Selby Abbey – Phoenix

scotland trip jan 15 095“From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring…”
Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

Just before midnight, October 19th 1906, workers who had been installing a new system in the organ saw flames in the window. Soon fire raged through the building. Glass shattered, flames leapt through the roof, the towers acted as great chimney belching smoke… silver streams of molten lead poured into the church… Selby Abbey was burning. It wasn’t the first time.

Image © Selby Abbey

Image © Selby Abbey

There had been a fire too in 1340 which had caused extensive damage. Parts of the church had never recovered. This time, however, the damage was worse. Fire crews battled to save the Abbey. A special crew were dedicated to an attempt to preserve the great treasure of the East window, keeping it cool and wet against the flames in a desperate effort to protect the 14th century glass.

scotland trip jan 15 068The roof of the choir and the belfry were destroyed, as was the interior woodwork and much of the glass. A peal of eight bells in the tower had melted. The devastation of the Abbey, which had survived so long, seemed complete. Given the level of destruction, it would have been understandable if only a chapel had been preserved for future worship and the rest allowed to fall into ruin. The people of Selby, however, had other ideas.

scotland trip jan 15 132Within hours, a restoration fund had been established. Money poured in from across the country. Townsfolk stood at the gates of the Abbey and held sheets into which visitors threw money. The Abbey, it seemed, would, like the proverbial phoenix, rise once more from its own ashes.

“…And so long as you haven’t experienced
this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest
on the dark earth.”

scotland trip jan 15 150The restoration began. The foundations, laid on a meagre three feet of sand, had caused collapse in 1690. At that time the central tower had collapsed, destroying the south transept, and while the tower had been rebuilt, the transept had remained in ruins. Sir George Gilbert Scott had restored the church in the 19th century, but it was not until the fire of 1906 that a complete restoration was undertaken.

scotland trip jan 15 100Every scrap of flame-blackened stone had to be cleaned. Woodwork and glass needed to be painstakingly replaced. Yet work progressed rapidly. The nave was rededicated within a year. The tower restored within three. The south transept, which had never been rebuilt after the collapse in 1690 was rebuilt, funded by William Liversedge and reopened in 1912. John Oldrid Scott supervised the painstaking task of bringing the Abbey back to its former glory, conserving and preserving its fabric and beauty for the future. In 1935 Charles Marriott Oldrid Scott raised the height of the west towers and, for the first time in its history, the Abbey was finally complete, consolidated and able to show its true beauty to the world undamaged.

scotland trip jan 15 137It is only because of the flames that the church was able to be reborn, whole and complete. Without the disaster, would it simply have known the constant struggle against time and decay that is familiar to us all? From apparent devastation, something beautiful emerged, a butterfly from the cocoon. This too is part of the human story… who amongst us has not seen those radiant ones who come through disaster to shine the light of the human spirit and inspiration into the dark corners of our own despair?

scotland trip jan 15 084A thousand years of history lie in these stones. Two thousand years of faith echo in these quiet chapels as whispered prayers. It was the love of the local people for this scarred and ravaged beauty that gave her once more the strength to shed her veil and stand proud and glorious to face the world. Love can work miracles. From ruin to the delicate bridal veil of light and colour she was brought, reborn and clean, made whole through love.

scotland trip jan 15 128

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She writes alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. Find out more at France and Vincent. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at and on Twitter @SCVincent. Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email:
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18 Responses to Selby Abbey – Phoenix

  1. jenanita01 says:

    A wonderful story of rebirth and renewal, Sue. Would we be so dedicated these days, I wonder?


  2. V.M.Sang says:

    A remarkable story. And your photos show what an amazing job these people did.


  3. ourcrossings says:

    Such a beautiful abbey and fantastic story too. Loved its ceiling, so many amazing details. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 😀 Aiva


  4. Mary Smith says:

    An astonishing story, Sue. Thanks for sharing it and you photos are wonderful. Maybe one day I’ll get the chance to visit it.


  5. Dale says:

    Awestruck, am I…


  6. Darlene says:

    What a wonderful story of rebirth. They say for everything there is a reason and this is a good example.


  7. Eliza Waters says:

    Amazing story of life after ‘death’ and how the vision of a few can accomplish great things.


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