Overlooking the harbour, Whitby Abbey is both fascinating and mysterious, offering some stunning views to those ready to explore the ruins. Dating back to around 657AD, the monastery was founded by St Hilda and it’s been a bustling settlement, a kings’ burial place, the meeting place of Celtic and Roman clerics to set the date for Easter still used today, the home of saints including the poet Caedmon, and inspiration for Bram Stoker’s famous vampire. Read more about its unbelievable history and how Whitby Abbey inspired Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” novel in today’s article.
Whitby Abbey was the first monastery in North Yorkshire. Once the setting for the Synod of England, the founder of the original monastery – St. Hilda – was an Anglo-Saxon and became the Abbess of the original Abbey in 657AD. This was a double monastery for both monks and nuns. St. Hilda hosted the famous Synod of Whitby and was also a much-respected teacher. In addition, she supported many causes including being a patron of the arts. She died in 680AD and was buried at Whitby. People reported seeing miracles at her grave and she was eventually sainted and her bones were enshrined. However, her shrine was demolished as a result of the invasion by the Danes.
In the 13th century, the church was rebuilt in a Gothic style and is thought to have been finished in around the 15th century. During the 1700s and 1800s, a lot of the Abbey was destroyed due to exposure to the elements. However, in the early 19th century, Whitby town started to gain popularity as a seaside destination, with new terraces laid out on the West Cliff. But what trully made the Gothic ruins a tourist attraction was the publication of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula in 1897. This gave Whitby a major literary association, due to the fact that Whitby Abbey inspired Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” novel and ensured that the vampire count would forever be associated with the town.
Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” Inspired By Whitby Abbey
Bram Stoker came to Whitby at the end of July, 1890. As the business manager of actor Henry Irving, Stoker had just completed a gruelling theatrical tour of Scotland. It was Irving who recommended Whitby, where he’d once run a circus, as a place to stay. Stoker, having written two novels with characters and settings drawn from his native Ireland, was working on a new story, set in Styria in Austria, with a central character called Count Wampyr. Stoker had a week on his own to explore before being joined by his wife and baby son. Mrs Veazey liked to clean his room each morning, so he’d stroll from the genteel heights of Royal Crescent down into the town. On the way, he took in the kind of views that had been exciting writers, artists and Romantic-minded visitors for the past century. The favoured Gothic literature of the period was set in foreign lands full of eerie castles, convents and caves. Whitby’s windswept headland, the dramatic abbey ruins, a church surrounded by swooping bats, and a long association with jet – a semi-precious stone used in mourning jewellery – gave a homegrown taste of such thrilling horrors.
Below the abbey stands the ancient parish church of St Mary, perched on East Cliff, which is reached by a climb of 199 steps. Some headstones stood over empty graves, marking seafaring occupants whose bodies had been lost on distant voyages. He noted down inscriptions and names for later use, including ‘Swales’, the name he used for Dracula’s first victim in Whitby.
On 8 August 1890, Stoker walked down to what was known as the Coffee House End of the Quay and entered the public library. It was there that he found a book published in 1820, recording the experiences of a British consul in Bucharest, William Wilkinson, in the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (now in Romania). Wilkinson’s history mentioned a 15th-century prince called Vlad Tepes who was said to have impaled his enemies on wooden stakes. He was known as Dracula – the ‘son of the dragon’. The author had added in a footnote:
Dracula in the Wallachian language means Devil. The Wallachians at that time … used to give this as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous either by courage, cruel actions, or cunning.
While staying in Whitby, Stoker would have heard of the shipwreck five years earlier of a Russian vessel called the Dmitry, from Narva. This ran aground on Tate Hill Sands below East Cliff, carrying a cargo of silver sand. With a slightly rearranged name, this became the Demeter from Varna that carries Dracula to Whitby with a cargo of silver sand and boxes of earth. So, although Stoker was to spend six more years on his novel before it was published, researching the landscapes and customs of Transylvania, the name of his villain and some of the novel’s most dramatic scenes were inspired by his holiday in Whitby.
The innocent tourists, the picturesque harbour, the abbey ruins, the windswept churchyard and the salty tales he heard from Whitby seafarers all became ingredients in the novel. When “Dracula”was published in 1897, Stoker redrafted the play as a novel told in the form of letters, diaries, newspaper cuttings and entries in the ship’s log of the “Demeter”.
Today, Whitby Abbey remains a spectacular place worth visiting any time of the year. You can lear more about its fascinating history by visiting the small museum located inside the abbey.
For my latest Museum Review from Scarborough, click here.
There is also a large gift shop where you can find anything from horror novels to clothes, toys, jewelry and different types of souvenirs. Take a look at some of them below.
You can read more about Whitby Abbey’s history here. If you want to visit it, you must book in advance. There is also a council-run parking area and a nice coffee shop that was, unfortunately closed when visiting it. Keep in mind that the last admission is always 30 minutes prior to closing! For those interested in the special events, this October you can attend the Falconry (Sat 3 – Sun 4 October), the Spooky Stories Day (24 October – 1 November) and the famous Ghost Tours which I am going to attend between 28 – 31 October, starting from 7:00 PM.