St Mary’s church has long been acknowledged to be one of the finest examples of a late medieval church in England.
It is named for John, Bishop of York, who founded a monastery on the site and was buried in the chapel of his Saxon church in 721. He was canonised in 1037 and a Norman church was built around his tomb. His bones still lie beneath a plaque in the nave of the present church.
After a fire, a new church was built between 1220 and 1425, embracing and blending the elements of three architectural styles: Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular. The choir and double aisled transepts are Early English, the nave of ten bays is Decorated, and the west front Perpendicular.
Remarkable remnants include a 13th century double staircase to a lost chapter house in the north choir aisle, a 14th century altar screen, and the huge Perpendicular east window, the only surviving medieval window in the minster, built in 1416 to replace a group of Early English lancets.
The interior holds many more delights. Near the superb 14th century Decorated shrine to the Percy family is an Anglo-Saxon Frid Stool (or peace stool), which offered sanctuary to criminals. There are also more than 70 carvings of medieval musical instruments, for which the minster is famous. They depict both the familiar and unfamiliar: bagpipes, flutes, tambourines, shawms (early oboes), trumpets, lutes and many more besides.
The 68 misericords delight visitors with their whimsical humour, incorporating bizarre beasts, animal musicians, domestic discord and dancing fools; one delightful seat shows a fox preaching to geese and the geese then hanging the fox. However individually striking, all these details merely serve to glorify a magnificent edifice, renowned for the grace and harmony of its Gothic style.
After Westminster Abbey (the twin towers of which it may have inspired), it is regarded as the most impressive 'non-cathedral' church in England.