King Athelstan was the first King of all England and tradition has it that he granted Beverley the ‘right of sanctuary’ in recognition of Saint John of Beverley answering his prayer for victory against the Scots.
Why were the crosses placed in a ring around Beverley? Who was responsible for the original plan? Throughout the Middle Ages the townsfolk of Beverley believed that it was King Athelstan who had founded the Minster. John the Romeyn, Archbishop of York, said in 1290: ‘Athelstan the illustrious King of England the founder of the church of St John of Beverley’. We now know that St. John founded a Christian settlement in the 8th century. The wooden church and its cluster of monastic cells was probably burnt by marauding Danes in 867. Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great, appears to have been a man much influenced by tales of miracles according to a tradition recorded 200 years later. When camped near Lincoln en route to give battle, he is said to have talked to a pilgrim who claimed to have been restored to health in Beverley. In this year of 934, Athelstan diverted to Beverley where, according to a legend told by William Ketell in about 1150, he prostrated himself before the altar, then left his dagger on the altar swearing to return if successful in battle and he took St John’s banner to Scotland. The relics of St. John’s body were placed in a special tomb in 1023. This was destroyed in a fire in 1188 and a silver gilt shrine built behind the altar in 1292 housed some remains. Some floor-layers in 1726 found the remains wrapped in lead and included in the contents was a dagger! It is an attractive but presumptuous speculation to suggest that this was Athelstan’s dagger of legend!
Athelstan also took the banner of St John to the battle at Brunanburh where he met an estimated force of 30,000 men. This opposing army had entered the ‘Yellow Sea’ (umber is a yellow/brown pigment), disembarked and battle was joined in 937. The actual site of the so-called ‘Great War’ is a famous Saxon mystery. Some authorities claim it to be the Northumberland coast, whilst others favour the area near Brough where the Romans had built a port. One Norse saga describes a site where ‘the river fell away at one side with the forest at the other’ and the settlement of ‘Brunnesfort’ in the Rother valley near the M1 Tinsley junction fits this description and is the current favourite site.
The battle was a bloody encounter and is regarded by many as being a turning point in the history of the nation. Athelstan was the victor and was hailed throughout Europe with such grandiose titles as ‘the Greatest European’ (by the Norse), ‘the most famous King of all time’ (by the French) or ‘the Summit of the Horizon of the Western World’, (by the Irish).
In order to fulfill his vow, Athelstan returned to Beverley in 938, endowed the church with lands and granted Collegiate status. Beverley Minster was not a monastery at this time but contained resident secular priests called Canons ruled by a Provost. The first recorded Provost was Thomas the Younger who was appointed in 1092 and a list of Provosts can be seen opposite the Chapter House steps. Sanctuary rights were also granted in 938 by the ‘pious munificence of Athelstan’. Some guide books would have visitors to the Minster believe that the wooden picture above the door in the south transept (above) depicts Athelstan’s charter. This picture is thought to date from the 16th Century however and the only charter relating to the endowments is an oblong fragment of vellum in the British Library. The writing on this fragment is typical of the time of Edward I.
In his efforts to secure Scotland, Edward made every effort to invent or reinterpret the story of the charter to aid his claim to Scotland. Athelstan had defeated King Constantine of Scotland in 934 and the name of the town St Johnstone is said to show that the banner of St John was carried to Scotland to bless the battle.
Translation of King Athelstan’s Charter from the British Library (Cottonian Charter iv. 18) now genreally accepted as a 14th century ‘invention’.
This know all men whoever they be, who hear and see this charter,
That I Athelstan the King, have granted and given to St John
Of Beverley – so I say to you – toll and team, that know ye,
(and) soke and sac over all the land that is given into his (St John’s) hand
In every king’s day. Be it wholly free, for ever and aye,
be it in frankalmoign, be all free, as regards every man and even as regards myself;
That I decree, by Him who made me! Except as regards one archbishop
And as regards the seven minster priests that serve God where St John rests
This give I to God and St John here before you every one.
A similar rhyming charter from Ripon Cathedral appears to have Athelstan’s seal and has a variation:
’And all things be as free as heart may think or eye may see.’
Records from Southwell Cathedral indicate that Beverley had supremacy over Ripon and Southwell and that the sanctuary rights were placed above those at York. Athelstan distributed sanctuary rights widely and Leach states: ‘the privileges and limits of sanctuary were founded by the jury in 1106 for York Minster to have been granted by King Athelstan and to apply to Ripon, Durham, Hexham as well as to York and Beverley.