John was one of the leaders of the Northumbrian Church following the conversion of the North to Christianity in the 620s and 630s. According to later tradition he was born at Harpham near Driffield, and he was certainly Bishop of Hexham (687-706) and then York (706-c.714).
In old age he retired to a monastery he had founded in a secluded spot called by Bede Inderawuda, ‘in the wood of Deira’ (an old name for East Yorkshire), where he died in 721. Tradition identified this place with Beverley, probably correctly; certainly a major church stood on this site before the Norman Conquest, as excavations have confirmed, and John’s tomb seems always to have been here.
His holy life, and miracles after his death, persuaded the Pope to canonize him in 1037 as St. John of Beverley. It was John’s reputation that made the Minster a privileged sanctuary and a centre of pilgrimage, and which turned the remote spot to which he had retired into a thriving town. By 1377 Beverley was one of the dozen largest towns in England.
From very early days John’s miraculous powers were believed to include the granting of victory in battle. Alfred’s grandson, King Athelstan, is said to have prayed for success at his tomb, as a result of which he destroyed a coalition of his enemies in a great battle in 937. In 1138 John’s banner was one of the Northern banners behind which the men of Yorkshire marched to beat an invading Scottish army near Northallerton.
By 1266 it was the custom that when the King summoned an army, the Minster sent one man with the banner; the banner was also lent to at least four English Kings to help them defeat their enemies. In 1415 King Henry V won the battle of Agincourt on the Feast of St. John’s translation (25th October); afterwards the King visited John’s shrine to give thanks, and made him one of the patron saints of the Royal family.
The cult of John, like all other saints, was abolished by Henry VIII, who robbed and destroyed his splendid tomb and shrine, but Beverley did not forget what it owed to John. His bones, rediscovered in 1664, were re-interred in their present tomb between the nave choir stalls, and his main Feast on 7th May is once again a ‘red-letter day’.
The relationship between Beverley Minster and British royalty goes back into the Saxon period. Tradition has it that around 934AD King Athelstan, then just the ruler of Mercia and Wessex, called in at Beverley to pray at the tomb of Bishop John for victory in a forthcoming battle against amassed northern forces that would decide the royal destiny of all England.
The monks were so impressed with his piety that they gave him the flag of Bishop John to take into battle and he won an overwhelming victory at the Battle of Brunanburh “ uniting all England under one Saxon throne for the first time. In gratitude he bestowed huge wealth and privileges on to the institution, helping it become the second-richest non-cathedral institution in the entire north of England.
It is believed that the Saxon charter formally establishing the institution of Beverley Minster itself dates from this same raft of privileges granted in the wake of his victory in 937AD.
After Bishop John became St John of Beverley, patron saint of the deaf and dumb, in 1037, his shrine became even more important and after the Conquest in 1066 the Normans regarded his tomb as a jewel in their new English crown, second only in status in the north of England to the tomb of Cuthbert of Durham. They continued to believe that the flag of St John guaranteed success in battle and elevated John to one of the patron saints of the Royal Family alongside St George. Men of Beverley were exempted from answering any call to arms issued by the King provided the flag of St John was sent in their place.
During the Middle Ages almost every monarch visited Beverley Minster to pay homage to St John at least once during their reign.
The recorded visits are as follows:
1201 King John (1199-1216)
1299 King Edward l (1272-1307)
1310 King Edward II (1307-1327)
1335 King Edward III (1327-1377)
1399 King Henry IV (1399-1413)
1421 King Henry V (1413-1422)
1448 King Henry VI (1422-1461)
1474 King Edward IV (1461-1483)
The tradition died out after Henry VIII’s reforms
when the Minster was closed and due to be sold
for salvage by the King’s agent, (only saved when
it was bought to become Beverley’s civic church).
Subsequent royal visits are as follows:
1640 King Charles I (1625- 1649)
1795 Prince of Wales (later King George IV)
1905 King Edward VII (1901-1910)
1934 Queen Mary (Queen Mother)
1950 Elizabeth, Princess Royal
1960 Queen Elizabeth (Queen Mother)
1977 Queen Elizabeth II (1952- )
Neil Pickford (Virger)