (or quite frankly, flat-out lie) otherwise, as it does both the original glass and the restorers’ work a disservice.

The west front in 1816, by the very reliable Buckler. British Library.
The west front in 1816, by the very reliable Buckler who is a better draftsman than I. British Library Add. MS 37121. You can see the ickle gable of the then much lower-pitched nave roof behind.
Selby Abbey, West Yorkshire
The west front today

The west front was also mucked up a bit. Before it was a very stumpy thing that was intended to have flanking towers but never received them, and had been tied up as best it could with a bit of crenellation. After George Gilbert Scott raised the roof pitch and added a funny Salisbury-lite gable (which Pevsner actually thinks is medieval, ho hum, Selby is not one of his best accounts), the idea came around to raise the towers up. After the fire his son J. Oldrid Scott built some Dec-lite towers (preserving the Perp pinnacles on top) that give the west front a cathedral-like grandeur. Problem was, it’s still in Selby. If only he could have built them a Marks and Spencer too.


Now this is the product of a two-hour visit to the Abbey (that’s how long you can park for free at Sainsbury’s) and an afternoon in WordPress. Don’t cite it, but check out these folks who’ve looked at it way more than I have.

  • Nicola Coldstream ‘The Development of flowing tracery in Yorkshire c.1300-1370’. Ph.D. thesis, The Courtauld Institute of Art, 1973, 32 ff.
  • Eric Fernie ‘The Romanesque Church of Selby Abbey’ in Yorkshire Monasticism, Archaeology, Art and Architecture British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions 15, ed. L. Hoey, 1995
  • Stuart Harrison and Malcolm Thurlby ‘Observations on the Romanesque Crossing Tower, Transepts and Nave Aisles of Selby Abbey’ in Yorkshire Monasticism
  • Charles Clement Hodges ‘The architectural history of Selby AbbeyYorkshire Archaeological Journal 12,1893
  • David O’Connor and Henrietta Reddish Harris, ‘The East Window of Selby Abbey, Yorkshire’ in Yorkshire Monasticism
  • Nikolaus Pevsner and Enid Radcliffe, Yorkshire West Riding, 2nd ed., Buildings of England Series, 1967, pp.435-442 [As noted, this description is far from satisfactory when compared to the cathedral accounts of the BoE, treating the building almost as a large parish church rather than the extremely significant monastic surviva that it is. A revised description will be included in the new West Riding: South volume, which appears to be perpetually a way off being finished]
  • Roger Stalley ‘Choice and Consistency: The Early Gothic Architecture of Selby Abbey’ Architectural History 38, 1995, pp. 1-24

Although do check out my Flickr album from my daytrip up the M62 to Selby and other sundry Yorkshire locations

Garuniad-esque erratum: Because basically I think in the country in terms of Pevsners, I originally said Selby was in “West Yorkshire”. It is actually in North Yorkshire. I meant of course, it was the pre-1974 administrative county of “County of York, West Riding”. You can stop sending me angry comments about this now.
Also yeah Selby isn’t that bad. There are much worse towns. The Morrisons is quite good. You can park there for free and cut through for the Abbey, then bugger off and go to Howden or something. Wait, that probably didn’t help. Never mind.

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