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Whitby Abbey: The ruins that inspired Bram Stoker to create “Dracula”

Brad Smithfield

Sometimes myths and legends create new myths and new legends. The primordial need of the human soul to be feed on fairy tales and fantastic stories is rooted deep in human nature. Since the dawn of humanity, the stories have been a crucial part of the everyday life of men and women. Without stories, even when the belly was full, people felt the emptiness inside them. Stories narrated through verse, music, or simply with ordinary words, were used to overcome people’s fear and to bring the lost spiritual light back in the human soul.

In prehistoric ages and ancient times shamans, sacred men and women, saints, spiritual warriors, and priests had the role of storytellers. Through storytelling, they brought lost people back to themselves and thus back to their true nature. That was the secret ingredient in their successful healing. Later storytellers have become poets, writers, musicians, painters. And in modern days the list of storytellers includes movie makers, directors and visual artists.

Storytellers find inspiration from various sources. Sometimes it is a sudden bliss during working something else, sometimes it is a dream and sometimes it could be smile of a special person, incredible landscape, building or an old legend.

The famous author Bram Stoker got the inspiration for his epic novel Dracula from the colossal remains of Whitby Abbey and the legend about the pale ghost of a lady who wanders in the shadowy ruins of the former Gothic monastery. The legend says that the lady was bricked up alive in one of the walls and that she was frequently seen in one of the crumbled windows. Maybe the legend is true or maybe it isn’t, but the bats are definitely here. They are for sure permanent inhabitants there.

Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey

In fact, in 1890 Bram Stoker learned about the real Vlad Dracula (Vlad III, also known as Vlad the Impaler) in the local library of the town of Whitby in North Yorkshire. He perfectly mixed the discovered information with his ingenious imagination and thus the legendary story of Dracula was born.

One legend made alive another legend. But the haunting ruins of Whitby Abbey weren’t only inspiration for Bram Stoker. Throughout the years many ordinary visitors, writers, and artists were moved by the fantastic atmosphere of the collapsed structure. And also, at its peak, the monastery was regular place for pilgrimages and inspired many devoted Christians to find their path to God.

Ruined Abbey in Whitby, North Yorkshire, England. Norman architecture reflected in pond.

Ruined Abbey in Whitby, North Yorkshire, England. Norman architecture reflected in pond.

The ruins are placed on a cliff facing the North Sea in an area which archaeological discoveries show was inhabited since the Bronze Age. During the Roman Era (3rd century AD) there was a Roman signal station or maybe even a settlement. However, the first monastery at the site was built in 657 by St Hilda, who was appointed by the Saxon King of Northumbria to found a monastery in Streoneshalh (the old name of Whitby).

Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire, UK

Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire, UK

Very soon the place grew into one of the most crucial religious complexes for the people of the Anglo-Saxon society. The monastery’s cells became home of great number of monks and nuns. For a few years at the monastery lived the honored poet Caedmon, who is known as the earliest English poet. It is obvious that the monastery was respected by the Northumbrian Royal family because the monastery’s property served as their burial site. Years later, Norman nobles were buried at the cemetery too.

Whitby Abbey and cemetery on the clifftop over Whitby.

Whitby Abbey and cemetery on the clifftop over Whitby.

In 664 the monastery was the location of the Synod of Whitby, when King Oswiu of Northumbria decreed that the practice of Christianity according to the practices of Rome would replace Celtic Christian tradition in the region. The glory days of the monastery ended at the end of the 9th century. It was several times attacked and destroyed by the Vikings. The location was abandoned until after the Norman Conquest.

Vintage engraving of Whitby Abbey a ruined Benedictine abbey overlooking the North Sea on the East Cliff above Whitby in North Yorkshire, England. , 19th Century

Vintage engraving of Whitby Abbey a ruined Benedictine abbey overlooking the North Sea on the East Cliff above Whitby in North Yorkshire, England. , 19th Century

At the end of 11th century, the soldier and monk Reinferd received orders from William de Percy to erect a Benedictine Abbey on the foundations of the old monastery. A huge reconstruction of the monastery church in the Gothic architectural style occurred in the 13th century. In the following centuries, it was enlarged and several times reconstructed.

Whitby Abbey on a summers day

Whitby Abbey on a summers day

But the life of the secondary monastery ended in 1540s, destroyed by an order of King Henry VIII during the Reformation. His soldiers demolished large part of the structures and took away any valuable objects.

Read another story from us: The fictional supervillain Joker was inspired by a German actor named Conrad Veidt in the 1940s

Throughout the years the ruins have been shaped by constant erosion caused by the strong winds and rain. Locals used the stones for building their houses. During World War I the remains were heavily demolished by German battleships, who were attacking the adjoining signal station. Today the roofless and ruined structure stands proudly as a shell above the town and waits for another legend to be born.

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