A church crawl in Beverley

‘A minster is a church that was established during Anglo-Saxon times as a missionary teaching church, or a church attached to a monastery. A cathedral is the seat of a bishop (his seat, or throne, is called a cathedra).’

So that sorts that one out.  We’ve been wondering what makes York and  Beverley minsters, when one is in effect a cathedral, and the other a parish church: both are equally magnificent.

West Towers, Beverley Minster: Wikimedia Commons
West Towers, Beverley Minster: Wikimedia Commons

Over the years, we’ve visited York Minster many times.  But Beverley, tucked away in the East Riding of Yorkshire, in the flatlands of the Wolds, was unknown to us both.  An outing organised for some National Trust volunteers at Fountains Abbey & Studley Royal put that right this week.

Beverley itself is a lovely town, founded way back in the 700s by St. John of Beverley, who was a scholar, a healer and a holy man.  He built the monastery which became the nucleus of the town, and indeed of the minster.  Even by the 1100s this church had been rebult several times, especially after a serious fire in 1188. Then it was all to do again in 1213: the tower they had built was too ambitiously large, and collapsed.  But later, the building was yet again in a bad way:

‘The Minster as we have it today owes much to the work of the great 18th Century church architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. By the early 18th century the church was in a bad state – decaying and neglected. Worse, the north wall of the north transept – built on a marsh, don’t forget – was listing badly: it had actually leaned four feet into the street.

Hawksmoor was called in to advise how to save the building. The roof of the north transept was removed, and a wooden cradle, designed by York joiner William Thornton, was fixed around the wall. Then, over a period of 11 days, using ropes and pulleys, the entire wall – 200 tonnes of stone – was pulled back upright.’.

Do follow the link to the article in The York Press from which this quotation is taken.  It’ll give you an excellent potted history of this wonderful building.  And it’ll introduce you too to the Minster’s very special tower.  Toil up the 113-stepped spiral staircase and you’ll find a Georgian treadmill, used to open up a ceiling boss over the nave to enable workmen to haul materials into the roof area.  You’ll find graffiti, some more than 200 years old, scratched into the plain glass of the rose windowsby the men who’ve worked up here over the centuries.

So here is a serene and beautiful building which has so much to offer: a fascinating ecclesiastical and architectural history, wonderful stonework and stained glass, misericords to investigate.

The Minster could keep you happily exploring all day.  But Beverley has another church, St. Mary’s, which is one of the great parish churches of England, and it too provides a lesson in mediaeval church architecture.

There are traces of its early years, when it was first built in 1120, but wander round, and you can see how the nave, side aisles and chancel date from the 13th century, the truly wonderful west front from the 14th century, the glorious painted wooden roof, and the choir stalls with their misericords from 1445.  You don’t know what a misericord is?  It’s a ledge projecting from the underside of a hinged seat in a choir stall, which when turned up, gives support to someone standing through the long, long moments of a mediaeval church service.  Not normally on public display, they’re often whimsical, drawing on folk traditions, or slightly imperfect knowledge of exotic beasts.  Here’s an elephant from St. Mary’s.  And here are minstrels atop a carved pillar.  And a 13th century rabbit, thought to be the inspiration for Tenniel’s illustration of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland.

After all that, there was no time left to explore Beverley.  We’ve decided that’s a pity.  We’ll be back.  But however much time we spend in the town, we’ll be sure to revisit both the Minster and St. Mary’s: both are very special places

12 thoughts on “A church crawl in Beverley”

  1. Lovely article – I would live to explore the English countryside and the towns north and far north of London. Beautiful – thank you. Church history is always interesting and tell us so much about our past.

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  2. The details on your description and photos is amazing! You really bring this alive, which I’m sure makes you a very good guide and volunteer. I’ve been reading a series of mysteries set in a nunnery in the 1400s and now I can sort of envision what the space must’ve looked like!

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      1. Actually, I’ve read two series–one is by Margaret Frazer and is set in England in the 1400s. The other is by Veronica Black and set in more modern times, in Cornwall. I liked both!

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