The central tower was probably built by John Skirraw, a prebendary of the cathedral, the towers at the west end by John de Birmingham, about the year 1402; his name, with a figure of a bear, was cut in relief on the west front of the south tower; but this was destroyed by fire.
The Minster is best seen from the walls, as it is in a low situation, but it is a very magnificent structure. Its entire length is, externally, 519 feet ; the width of the west front, 100 feet. This west front is very grand, and the details of it extremely beautiful. The window has been said to be "an unrivalled specimen of the leafy tracery that marks the style of the middle of the fourteenth century."
The lofty towers rising at the west end are terminated by pinnacles, and are very beautiful, for they are supported by buttresses highly enriched. There is a profusion, in fact, of sculpture and tracery over almost the whole of the west front. Over the door is the statue of Archbishop Melton. On one side of him stands a statue of Lord Percy, holding a piece of rough wood in his hand - he had given the wood used in building the Minster; on the other Lord Vavasour stands, holding a rough block of stone - he gave the stone for the building from his quarries.
The south transept is a very fine piece of masonry, and it has a good porch attached to it.
The central tower, though very large, is low in comparison with the western towers; it is only 199 feet high, while the others, to the top of the pinnacles, are 201. It has been supposed that the builders intended to add a lofty spire to it; but as it stands it is a magnificent piece of architecture. The Minster has, internally, a nave, choir, and lady-chapel, each with two aisles, and north and south transepts, with two aisles, and a lantern in the middle. The nave is remarkably beautiful, and the aisles are the grandest in the kingdom; they are broader than those of Westminster, and equally lofty. The north transept has five tall and beautiful windows, called the five sisters, all of equal height and filled with early stained glass of great beauty.
In the gable above are five small lancet windows of varied heights; an arcade of trefoil arches forms the base.
The carved foliage of this transept is extremely delicate and natural. At the intersection of the main arch moulding is an animal creeping downwards, extremely well executed; above it is a small statue of a saint in a niche, under a decorated canopy. On the east side of the transept the capitals of the piers are richly decorated with leafage, birds with human heads, and other grotesque objects.
At the north end of the transept is a richly decorated portal leading into the vestibule of the chapter-house. This is the most beautiful of English chapter-houses. Like those of Salisbury, Wells, and Westminster it is octagonal, but, unlike them, it has no centre pillar, but is open throughout.
The stained glass in the vestibule of the chapterhouse is very fine, and gives a very solemn effect to it. In fact, the stained glass of York Minster is better, richer, older, and more abundant than in any other cathedral. It was not destroyed or removed at the dissolution of the monasteries, and when the army of the parliament besieged the city, it was surrendered to it only on terms that forbade the destruction even of the windows of the Minster.
The east window is of unsurpassed splendour. It is very nearly the height and breadth of the middle choir, and is divided into compartments, each representing an historical event.
"The choir is divided into two portions by a projection rising above the aisles, forming a second transept, each with a lofty window and side windows over the aisles The cleristory windows to the east have each a stone screen before them, the windows being inside the passage instead of outside, a feature peculiar to the building " - Sampson's Guide.
There is a singularly elaborate screen in this cathedral. It contains statues of the kings of England, from William the Norman to Henry V., and there is, also, a statue of James 1., which was added in a vacant niche at the time he visited the Minster.
The central tower, 65 feet square, is the largest in size in England, and was built in the fifteenth century. On each of its sides are two large perpendicular windows. A perforated battlement runs round the top, which is 199 feet from the ground, and from it there is an extensive view of the Vale of York - a most beautiful and romantic prospect.
Some of the ancient monuments in the Minster are very beautiful. In the north transept is that of Archbishop Walter de Grey. He built the transept. The monument consists of two tiers of trefoil arches, supported by eight slight columns, with capitals of finely carved foliage, supporting a canopy divided into eight niches, with angular pediments and elaborate finials. On a flat tomb under the canopy is an effigy of the archbishop, in his robes. There is a fine monument of Archbishop Bowet, of Henry VI.'s reign. A very beautiful recumbent statue of little Prince William de Halfield, Edward III.'s second son, is here. Many old monuments were defaced by Cromwell's soldiers, and others were destroyed in the fires. The vestry contains several curiosities. One of the chief of these is an ivory horn, given by Ulphus. He governed the western part of Deira, and finding that his sons were likely to quarrel about their future inheritance, he determined to take the cause of strife from these. He went to York, and taking the horn from which he usually drank, he filled it with wine, and, kneeling before the altar, conferred on God and the blessed Peter all his lands. By this horn the chapter holds estates of great value a little east of York.
The earlier churches on this site were destroyed by fire; the present Minster has twice narrowly escaped the same fate.
In 1829 a lunatic, named Jonathan Martin, set it on fire purposely. The whole of the roof of the choir and the wood-work on each side were destroyed, and the walls above the arches of the choir were so much damaged that they had to be rebuilt; the organ was burnt, and the communion plate melted The altar screen also was much injured.
This destruction was soon after repaired; but the restoration was scarcely completed before another fire occurred. A workman who had been employed to repair the clock, left his candle burning when he quitted the Minster. At nine o'clock the south-west tower, where he had be en working, was found in flames. It was wholly destroyed, and the whole of the roof of the nave fell in with it. The flames were stopped at the great tower, but fearful, irreparable mischief had been done. It has since then (1840) been entirely restored, and by the munificence and exertions of the Honorable and Reverend Augustus Duncombe, Dean of York, great improvements have been made; the chapter house has been redecorated, the organ refitted, and a new one put in the nave. In 1874 the south transept was cleaned and redecorated; the building warmed and lighted with jets of gas round the capitals of the pillars.
The general impression produced on the mind from gazing into the interior of York Minster is one of awe, and of admiration for its solemn magnificence; the simplicity of its lines and the subdued splendour of the light stealing through the exquisite stained glass, and falling on the lovely details of carved stone are also charming.
Its height makes it even more impressive, and the width of its aisles gives a grand air to it. York may well be proud of its superb Minster.