Whitby Abbey: the gloomy ruins that inspired Bram Stoker to bring Dracula to life.
From Mina Harker’s diary, Chapter 6, Dracula by Bram Stoker: “Right over the town is the ruin od Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes, and which is the scene of part of ‘Marmion’, where the girl was built up in the wall. It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits. There is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows…this is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby…”
Stories apart, Whitby Abbey was a 7th-century Christian monastery that later became a Benedictine abbey. The abbey church was situated overlooking the North Sea on the East Cliff above Whitby in North Yorkshire, England, a centre of the medieval Northumbrian kingdom.
In ruins since the days of Henry VIII, King of England from 1509 until his death in 1547, Whitby Abbey has been known more as the romantically gloomy ruins than as the monastery it once was.
Historically, the first religious buildings on the site were built around 657, and were destroyed by Danish invaders between 867 and 870. The restored Gothic structure that took its place ultimately met its end in 1540 during the anti-Catholic rampages, known officially as the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which followed Henry VIII’s separation from the Catholic Church. Since that time, the ruins of the abbey have continued to be used by sailors as a landmark at the headland. Additional damage was done by German battleships in WWI, in December 1914, aiming for the nearby Coastguard Station on the end of the headland.
The resulting ruins are atmospheric, pictoresque and have inspired many writers and artists, including Bram Stoker, who used Whitby as the location for the first landing of Dracula in England. It’s said that it was here where the author himself first discovered the real Vlad Dracul in 1890, in the pages of a book he checked out from the local library. Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel featured the creature, described as resembling a large dog, which came ashore at the headland climbed the 199 steps which lead up to the Whitby Abbey ruins.
In any case, Whitby Abbey has become something of a Goth pilgrimage site, and touristy Dracula-related locations of (dubious) literary or historical significance have followed in their wake.
Whitby is also home to the Whitby Museum, Library and Archive containing many varied and strange items like Tempest Prognosticators, also known as the leech barometer, a 19th-century invention by doctor and inventor George Merryweather in which leeches are used in a barometer. The twelve leeches are kept in small bottles inside the device and, when they become agitated by an approaching storm they attempt to climb out of the bottles and trigger a small hammer which strikes a bell. The likelihood of a storm is indicated by the number of times the bell is struck. But also an alleged “Hand of Glory”, a dried and pickled hand of a person who has been hanged, often specified as being the left hand, or, if the man was hanged for murder, the hand that “did the deed.” Old European beliefs attribute great powers to a Hand of Glory combined with a candle made from fat from the corpse of the same malefactor who died on the gallows. The candle so made, lighted, and placed (as if in a candlestick) in the Hand of Glory, would have rendered motionless all persons to whom it was presented. The process for preparing the hand and the candle are described in 18th-century documents roughly translated.
Elsewhere, Bram Stoker found additional inspiration at Eastern European and Scottish castles, and closer to home at St. Michan’s Church crypts in Dublin, where you can still visit the mummies today (but this is another story). The original manuscript for Dracula is held in the United States, at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia and his author is buried at Golders Green Crematorium in London.
Images from Web – Google Research