It has a very wide Decorated Gothic nave and chapter house, a Perpendicular Gothic choir and east end, and Early English north and south transepts. The nave contains the West Window, constructed in 1338, and over the Lady Chapel in the east end is the Great East Window, (finished in 1408), the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world. In the north transept is the Five Sisters Window, each lancet being over high. The south transept contains the famous Rose window.
In 741 the church was destroyed in a fire. It was rebuilt as a more impressive structure, containing thirty altars. The church and the entire area then passed through the hands of numerous invaders, and its history is obscure until the 10th century. There was a series of Benedictine archbishops, including Saint Oswald, Wulfstan, and Ealdred, who travelled to Westminster to crown William in 1066. Ealdred died in 1069 and was buried in the church.
The church was damaged in 1069, but the first Norman archbishop, arriving in 1070, organised repairs. The Danes destroyed the church in 1075, but it was again rebuilt from 1080. Built in the Norman style, it was long and rendered in white and red lines. The new structure was damaged by fire in 1137 but was soon repaired. The choir and crypt were remodelled in 1154, and a new chapel was built, all in the Norman style.
The Gothic style in cathedrals had arrived in the mid 12th century. Walter de Gray was made archbishop in 1215 and ordered the construction of a Gothic structure to compare to Canterbury; building began in 1220. The north and south transepts were the first new structures; completed in the 1250s, both were built in the Early English Gothic style but had markedly different walls. A substantial central tower was also completed, with a wooden spire. Building continued into the 15th century. The Chapter House was begun in the 1260s, and it was completed before 1296. The wide nave was constructed from the 1280s on the Norman foundations. The outer roof was completed in the 1330s, but the vaulting was not finished until 1360. Construction then moved on to the eastern arm and chapels, with the last Norman structure, the choir, being demolished in the 1390s. Work here finished around 1405. In 1407 the central tower collapsed; the piers were then reinforced, and a new tower was built from 1420. The western towers were added between 1433 and 1472. The cathedral was declared complete and consecrated in 1472.
The English Reformation led to the first Anglican archbishop, the looting of much of the cathedral's treasures, and the loss of much of the church lands. Under Elizabeth I there was a concerted effort to remove all traces of the Roman Catholic Church from the cathedral; there was much destruction of tombs, windows, and altars. In the English Civil War the city was besieged and fell to the forces of Cromwell in 1644, but Thomas Fairfax prevented any further damage to the cathedral.
Following the easing of religious tensions there was some work to restore the cathedral. From 1730 to 1736 the whole floor of the Minster was relaid in patterned marble, and from 1802 there was a major restoration. However, on 2 February 1829 an arson attack by non-conformist Jonathan Martin (; ; ) inflicted heavy damage on the east arm, and an accidental fire in 1840 left the nave, south west tower, and south aisle roofless, blackened shells. The cathedral slumped deeply into debt, and in the 1850s services were suspended, but from 1858 Augustus Duncome worked successfully to revive the cathedral.
During the 20th century there was more concerted preservation work, especially following a 1967 survey that revealed the building, in particular the central tower, was close to collapse. £2,000,000 was raised and spent by 1972 to reinforce and strengthen the building foundations and roof. During the excavations that were carried out, remains of the north corner of the Roman Principia were found under the south transept. A fire in 1984 destroyed the roof in the south transept, and around £2.5 million was spent on repairs. Restoration work was completed in 1988, and included new roof bosses to designs which had won a competition organised by BBC Television's Blue Peter programme. In 2007 renovation began on the east front, including the Great East Window, at an estimated cost of £23 million.
York Minster is the second largest Gothic cathedral of Northern Europe and clearly charts the development of English Gothic architecture from Early English through to the Perpendicular Period. The present building was begun in about 1230 and completed in 1472. It has a cruciform plan with an octagonal chapter house attached to the north transept, a central tower and two towers at the west front. The stone used for the building is magnesian limestone, a creamy-white coloured rock that was quarried in nearby Tadcaster. The Minster is long and each of its three towers are high. The choir, which has an interior height of , is only surpassed in height in England by the choir of Westminster Abbey.
The North and South transepts were the first parts of the new church to be built. They have simple lancet windows, the most famous being the Five Sisters in the north transept. These are five lancets, each high and glazed with grey (grisaille) glass, rather than narrative scenes or symbolic motifs that are usually seen in medieval stained glass windows. In the south transept is the famous Rose Window whose glass dates from about 1500 and commemorates the union of the royal houses of York and Lancaster. The roofs of the transepts are of wood, that of the south transept was burnt in the fire of 1984 and was replaced in the restoration work which was completed in 1988. New designs were used for the bosses, five of which were designed by winners of a competition organised by the BBC's Blue Peter television programme.
Work began on the chapter house and its vestibule that links it to the north transept after the transepts were completed. The style of the chapter house is of the early Decorated Period where geometric patterns were used in the tracery of the windows, which were wider than those of early styles. However, the work was completed before the appearance of the ogee curve, an S-shaped double curve which was extensively used at the end of this period. The windows cover almost all of the upper wall space, filling the chapter house with light. The chapter house is octagonal, as is the case in many cathedrals, but is notable in that it has no central column supporting the roof. The wooden roof, which was of an innovative design, is light enough to be able to be supported by the buttressed walls. The chapter house has many sculptured heads above the canopies, representing some of the finest Gothic sculpture in the country. There are human heads, no two alike, and some pulling faces; angels; animals and grotesques. Unique to the transepts and chapter house is the use of Purbeck marble to adorn the piers, adding to the richness of decoration.
The nave was built between 1291 and c. 1350 and is also in the decorated Gothic style. It is the widest Gothic nave in England and has a wooden roof (painted so as to appear like stone) and the aisles have vaulted stone roofs. At its west end is the Great West Window, known as the 'Heart of Yorkshire' which features flowing tracery of the later decorated gothic period.
The East end of the Minster was built between 1361 and 1405 in the Perpendicular Gothic style. Despite the change in style, noticeable in details such as the tracery and capitals, the eastern arm preserves the pattern of the nave. The east end contains a four bay choir; a second set of transepts, projecting only above half-height; and the Lady Chapel. The transepts are in line with the high altar and serve to through light onto it. Behind the high altar is the Great East Window, the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world.
The sparsely decorated Central Tower was built between 1407 and 1472 and is also in the Perpendicular style. Below this, separating the choir from the crossing and nave is the striking fifteenth century choir screen. It contains sculptures of the kings of England from William the Conqueror to Henry VI with stone and gilded canopies set against a red background. Above the screen is the organ, which dates from 1832. The West Towers, in contrast with the central tower, are heavily decorated and are topped with battlements and eight pinnacles each, again in the Perpendicular style.
York as a whole and particularly the Minster have a long tradition of creating beautiful stained glass. Some of the stained glass in York Minster dates back to the twelfth century. The tall Great East Window, created in the early fifteenth century, is the largest example of medieval stained glass in the world. Other spectacular windows in the Minster include an ornate rose window and the tall five sisters window. Because of the extended time periods during which the glass was installed, different types of glazing and painting techniques that evolved over hundreds of years are visible in the different windows. Approximately 2 million individual pieces of glass make up the cathedral's 128 stained glass windows. Much of the glass was removed before and pieced back together after the first and second world wars, and the windows are constantly being cleaned and restored to keep their beauty intact. In 2008 a major restoration of the Great East Window commenced, involving the removal, repainting and re-leading of each individual panel.
The clock bells ring every quarter of an hour during the daytime and Great Peter strikes the hour. The change ringing bells are rung regularly on Sundays before Church Services and at other times, the ringers practice on Tuesday evenings. The chiming bells are occasionally rung before services.
In 1901, J.W. Walker and Sons undertook reconstruction. Walkers added a considerable amount of new pipework.
A small amount of work was undertaken in 1915 by Harrison & Harrison and the famous Tuba Mirabilis was added. Other minor work was undertaken in fits and starts by the same firm until 1928. In 1961 J.W. Walker rebuilt it, and it was cleaned in 1982.
The fire of 1984 affected the organ but not irreparably; the damage hastened the time for a major restoration, which was begun in 1991 and finished a year later by Geoffrey Coffin, who had at one time been assistant organist at the Minster.
From 2001 the person traditionally referred to as the Organist is called the Master of the Music. John Scott Whiteley is Organist and Director of the Girls' Choir.
The astronomical clock was installed in the North Transept of York Minster in 1955. The clock is a memorial to the airmen operating from bases in Yorkshire, Durham, and Northumberland who were killed in action during World War II.
In November 2002, York Minster was illuminated in colour, devised by York-born Mark Brayshaw, for the first time in its history. The occasion was televised live on the BBC1 Look North program. Similar illuminations have been projected over the Christmas period in subsequent years.
York Minster was also artistically illuminated on 5 November 2005, celebrating the 400th anniversary of the foiling of York-born Guy Fawkes' gunpowder plot. This was done by Patrice Warrener using his unique "chromolithe" technique with which he 'paints' with light, picking out sculpted architectural details.