Unlocking York Minster: Go On Without Me

Kirsty Surgey is completing a project with York Minster as part of her research training with WRoCAH. This is the last of four blog posts about this exciting performance-based project.

Written by Kirsty Surgey, School of English, University of Sheffield


Everything was starting to fall into place. The date of the performance was swiftly approaching. I was anxious that I had bitten off more than I could chew. I worried that I had over-promised and I would under-deliver. I considered the logistics of the day and hoped that someone else was doing that better and more comprehensively than me.

There has been a lot of paperwork and frustration since the writing of the last blog. I needed to regain the excitement that I felt on visiting this library in the autumn. I had (nearly) learnt my lines. They were all in my head, just not always at the right time. I think back to the advice given to those eighteenth century actors and I wonder if I am ‘mouthing’ or if I am waving my arms around too much.

I had chosen three objects to share within the performance. One stone. One wood. One textile. Each has been through stages of transformation. Each is remade into something new. These are lifted and shown to the audience with an invitation to look, to see, to witness or observe every stage of re-invention. The presence of these objects and the need for careful handling helps keep my energetic gestures controlled.

There is a story that Frances Matthew was given a piece of unicorn horn by Queen Elizabeth I. Unicorn horn is said to hold magical healing properties and was a valuable gift. What the staunchly protestant wife of Archbishop Tobias Matthew would have made of this gift, I can’t say.

During the final week of this project I have felt a bit like a unicorn. I have been wandering through the Old Palace trying to convince audiences to look at me and listen to my stories. The unicorn has a showiness about it – a look-at-me aesthetic. But it is also a creature that lacks the substance of reality – I’m not sure if I am trying to convince others or myself that I have something worth hearing.

On Tuesday I ran through the performance at home for a friend; she was encouraging. It took until Friday to brave sharing it with the Minster staff. By which point I was terrified that they might hate it… but they didn’t – and I think they were as relieved as I was!

At Residents’ Festival on Saturday many visitors to the Old Palace joined in the adventure. They took their maps and they explored. They found treasure in books, in stonework and in silver. People described their discoveries to me with enthusiasm – they shared hand drawn pictures and photographs. I hope now that they will go on without me. That this is the start of their adventure in these collections. That the invitation to look closer sparks excitement and study.

The day finished with a movement workshop in the Minster. Participants appeared and disappeared in the Chapter House and created a drama machine in response to the Five Sister’s Window. Thinking always of new ways of looking, seeing and understanding.

The story of Frances Matthew, Elizabeth I and the unicorn horn helped me to select a suitable outfit for the performance – a unicorn dress. Although when challenged to discover why the audience came up with other reasons… one suggestion being that the creation of unicorns is described in the Holkham Bible in the Hailstone Wing! There was a distinctive buzz of studious energy as people created their own path through the Minster’s collections – I do hope that they will be back and maybe that those of you reading this might be inspired to see what is on offer too.

Photographs taken by Joseph Samuel Priestley, Copyright © 2018 The University of Sheffield / York Minster

Click here to read more about Kirsty’s PhD and the other research being undertaken by WRoCAH PhD students