St. Mary’s Church

St. Mary’s Church, the parish church of the North Yorkshire fishing town of Whitby, combines a fortress-like exterior fit for the stormy North Sea weather with a warm, charming interior that is a jumble of styles and furnishings. Located right next to the ruins of Whitby Abbey, St. Mary’s is well worth a visit while you’re in town.


St. Mary’s is a delightful hodge-podge of many eras. The oldest parts, primarily the tower and basic structure, are Norman and date from around 1110. The church has never been entirely stripped or rebuilt, but various extensions, modifications and furnishings were added over the centuries. The interior is mostly 18th-century and contains one of the most complete sets of pre-Victorian furnishings in England. From 1890 to 1896, Whitby was the home of Bram Stoker, who set an important scene in Dracula (1897) at the church: For a moment or two I could see nothing, as the shadow of a cloud obscured St. Mary’s Church. Then as the cloud passed I could see the ruins of the Abbey coming into view; and as the edge of a narrow band of light as sharp as a sword-cut moved along, the church and churchyard became gradually visible… It seemed to me as though something dark stood behind the seat where the white figure shone, and bent over it. What it was, whether man or beast, I could not tell.

What to See:

Photograph from the 199 Steps in Whitby down to the harbour
199 Steps in Whitby down to the harbour – well worth the walk up!

“The steep climb from the old port of Whitby is the most exhilarating approach to any church in England, especially on a stormy evening (of which there are many).” Simon Jenkins, England’s Thousand Best Churches. With stout tower and crenellated stone walls, St. Mary’s Church stands like a fortress against the elements on a windswept hilltop. The church is reached by 199 stone steps up from town. The large churchyard is filled with weathered tombstones and monuments to sailors, fishermen, Royal Navy seamen and lifeboatmen. The church interior is a joy to explore, with pews and furnishings filling every available space. Simon Jenkins describes it as “part folly, part museum, part large parlour” and the Rough Guide to England calls it “an achitectural dog’s dinner.” The importance of the sea to the congregation is clear: the low roof is supported by pillars that look like deck supports and the woodwork would be quite at home on a ship. The nave is filled with box pews, some of which say “For Strangers Only.” Each is cozily furnished with a carpeted floor and upholstered cushions. Above are galleries to seat more of the large congregation. In the midst of it all is a large charcoal stove, still in use, with flue rising to the ceiling. The focus of the congregation’s attention is the triple-decker pulpit (1778), with candleholders and tester. Fixed to the back of the pulpit are two ear trumpets used by a 19th-century vicar’s wife who was hard of hearing. Behind the pulpit and astride the chancel arch is a large 17th-century gallery supported by twisted columns, known as the Cholmley Pew. The Cholmleys were a wealthy 18th-century family who lived in the home by the abbey that is now a museum. The sanctuary of the church feels more like a side chapel, but is a cozy space that includes a warmly-decorated altar, a stained-glass window by Kempe, tombs of the Cholmley family, and a historic carved chair.