Beverley Minster

Star Travel Rating

5/5

Review type

Things to do

Location

Beverley Minster

Date of travel

2013

Product name

Product country

Product city

Travelled with

Solo

Reasons for trip

Tourists flock to York Minster and completely ignore the undiscovered gem of Beverley Minster which is considered to be architecturally superior to it.

The first view of the Minster coming from the south on the A164 is unforgettable with the twin west towers dominating the surrounding housing. Built of pale limestone, it gleams in the sunshine. It is particularly magical on a bright cold winters afternoon when the stone glows in the last available daylight, giving the building an ethereal appearance. At night the minster is floodlight.

As you approach you realise how asymmetrical the building is as there is no centre tower. It collapsed in the 13thC and was never rebuilt. This is soon forgotten as you take in the glory of the outside with its flying buttresses, crocketed (nobbly) pinnacles, battlements, carved friezes, arcading, statues set in canopied niches… There is almost too much detail to take in.

To appreciate the inside of the church it is necessary to understand a little of its history, A monastery was founded on the site in the early 8thC by Bishop John of York. Little is known about the history of this church but it was sacked by Vikings and was refounded as a College of Canons in the 10thC by King Athelstan.

John was canonised as St John of Beverley in 1037 and pilgrims flocked to his tomb. The tower of the Norman church collapsed at the beginning of the 13thC. All that remains of the substantial Norman church is the font. The present church was begun in the early 13thC, when the chancel and transepts were built in the early English style. The east window dates from 1419 when a large perpendicular window replaced the earlier lancet windows. This contains most of the medieval glass which survived the Reformation. The nave was added in the 14thC, during the decorated period and the west end is late 14th/early 15thC perpendicular.

At this time, Beverley was the 11th largest town in England and the minster was a wealthy collegiate church and centre of pilgrimage. The College of Canons was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1548 when the crown seized its revenues. It was reduced to the status of a parish church. The chapter house was demolished and all that is left is the double staircase on the north aisle of the choir which gave access to it.

There was a major restoration in the 19thC when many of the exterior statues were recarved or replaced.

The magnificent west doorway is set under an ogee arch with, I assume, the figure of St John of Beverley in pride of place at the top. It is surrounded by statues of Kings and others on plinths under carved canopies.

Entry is through the 15thC Highgate porch set under a delicately carved triangular portico with blind arcading and two statues of bishops. At the top is the seated Christ with the twelve apostles on the top.

The inside is a contrast of brilliant white limestone with dark polished Purbeck marble pillars. It is always impressive, but on a sunny day, it is stunning. The sheer size immediately fills you with awe. The nave is massive with tall elegant pillars with pointed arches separating nave and side aisle. At the base of the arches are carved figures playing instruments. Between the arches and clerestory windows is a band of complex arcading with dog tooth carving. The pillars between the windows lead to the cross ribs of the nave ceiling with carved and gilded bosses with painted tracery round them.

The side aisles have arcading with ogee arches with carved figures between them. Each is carefully carved and each is different. Pillars between are dark Purbeck marble and they have elaborately carved capitals.

Watch out for the tomb of St John of Beverley in the nave marked by an inscription on dark slate and surrounded by a raised rim – a trip hazard if you aren’t watching your feet.

The massive carved Norman font is at the back of the south aisle and has an 18thC canopy, a monstrosity of carved scrolls and cherub heads, produced by the same workshop who did the carvings of the four apostles on the inside of the west door. This is set in another ogee arch with arcading and statues.

Between the nave and south aisle near the font is a 14thC canopied tomb set under an ogee arch with crocketed pinnacles. This is traditionally referred to as the ’two sisters tomb’. On either side of the south door are statues of St John and king Athelstan.

At the end of the nave are the 19thC wooden pulpit and brass lectern with wooden stalls on either side. pulpit

The south transept contains the memorial chapel surrounded by a carved wood screen with a massive First World War cenotaph inside with gilt decoration. This commemorates the men of the East Yorkshire Regiment and their old colours hang from the walls. On south wall is the royal coat of arms of Charles II and a 17thC painting depicting King Athelstan handing St John a charter of privileges – a historically impossible scene.

The north transept contains the Beverley Heritage Display on the walls. Banners depict important stages in the history of the town. The shop is here and inside, sitting incongruously among the gifts, is a 14th priest’s tomb chest with the effigy thought to be that of Provest Nicholas de Huggate. In the north choir aisle is the massive wooden chair made for Rev Joseph Coltam (1813-38) who weighed 37stones. On the back of the choir are lists of incumbents and organists.

Separating choir and nave is a massive 19thC oak screen, carefully carved to complement the choir stalls, with carvings of saints and bishops on the supporting pillars and angels playing instruments. Above is the 18thC organ, reached by a carved wood spiral staircase in the north choir aisle. The organ pipes are brightly painted and have carved wood crocketed pinnacles above them.

The 16th C choir stalls are one of the glories of Beverley Minster. The back row of stalls are set in a tall carved canopy with carved tracery, crocketed spires, foliage, figures and heads. The stalls have carved ends with poppy heads and misericords. These are now very fragile and visitors are asked not to touch them. These are considered to be some of the best in the country. The 18thC marble flooring made up of white and grey slabs is cleverly designed to give the effect of raised steps.

The simple altar has a gilded altar rail. Behind is the most amazing carved stone reredos. The original reredos dates from 1320-40 but the side facing the choir was mutilated and statues defaced when the college was suppressed. It was covered with plaster and the Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments and the Creed were painted over it. In the 19thC the reredos was restored, statues recarved and painted mosaic figures added. On either side of the base are stone carvings of kings, bishops and saints. Immediately behind the altar are 12 painted and mosaic figures. Above are paintings and mosaics of saints and angels holding banners with inscriptions.

To the right of the altar is the simple Saxon stone sanctuary chair, or Frith stool. The right to sanctuary was granted by King Athelstan but was abolished by Henry VIII.

Next to it is the impressive Percy Tomb, thought to be that of Lady Eleanor Percy who died in 1328. This has a carved ogee arch decorated with Percy shields, foliage, fruit, small heads and angels. At the top on the south side is the figure of Christ receiving the soul of a dead person into Heaven. On the north side is Christ showing his wounds with angels carry the instruments of the Passion. It survived the Reformation and the Puritans and is thought to be one of the finest example of stone carving from that time.

In the north choir aisle adjacent to it is the Northumberland Chapel with a wrought iron gate. This was built to house the tomb of Henry Percy, 4th Earl of Northumberland. He was born in 1446 at Leconfield Castle, the Percy estate to the north of Beverley. Although he supported Richard III, he withheld his forces at the Battle of Bosworth. He was imprisoned by Henry VII but was later restored to his estates. While collecting highly unpopular taxes to finance Henry’s defence of Brittany against the French crown, he was dragged from his horse by the mob and killed near Topcliffe. His funeral was an expensive affair with a multitude of banners and shields, 500 priests and over 13,000 mourners, all paid to attend. The old Percy standard hangs above the tomb with a very ancient and threadbare Union Jack. In the window is a small bit of 15thC stained glass with the Percy coat of arms; the only 15thC glass in the minster.

Behind the choir and the high altar is what is described as the Retro-choir. St John of Beverley’s remains were originally housed in a shrine on top of the reredos, before being moved to the nave. The back of the reredos is the original 14thC work and is beautiful. Black Purbeck marble pillars support a vaulted ceiling with elaborate carved stone bosses with foliage and small heads. On the walls is carved arcading.

At the centre is the splendid alabaster tomb of Michael Warton who died in 1655, with his figure picked out in gold and kneeling on a cushion in front of a small desk with a bible. On the north wall is a small memorial to John Warton, his second son who died aged 6 in 1656.

On the east wall is the massive tomb of Michael Warton 1725 with two grieving female figures on either side of a sarcophagus. Below is a list of his many charitable endowments.

On the south side is a double tomb. One side commemorates Michael Warton 1688 and the other his wife Susanna Warton who bore him four sons and three daughters.

I always enjoy Beverley Minster as there is always so much to see and each visit I notice something new. Normally the minster is very quiet and we are often the only visitors. Today however was the Beverley Christmas Festival of Food and Drink. The nave and north transept were full of stalls and it was very busy. There was no chance of quiet contemplation. A bonus however was the small band of musicians playing musical instruments. There were guided tours of the roof which take an hour and involve climbing over 100 spiral steps to view the largest surviving medieval treadwheel in England which is still used.

Next time you are visiting Yorkshire, give York a miss and come to Beverley instead. There is no charge for entry, there is a small free car park opposite the Minster and disabled access through a small door on the north wall.

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