UNFINISHED OAK TABLES. GOTHIC COFFEE TABLE
It is difficult to visualise, when looking at Selby Abbey today, that it was once a huge, rich Benedictine monastery, complete with chapel, cloisters, stables
, brew-house, kitchen
, workshops, dormitory, cellars, barns and an infirmary, all surrounded by high walls with a huge gateway. In fact possessed of all the amenities necessary to a great abbey complex. Building began shortly after the Norman conquest, but its foundation is said to originate with Germain, a French nobleman and soldier, who was born about ad 378.
As a young man Germain received training in Roman law and later was appointed governor of Armorica (an ancient region of France). He became a Christian and, in ad 418, was nominated Bishop of Auxerre. In the role of bishop Germain visited England twice to help unite Christianity. He died shortly after his second visit in 448 and was given a magnificent funeral at Auxerre where his shrine became a pilgrimage centre.
More than six hundred years later a monk called Benedict (or Benoit) experienced a vision in Auxerre Abbey and received instructions from Saint Germain to go to Selby and build an abbey.
It seems likely that by then a small community of Anglo-Vikings was living on elevated ground beside the river Ouse at a place called Seleby. Like many nearby villages Selby's name has both Saxon and Viking origins. The Sele element is derived from the Saxon word for willow copse while by is the Scandinavian word for a town.
Willows still grow and are still harvested on the river banks at Selby in much the same way as they would have been by the Vikings. In those days it must have been a hostile place to live as the surrounding land consisted of marsh, moors and forest and, after William the Conqueror's successful invasion of southern England, the whole of Northumbria was in political turmoil.
William was crowned King of England on December 25th 1066, but the northern earls were not prepared to accept him as king. They rebelled and three times the Conqueror came north to suppress uprisings. On the third, and final occasion, he ordered his troops to devastate the whole of Northumbria. Crops were burned, towns and villages destroyed and many of the people killed.
In 1068, during this unrest, Queen Matilda is believed to have come to Selby where she gave birth to Henry, the Conqueror's youngest son.
About a year later the monk Benedict, after an adventurous journey from Auxerre with the dried finger of St. Germain, arrived at Selby to found the Abbey. He recognised the site from a scene in his vision, a vision which was confirmed when three swans alighted on the river. The swans became a symbol of Selby and are used on the Abbey's Coat of Arms.
Under a great oak
called Strihac, growing on land in Selby owned by the king, Benedict set up a wooden cross. This was seen by Hugh, Sheriff of Yorkshire, who informed William I while he was celebrating Christmas in York.
The climate was right for Benedict to take full advantage of the situation. William the Conqueror believed himself to be a religious, as well as a political reformer. He had already founded Battle Abbey in the south in thanksgiving for his victory at Hastings, and the creation of an abbey at Selby, in thanksgiving for his victory over Northumbria, would be a natural conclusion.
The following year William I gave Benedict a charter granting him the site on which to build an abbey together with land at Flaxley, Brayton and Rawcliffe. These villages provided timber for constructing a wooden abbey, land for growing food and fish came from a fishery at Whitgift.
The Archbishop of York ordained Benedict as the first Abbot of Selby whose gathering of brothers was dedicated to
follow the Rule of Saint Benedict. Benedict's Rules, which were introduced into Britain towards the end of the sixth century, laid down a strict way of life for the Brotherhood to follow. Monks were expected to devote their time to prayer and meditation while 'The Monastery should, if possible, be so arranged that all necessary things, such as water, mill, garden and various crafts are situated within the enclosure, so that the monks are not compelled to wander outside, for that is not at all expedient for their souls'.
Unfortunately two monks did wander taking with them some valuables from the abbey's treasury. The Abbot caught the offenders and ordered them to be castrated. This was regarded as inhuman punishment - even in those days - and Benedict was accused of cruelty. His prestige in the community and the respect of the monks deteriorated and he was forced to resign.
The morale of the monks became so low that they talked of leaving Selby but Henry I, William the Conqueror's youngest son, who according to tradition was born at Selby, intervened: he told the Archbishop and Sheriff of York that the Brotherhood was to remain in the town.
Abbot Hugh, who succeeded Benedict, realised a new beginning was needed and when a good supply