(Consultant: The Reverend Canon John Toy, MA, PhD, Chancellor, York Minster).
Christianity and the Romans
Constantine became Emperor in Eboracum (York) in AD 306 and six years later he declared Christianity a permitted religion and ended the persecution of Christians. There were Christians in York at that time for a Bishop of Eboracum attended the Council of Arles in AD 314.
Christianity and the Northumbrians
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that at Easter AD 627 King Edwin of Northumbria was baptised “with his people” by Paulinus, at York.
As early as AD 601, Pope Gregory had written to his missionary Augustine, in England, and urged him “…to send to the city of Eboracum a bishop”, to found a new church in “..the land of the Angles”. So, even before Edwin’s conversion, York was earmarked as an important future centre of Christianity. The newly-baptised Edwin commissioned Paulinus to build a church at York, at the place where he had been baptised.
Though under threat from the Mercians from time to time, York grew in importance as a centre of Christianity and learning through the seventh and eighth centuries. The Northumbrian Wilfrid (to become Saint Wilfrid) was Bishop of York from AD 665-709. Alcuin (c.737-804) was educated at the cathedral school, became master there, and later became an important scholar and respected adviser at the Frankish court of Charlemagne.
In AD 735, York was designated as an archbishopric. Within sixty years, though, Vikings were attacking that other great centre of Northumbrian Christianity and learning, Lindisfarne, on the north-east coast.
Christianity in Anglo-Scandinavian Jorvik
York (or Eoforwic as the Northumbrians knew it) fell to the Viking ‘great army’ in AD 866 By this time the Vikings were probably tolerant of the Christian religion. Many of them were baptised and (though some preferred to keep ‘a foot in both camps’ by recognizing both Odin and Christ !) they seem to have found it politically wise to maintain friendly links with successive Archbishops of York, one of them, Osketel (AD 956), even becoming Archbishop himself.
There is some written evidence of the cathedral church existing, perhaps between the 6th and 11th centuries, though no trace has been found in excavations in and around the present Minster. It is known that a cathedral church was destroyed by fire in 1069 and 10th/11th century graves have been found which show that it is likely that there was an important Viking Age church close to where the present Minster is built. Earl Sigvard (died 1055) had a church built, dedicated to St. Olaf just outside the west wall of the old Roman fort. Another important pre-Norman minster church (called either Holy Trinity or Christ Church) is known from the Domesday Book to have existed on the south-west side of the River Ouse.
York Minster today
Building of the present Minster was started in the late 11th century and finished in 1472. It has been used for daily worship ever since. Between 6,000 and 15,000 people visit the Minster each day, making a total of over two million visitors annually. This is one of England’s finest cathedrals, yet it needs constant maintenance to preserve it and, for generations, there has been builders’ scaffolding around some part or other of the structure. This has led to a commonly-used Yorkshire expression “a York Minster job” to describe any seemingly unending task !