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2nd February 1829 – Choir


Jonathan Martin had escaped from a lunatic asylum in December 1828, and came to York, finding lodgings in Aldwark.

During this time he attended Methodist meetings and Sunday Evensong at the Minster.  He came to believe that he had been chosen by God to “cleanse the Minster of wickedness”.  He wrote to the Dean, warning him that “the day of vengeance was near and that he and other clergy would be destroyed if they did not reform”.  Martin did not receive an answer to these messages, as they had not been passed on to the Dean, and he became increasingly angry.

Following a dream, he attended Evensong on Sunday 1st February, during the service he hid himself behind the tomb of William Greenfield in St. Nicholas’ Chapel.  There he stayed until the Minster had completely emptied.  He then came out of hiding and went to the Bell Chamber where he cut a length of rope for later.  He stayed here until 1.30am on 2nd February.  Using the bell rope he climbed over the gate into the South Choir Aisle and into the Choir.  Here he made two piles of burnable material and at 2.30am he lit them, staying to make sure they did not go out.

At 3.00am he made his escape.  Windows in the North Transept had being cleaned and scaffolding had been left, which he climbed up, cut a hole in the glass, using pincers he had brought with him, and jumped out.  He then made his way to Hexham.

The fire was not spotted until 7.00am by chorister Robert Swinbank, who had slipped on the ice.  Fire engines came from surrounding towns to assist the York Fire Brigade, however it was not until mid afternoon that the fire was under control.  The Choir and roof and vaulting were destroyed but the Great East Widow survived.

On 30th March 1829 Jonathan Martin went on trial and found guilty.  The jury finding him insane he was not executed but sent to and asylum in Lambeth, London.

Following this fire nightly patrols of watchmen/constables began, in 1855 they became known as the Minster Police


20th May 1840 – Nave

A clockmaker from Leeds, William Grove, had been carrying out repairs in the South West Tower.  When he had finished for the night he had left a lit candle, which caused the fire in the belfry of the South West Tower and the Nave.  The roof and vaulting were destroyed.

Thankfully shortly before this fire, a record of the boss designs within the vaulting had been made.  Therefore it was possible to return this part of the minster to how it had been before the fire, except for one alteration. – One of these bosses depicts the Virgin Mary feeding baby Jesus.  In the original she breast fed him, however the Victorian sculptors changed this by giving her a feeding bottle!!

9th  July 1984 – South Transept

 York Minster Fire, July 1984I hadn’t put the television on to catch the morning news for a long time but for some reason on 9th July I did.  There I saw the pictures of the Minster ablaze.  I was convinced that the whole structure was destroyed – thankfully only the South Transept roof and vaulting was the main victim.

At approx. 2.00am the alarm was raised by the Minster Police, who, along with members of the clergy removed as much of the fabric as they could from the South Transept.  The Fire Brigade were able to control the fire so that the rest of the Minster was not destroyed.  Thankfully also the Rose Window in the South Transept gable was also saved.

The Rose window was restored and the roof and vaulting replaced.  Six of the wooden roof bosses were designed by Blue Peter competition winners.

Although there were many speculative theories for the cause of this fire, the official cause was lightening.  It took 4 years to complete the restoration work, costing £2.25 million.  A dedication service was held on 4th November 1988, attended by Elizabeth II.

York Minster Restoration 1985York Minster, Rose Window Restoration