Selby Abbey

The Royal Foundation of Selby Abbey

The church which Abbot Benedict built near the Ouse was probably a wooden structure. But shortly after his arrival in Yorkshire, in 1069, Viscount Hugh, who, as a representative of William the Conqueror, held York for the Normans, was sailing down the Ouse, and passing Selby saw the Cross which Benedict had planted, and the temporary buildings he had erected. He landed and became deeply interested in Benedict's story, promising to procure for him royal aid from the William the Conqueror. Without delay he carried out his promise. More convenient, though still temporary, buildings were erected, and soon the Abbey of Selby was founded by the issue of a Royal Charter from William I. This was in the year 1069.

The Charter was a most generous one, conferring on the Abbey, lands in Selby, Brayton, Snaith, Flaxley, Rawcliffe and other places in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire; a fishery at Whitgift; and immunities from various forms of taxation, as well as the special privileges of holding Courts in the Abbey properties. Why the King made such lavish grants to Benedict is not known for certain, but three reasons have been given over the years:

  1. In the fist place, the King's only English-born son, Henry Beuclerc, afterwards known as King Henry I, was born at Selby. The date of his birth has been variously given. It was almost certainly before 1070, the year some times associated to the event. It was in honour of that incident that William the Conquer founded the great Benedictine Abbey at Selby.
  2. A second reason advanced for the issue of Selby's Royal Charter is the need William felt for such a religious establishment in the North. Battle Abbey was built in the South to commemorate the Norman Conquest; and in the North the Abbey at Selby was erected and royally endowed to serve a like purpose.
  3. A third explanation of the royal foundation of Selby has been given by some writers, led by Matthew Paris, the historian. In writing of the Conqueror's two English monasteries, Battle Abbey in the South and Selby Abbey in the North, the historian says that: "William founded Selby because, lest he should be supplanted either in his kingdom or in his dukedom, or in both, he had previously poisoned some near relation." This theory would attribute Selby's benevolent foundation to the desire and effort, on the part of the Royal Founder, to atone for the personal crime committed.

These three explanations, together with the account of Viscount Hugh's activities in the matter, may all have had something to do with the erection and endowment of the great Abbey Church. Whatever the reason, the fact remains. It was magnificently built and benevolently endowed three years after the Conquest; and the four figures recording the date of its foundation - 1, 0, 6, 9 - seem to have played a prominent part in the history of the Abbey:

1069: the Royal Foundation
1690: the fall of the Central Tower
1906: the Great Fire