Letter from Roger Lewis

Lockdown 4

11 April 2021

In my previous blog I outlined our approach to supporting repair work on the Minster, most recently re-roofing the nave. This is to ensure the preservation of the structure of the building – its roofs, walls, windows.

Three proposals for the Minster’s interior

Proposals for developing interior space have also been considered. A priority identified by the Friends is to open the south quire aisle. Most cathedrals and major churches allow unrestricted access right found the footprint of the building. In our case locked doors enclose a storage area. Arguably (John Phillips is not so sure) this could have been part of a one-way pilgrim route: up the north aisle of the nave and north quire aisle, through the quire to view the shrine of St John on top of the reredos, and then down the south quire aisle to exit at the door near the font. Keeping the many pilgrims moving would have required some such plan. To unblock this area would open up new perspectives to our modern pilgrims, including of the historic organ.

A further proposal is to develop the opposite quire aisle. The lesser transept there is closed to the public – serving (behind an unsightly 1960s partition) as part vestry and part choir vestry. Relocating these uses to the Parish Hall would open that part of the Minster to the public. Minster Yard North could be pedestrianized, making life much easier for tourists and worshippers and creating a green, traffic free area. This is a more ambitious proposal than for the south quire aisle – at least in terms of cost as it would require ‘knock on’ work in the Parish Hall and in the vestry/lavatory area of the Minster (as well as support from the East Riding Council).

A third proposal, from the PCC, is to re-order the head of the nave – replacing the late Victorian choir stalls and re-locating the sanctuary chair from the retro-quire, creating a new focus for worship.

Who will use the Minster in future, and how?

These proposals depend on how the building will be used after Covid. Different users have different requirements. Sometimes these are in conflict. Will we sustain the current compromise or will the pattern change?

The main user has been the Church itself, the worshipping community. The Church of England has been entrusted with the care of its historic churches, a heavy responsibility. Some would argue that caring for buildings diverts the Church from its true mission – leading people to Christ.

Evensongs at Friends’ weekends included a sermon in which this issue was usually addressed. The sermon would vary from celebration of the building (seen as expressing the presence of God) to a sense of discomfort at having so rich and elaborate a building when something much more modest would be appropriate (God does not need a grand building or indeed any building).

The Church of England is currently reviewing its role post-Covid. As the Vicar’s blog (20 March 2021) says, becoming ‘missionary disciples’ is ‘a strategic priority’. What role will a building such as the Minster play in the work of ‘missionary disciples’?

We can assume there will continue to be organisations – commercial and communal – who wish to hire the building and whose fees help with maintenance: wedding fairs, carol services, concerts, degree ceremonies and so on will all eventuality re-start.

Perhaps the major users though will become the tourists, whose numbers are expected to grow after Covid. Future use of the Minster may thus be driven by ‘heritage’ If so, what does this mean for the Friends? Our constitution positions us well to support opening the building to the general interested public. It might be seen as reinforcing the Friends’ selection of the south quire aisle as a priority – so 21st century tourists can see the whole of the building from all angles.


Lockdown 3b

April 2021

Hard times have the benefit of sharpening the mind and clarifying priorities.

We spend a lot of time thinking about uses of our Friends’ funds, about what we can and can’t support and how we may partner with others to keep the Minster in good shape.

In past years the Friends have largely spent money on the ‘nice to have’ rather than the ‘must have’. Examples include restoring wooden panels in the south transept (John and Athelstan) and north quire aisle (Hildyard arms) and re-gilding the font cover. A more elaborate example (funded in the end by Leslie Froomes) is the modern window in the retro-quire.

The shop was perhaps an exception: it is important part of the functioning infrastructure of the building but it would be possible to dismantle it if necessary, without damaging the fabric. In that sense it is not structural.

These gifts are in line with our founding statement: ‘to co-operate with the Minster authorities in the preservation and adornment of Beverley Minster’.

The assumption when the Friends was set up in the 1930s was that there would be adequate funds from other sources to maintain the actual fabric of the building and so the Friends could add additional benefits to that. Peter Forster (vicar in the late twentieth century) commented to me in a recent letter that even in his time we could rely on the Old Fund on its own to look after the fabric.

But times have changed. We inherit a building in the 2020s which requires considerable structural renovation. And there are shrinking reserves to pay for it (notably in terms of the PCC’s budget). The ‘general population’ makes a number of false assumptions about how buildings such as ours are kept in good repair; they think central government helps (it doesn’t, except via the occasional exceptional scheme), that local councils have money to support repairs (they don’t) and that anyway the Church of England is ‘rich’ and can afford repairs (it isn’t and it can’t).

Even with the lesser quire transept re-roofed (and the nave in progress) there is much still to do on the roofs alone. One of my favourite approaches to the Minster is walking from the Long Lane direction (the fields are now rapidly filling with new houses). This gives an excellent view of the Minster roofs. The quire transept just completed is only a tiny part of total; even when the nave roof is completed, much will be left to restore. If you follow the route I describe, you will see the much-patched choir and greater transept roofs – it won’t be long before we have to re-roof these too.

This combination of essential repair work and limited money came to a head recently over the re-roofing of the nave. We were prompted to look at how to translate our 1930s founders’ priorities into 2021 – helping with the roof whilst staying true to the spirit of a Friends’ organisation. Fortunately a close reading of our Constitution gives us scope to support such ventures. Note in my earlier quotation (above) that we can cover ‘preservation’ as well as ‘adornment’; another phrase refers to ‘maintenance’ of the building (leaving it open as to what this general term might mean). Furthermore it is significant that, in the unlikely event of the Friends having to be dissolved as an organisation, our constitution requires that any assets would be transferred ‘to the Trustees of Queen Elizabeth’s Church Endowment (otherwise known as Minster Old Fund)… for the repair and maintenance of Beverley Minster’. These are all indications that, above all, those who set up the Friends had as their absolute priority the preservation of the building.

Lockdown 3a

March 2021

This is my third lockdown contribution. Who would have believed lockdown would have lasted so long? We are nearing the end it seems, but there are still weeks to wait (my long-delayed haircut, for example, is not till April).

This has, of course, been a very difficult time for the Minster – and, to a lesser extent, for the Friends. Our biggest loss has been the 2020 social programme: no study day, lectures, guided tours, AGM weekend, St John Lecture, coach trip; a year ago that would have been inconceivable.

But this has, nevertheless, been a very busy time. Though the Minster itself has been mostly closed, work on its fabric has carried on throughout and will continue till completion of the nave roof at the end of the year. The Friends have been key to funding the three stages of roof work.

Local Friends will have seen the mass of scaffolding erected on the north and south sides of the building, accompanied by the shouts and other sounds of the scaffolders (sounds which haven’t changed since medieval times). The scaffolding itself is beautiful, intricate, glinting in the sun; its erection at such a time of national difficulty is impressive. The essence of the tasks – putting up scaffold and leading roofs – would be familiar to medieval workers. There has been a feeling of agelessness and at the same time historic continuity throughout.

First there was the lesser south transept roof (the scaffolding would have stretched to Market Weighton). Then, if you are local, you would have seen stage two: the move to the eastern end of the nave roof. Now we have, together with the Old Fund, agreed to fund the rest – i.e. the western part of the nave roof, to put right over 200 leaks spoiling the massive oak timbers.

We were able to attract external funding for some of this: the National Lottery Heritage Fund for the lesser transept and the Culture Recovery Fund for Heritage (from the government) for the eastern part of the nave. In both cases the Minster had to find sources of its own ‘match funding’ and that is where the Friends have come in. For the final part of the work – about to start – no external funding has been possible, and the Old Fund and the Friends are sharing the total cost.

This was not an easy decision for us to take given the extent of the sum concerned (in our case approaching £500,000) but given the urgency of the need and our responsibilities to the building we felt we must make an exception. The work should last at least 200 years, our contribution to preserving this extraordinary building and all that it means to the local community and beyond.


Lockdown 2

November 2020

At just about the time of the ‘lockdown’ the Minster published ‘Sanctuary: Beverley – a town of refuge’. Not, you may say, a good time, with the Minster shop just closing and no easy way to pay a modest £6 to enjoy it.

This is the first fruit of the sanctuary interpretation project, funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund with match funding from the Friends of Beverley Minster.

The book is a revised and (significantly) re-designed version of the earlier book with the same title, published way back in 1982. The revision (carried out by the same author, Martyn Kirby) benefits from the latest scholarship: sanctuary in medieval England has developed as a historical field in recent years. Local historian, Professor Barbara English along with Cambridge doctoral student Edward Everett commented helpfully on a draft.

The most obvious new element is the design and illustration. Every page carries a photograph or other visual – including spectacular full colour photographs of the Minster and its setting and items associated with sanctuary. The design and lay out is the work of Mervyn King, who also managed all stages through to publication.

The book explains how sanctuary worked. Crosses two miles from the Minster marked out the start of the safe area. Three crosses survive (see the map in the book); a cross at Molescroft disappeared, possibly during the construction of the railway in the mid 19th century. The closer the fugitive got to the Minster’s altar, the safer he or she became. Beverley was a leading sanctuary town in the north, along with Durham; Ripon and Hexham also had sanctuary rights, the latter church was also associated with St John of Beverley.

The crosses form one visible link with this history. The other link is the fridstool to the north of the Minster’s main altar. This is almost certainly Saxon in date; Hexham has a similar chair.

Sanctuary towns were given rights to shelter people running from the law. Fugitives made for such towns to gain time –to prepare their legal case, seek pardon or plan longer-term refuge. Many were debtors; others were thieves or murderers (the nature of the crime did not seem significant).

Successful fugitives could stay for 30 days. Arrangements for their accommodation would have been made by Minster officials (and we need to remember that, until the mid-16th century, the Minster would have operated as a big business, with about 75 staff of different kinds). The quality of the accommodation would probably have varied depending on the social status of the person seeking sanctuary.

If no other arrangement had been made (such as a pardon granted) the fugitive would be outlawed – escorted to a port and forced to abjure the realm for life. It appears that at Beverley there was an alternative: to stay on in the town as a ‘sanctuary man’ for a further 30 days and even after that, to remain ‘a servant of the church for life’ (the oath they would have to swear to this effect is reproduced in the book).

Records survive listing those who gained sanctuary. The Sanctuary Book covers the period 1478-1539 (after that point sanctuary declined though it wasn’t ended formally until 1624). 493 people (three of them women) gained sanctuary in that time, an average of about eight per year. The record gives details of their occupation, their alleged crime and their home area.

There must have been tension between the ‘sanctuary men’ and the legal system. Also tensions within the town, ‘the sanctuary men’ seen as both outsiders and criminals. The vicar looks at modern parallels in a closing reflection.

As soon as we return to normal I hope you’ll visit the Minster shop or online shop to buy this new publication – or buy several, as especially given its attractive appearance it would make an ideal gift.


Lockdown 1

March 2020

Strange times. As I write I have just returned from my permitted one-hour exercise close to home – walking on Westwood. Today, the section next to the grammar school; I plan to explore other segments during this period of ‘social distancing’ (by the look of it there will be plenty of time for such projects). Even the weather is odd. After so much water (rain, floods) even the normally boggy areas are dry; the sun is strong (along with a very cold wind). Today: hail and snow flurries; banks of dark grey cloud alternating with bright sun. We’ll remember all this when we look back and tell our children/grandchildren of ‘what happened in 2020’.

You will know (via this website or through having had a booking cancelled) that our Spring day school is not happening. Our guest lecturer – Roger Willson – had worked hard on his preparation and we know, from previous day schools he has led for us, that it would have been not only a good learning experience but also an opportunity for spiritual refreshment. The event is postponed rather than cancelled, to be rescheduled for 2021.

One of the ‘objects’ of the Friends of Beverley Minster (as set out in our founding document) is ‘to seek to bind together in a common fellowship all those who love Beverley Minster’. The wording is perhaps a little old-fashioned, dating from the early 20th century, but the sentiment remains current.

The consequence of Covid 19 gives us a challenge: how can we build fellowship at a time of social distancing and self-isolation? We can’t meet physically but we do have other means of making contact. These include email and the website on which you are reading this message.

The Friends funded the development of the Minster website some 15 years ago. We were in the vanguard thanks to the prompting of Leslie Froomes – one of many things for which we must thank Leslie (who also led the Welcomer team for several years).

Now, in 2020, we owe thanks to Mervyn King for keeping the website up-to-date and visually attractive. It is coming into its own in these difficult times when electronic media enable us to maintain speedy contact with many people. We plan to use the Friends’ pages on the website to keep in contact with you, our members – not least to let you know when our social programme will resume.

The Minster is closed (it’s an interesting question as to when this was last the case). We are unable to go inside but we can continue to explore the building virtually. It’s no coincidence that the use of the National Gallery website has hugely increased as people realise they can look at the paintings – in some ways more closely and easily – via their screens. The Minster’s history, sculptures and carvings, glass, bells, architecture can all be accessed via the internet.

We hope to provide ideas, links and suggestions to help you too to continue to explore the Minster and its significance. It needn’t be one-way communication; you can contact us by using the email address given on the website; we can all thus continue to participate in the fellowship of the Friends’ community.

So let’s keep in touch and remain active until life returns to its customary pattern, when we can resume our programme of events and other activities.

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Charity No. 501302