The original church on the site was founded in 1055 and dedicated to Saint Olaf. After the Norman Conquest the church came into the possession of the Anglo-Breton magnate Alan Rufus who granted the lands to Abbot Stephen and a group of monks from Whitby. The abbey church was refounded in 1088 when the King, William Rufus, visited York in January or February of that year and gave the monks additional lands. The following year he laid the foundation stone of the new Norman church and the site was rededicated to the Virgin Mary. The foundation ceremony was attended by bishop Odo of Bayeux and Archbishop Thomas of Bayeux. The monks moved to York from a site at Lastingham in Ryedale in the 1080s and are recorded there in Domesday. Following a dispute and riot in 1132, a party of reform-minded monks left to establish the Cistercian monastery of Fountains Abbey. In 1137 the abbey was badly damaged by a great fire. The surviving ruins date from a rebuilding programme begun in 1271 and finished by 1294.
The abbey estate occupied the entire site of the Museum Gardens and the abbot was one of the most powerful clergymen of his day, on a par with the Archbishop of York. In medieval York, the abbey sat opposite and mirrored the Minster: two great buildings dedicated to worship. The monks would spend their days working in abbey administration, copying books, trading with merchants, providing food and supplies for the monastery, managing the abbey’s estates and helping the poor.
Visitors can see the remains of the walls of the nave and crossing of the abbey church, where the monks prayed and sang, and the cloister, where the monks washed their clothes, contemplated and were allowed to speak. . . . King Henry VIII banned all monasteries in England in 1530s. The monks at St Mary’s were pensioned off in 1540 and the abbey buildings were converted into a palace for the King when he visited York. Gradually they fell into ruins and were used as agricultural buildings before being excavated by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society in the 1820s.
York Museums Trust