On this day n history : 20th May 1840 – York Minster is damaged by fire when a candle is left burning in the tower by a workman…. Barely a decade has passed since a previous serious fire….

York Minster – Image credit : Matze Trier – own work – CC BY-SA 3.0

William Groves, a clockmaker from Leeds, had been carrying out repair work at the cathedral when he carelessly left a candle unattended…. The resulting blaze destroyed the belfry in the south west tower along with the nave roof and its vaulting…. The Minster, which was cash strapped at the time, eventually reopened in 1844 – after the restoration of the nave and installation of new bells…. These were to include The Great Peter Bell, the third heaviest bell in Britain, which rang for the first time in 1845….

The fire of 1840 was accidental but it came only 11 years after another, even more serious fire, which was far from an accident…. On the 1st of February 1829 a former sailor from Northumberland, Jonathan Martin, hid in the Minster until nightfall…. Once the building was empty he piled up prayer books and cushions, set them alight and then quickly left the scene…. The fire was spotted in the early hours, fire crews rushed to the blaze but by now it was an inferno and there was little they could do…. The heat was so intense that the building’s pillars cracked and the lead on the roof melted…. It was late in the afternoon before the flames had died down – the roof had fallen, the pulpit, organ and medieval choir stalls had all been destroyed….

Martin fled York but it was not long before he was caught…. He had an axe to grind with the Clergy, who he called ‘Vipers of Hell’ in pamphlets he published against the teachings of the Church…. He believed all prayer should come from the heart and not be dictated by the religious leaders…. At his trial he was declared not guilty on the grounds of his insanity…. He died in a London hospital in May 1838….

As if all this wasn’t enough, York Minster was to suffer yet another catastrophic fire on the 9th of July 1984…. It broke out in the early hours in the south transept and destroyed the roof…. It is thought the most likely cause was a lightning strike….

The fire of 1984 – which destroyed the south transept roof – Photo credit : York Minster via Flickr

The roof was replaced with a hand carved replica – with six transept ceiling bosses designed by the winners of a competition held by children’s TV programme Blue Peter….

Fears were that the 16th century stained glass rose window had been damaged beyond repair…. But with painstaking restoration of the cracked glass and the application of additional reinforcement it was able to be saved…. It took four years to complete the repairs of the Minster at a cost of £2.25m, much of which came from public donations…. In November 1988 the Minster was rededicated in a service which was attended by Her Majesty the Queen….

Image credit : Bradford Timeline via Flickr

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