The History of Selby
The origins of Selby are far from clear. The current name with the suffix –by indicates Viking roots; but it is also suggested by some that Selby is the Seletun mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, making it a Saxon foundation, and even that the settlement goes back to Roman times when it would have been Salebeia, the first part of that name referring to the willows (Salix) found beside the River Ouse on which the town sits. Archaeological finds indicate that the Romans did have a presence of some sort on the site of modern Selby.
Our real knowledge of the place, however, begins just after the Conquest . A French monk, Benedict, is said to have experienced a vision in his Auxerre monastery, telling him to found an Abbey in England at a place called Selebaie where he would see three swans swimming. After no luck at Salisbury he tried Selby, where he duly observed three swans enter the Ouse. The Abbey was consequently built there, first in wood then in magnificent stone.
Selby gained royal favour after the birth in 1068 of William the Conqueror ’s fourth son Henry, who eventually became Henry I . William was visiting apparently to settle the foundation of the Abbey when Queen Matilda gave birth to Prince Henry. Thus favoured Selby became a huge complex, its church larger than some cathedrals (the central nave that remains today is still vast; the rest has gone along with all of its dependent buildings bar a decayed staithe).
In the 14th century the Washington family was commemorated in a stained-glass window in the Abbey, showing the stars and stripes design that is said to be the model for the flag of the USA.
In 1530 nearby Cawood, site of a great ecclesiastical palace, was where the banished Cardinal Wolsey was arrested to be taken for trial in London , though he died on the way. At the dissolution nine years later Selby Abbey was made over to Sir Ralph Sadler for £736 and an annual rent of £3 10s and 6d.
What was left of the Abbey church became the parish church on March 20 1618. It suffered further damage when the steeple collapsed in 1690.
During the Civil War Selby had its second great moment in history (the first being Henry I’s birth), the Battle of Selby : on April 11 1644, Royalist defenders were overwhelmed by a risky three pronged attack by the Roundhead forces under the command of Lord Fairfax and his son Thomas . A huge store of gunpowder and shot thus fell into Parliamentary hands, and 1500 soldiers loyal to Charles I were captured: both could have made a difference in the subsequent siege of York and the Battle of Marston Moor .
In the 18th century Selby, long a river port of no little consequence, became something of a transport hub, thought to have handled some 500 seagoing ships amounting to more than 300,000 tonnes of cargo per annum in its heyday. This growth was primed by the building of the Aire and Calder Navigation. It was also a major coaching stop on the route to York . Such activity enhanced business prospects in the town, originally known for its wool trade: sail-making and shipbuilding became major employers, shipbuilding lasting until relatively recent days. When in the 19th century the railways displaced the coaching trade Selby became a centre for goods handling, particularly the agricultural produce of the West Riding.
The Ouse, source of much of the town’s wealth over the years, has also too often been its temporary ruin: great floods have devastated it in 1794, 1866, 1947, 1983, and 2000.
It was coal beneath Selby rather than water running through it that briefly dominated the town’s economy from 1976 when the Selby Superpit was dug to its closure in 2004, though the coal-fired Drax power-station nearby remains as a major employer.