A brief history

For over 1300 years there has been a Christian community on the site of Beverley Minster. The first community was founded by John, Bishop of York – the future Saint John of Beverley. Later, a Norman church was built on the site followed by the present Gothic church which evolved through the three main Gothic styles of architecture. The Minster was reduced to the status of a parish church after 1548 when it ceased to be a Roman Catholic church. Maintenance of the building was neglected but its collapse was prevented by restorations which began in the 18th century and continue to the present day.

Saxon monastery

Early in the 8th century Bishop John of York founded a monastery at a place known as Inderawuda. Tradition, supported by archaeological research, has always maintained that Inderawuda is where Beverley Minster stands today.

Abbots of this period are recorded as Berthun (c705), Winwaldus (733) and Wulfeth (751).

714 John retired from his bishopric and came to this monastery where, according to St. Bede in ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’, completed in 731: ‘He wished to finish his life in a manner pleasing to God’.

721 John died and Bede tells us that he was buried in the “Chapel of St Peter”.

Soon after his death pilgrims came to the place where the remains of this saintly man lay. Until the Reformation in the 16th century one of the great places of pilgrimage in the north of England was the tomb of John in Beverley.

859 – 880 The church was abandoned or destroyed by Danes.

By the beginning of the 10th century there was a community based around the cult of John of Beverley and his name was placed on a calendar of saints. Archaeology shows that the building at this time was made from stone.

All that remains however is the stone chair in the Sanctuary of the present building.

937  Writing in the early 12th century William Ketell, a priest at Beverley, tells the story of how King Athelstan, in 937, on his way north to fight the Scots at Brunanburgh, left his army and came to visit the tomb of Bishop John to ask for his prayers in the forthcoming battle. The battle was fought and the king was successful and consequently, in thanksgiving for his victory, gave certain privileges and rights to the church at Beverley.

  • he made it the Collegiate Church of St. John the Evangelist. A collegiate church was run by Canons who were expected to go out and preach to neighbouring communities; hence the church was a Minster.
  • he gave it the right of Sanctuary, a right which was to last until the Reformation.
  • for the maintenance of the church he gave certain lands to the Canons and a tax of Thraves (sheaves of corn), on every ploughland in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

The importance of the Minster at Beverley grew and throughout the medieval period English kings showed their respect for John of Beverley and the town in which his remains lay by visiting the Minster.

1023-1070

Archbishop Aelfric Puttoc (1023-1051) enlarged the church, and in 1037, persuaded by John’s holy life and the miracles after his death, and at his own discretion, added him to the Canon of Saints , and translated his relics into a new shrine. It was the reputation of  St. John of Beverley  that made the Minster a privileged sanctuary and a centre of pilgrimage, turning the remote spot to which he had retired into a thriving town.

Archbishop Cynsige (1051-1060) added a tower with two bells.

Archbishop Ealdred (1061-1069) finished a refectory and dormitory, made a screen of Teutonic work and painted the ceiling of the church.

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.

1160-1188 Norman church

1154 Thomas Becket (afterwards, in 1162, Archbishop of Canterbury) was appointed provost. He was killed in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, and declared a saint by Pope Alexander III in 1173.

1188 The east end of the Minster was damaged by fire. All that remains of the Norman church are re-used stone blocks and the Norman font. By this time Beverley was already a wealthy town as a result of the coming of the pilgrims to visit the tomb of St. John, and also because of the wool trade.

1190 – 1260 Gothic church: Early English style

1190 Building of the present Minster commences at the east end.

1208-13 All work and services are stopped by an interdict by Pope Innocent III’s action against King John.

1213 The tower built over the eastern crossing in the early 13th century collapsed and ruined the east end of the Minster which then had to be dismantled and rebuilt, taking 20-30 more years to complete.

1220-30 Stained glass was made for the windows in the east end of the church.

1261 The high altar was dedicated to St John Evangelist by Archbishop Geoffrey Ludham.

1296 A contract is awarded to Roger of Faringdon, a London goldsmith, for a new shrine for St John’s relics.

1302 -08 Special collections are made throughout the country for a new shrine for the relics of St John.

1308 – 48 Gothic church: Decorated style

Most of the nave is built in the Decorated style.

1308 The balance of the funds collected for the shrine are transferred to the fabric. The rebuilding of the Norman nave probably started soon afterwards.

1315-17 The ‘Great Famine’ probably delayed major works to the nave until the early 1320s.

1340 The Percy Tomb was erected and the reredos built.

1348 The Black Death brought building work to an end.

1360 – 1400 Gothic church: Perpendicular style

The west end is built in the perpendicular style including the towers.

1361 Work starts on finishing the nave, building the west towers and the Highgate Porch.

1377 Beverley was one of the twelve largest towns in England.

1381 A visitation imposed by Archbishop Neville on the canons led to a clerical strike when the canons removed themselves to London, and the vicars choral to Lincoln, leaving Neville to move some of his canons from York to Beverley to take their place.

1388 The strike ended and Neville was impeached for high treason and fled the country.

1400 The original glass of the west window, still intact in 1641 is dated between 1386 and 1399, probably indicating that the church was to all intents and purposes, complete by 1400.

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.

1489 A Chapel is built for the tomb of Henry, 4th Earl of Northumberland at the east end of the north aisle.

The 16th Century

1518 Rights of sanctuary, granted in 937, are drastically curtailed.

1520 Choir stalls (with misericord seats) are built in the Quire. Designed and made by the Ripon School of carvers.

1548 On Easter Sunday in 1548 the Collegiate Church of St. John the Evangelist at Beverley, together with its chantry chapels, was suppressed ending over 850 years of Roman Catholicism on the site of Beverley Minster.

The Minster itself and many of its associated buildings was given to Sir Michael Stanhope, the governor of Hull, and the Crown surveyor John Bellow. They intended to pull the church down. A group of wealthy businessmen within the town bought the Minster, the Chapter House and the charnel house for £100. By pulling down the Chapter House, the church of St. Martin and the charnel house in the south-west corner of the church they raised £120.

The Minster was allowed to survive because as well as being a collegiate church it had also served as a parish church. The 76 paid officials were dismissed but two of the priests and two chantry priests were reappointed. Chapels of the canons, chantry chapels, statues and the gold and silver shrine of the saint all were destroyed or removed from the church.

1522 A report stated that Beverley Minster ‘is in great decay, and in a short space is very likely to fall into utter ruin and decay’. After the Reformation the responsibility for the building was in the hands of the town council. With the loss of pilgrims and also the wool trade the town was claiming economic poverty and in the late 16th century was remitted from paying its taxes to the Crown ‘because of its great poverty’. There was little money available for the repair of the church.

1558 Queen Elizabeth I re-established the Minster as a parish church with one minister and an assistant. She also endowed the Minster with some of the confiscated funds to provide for the maintenance of the fabric – the ‘Old Fund’.

The 17th Century

1608 A violent storm breaks all the windows and strips the lead from the roof.

1624 The rights of sanctuary in place since 937 were abolished.

1645 Some of the medieval glass damaged in the storm of 1608 was placed in the east window.

1664 The cult of John, like all other saints, had been 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 18th Century

1716 – 40 By the early 18th century the Minster, as a result of neglect, was in a poor state of repair. Money was raised by a national appeal (raising £3,500) and Nicholas Hawksmoor, a London architect, was invited to come to Beverley and give advice on the restoration of the north wall of the north transept, which was leaning four feet into the street. The roof of the north transept was removed and a wooden cradle, designed by a York joiner and architect, William Thornton, was placed on the exterior and interior of the wall; over a period of eleven days the cradle, by the use of jacks, was raised and the wall gradually returned to an upright position.

Also included in the restoration programme was a new stone floor in the nave, a fine marble floor (of geometric design) in the quire, the rebuilding of the central tower, on which in 1750 was placed a cupola (eventually removed in 1824). Apart from the nave most of the medieval beams in the roof were re-used and new trusses and tie beams were placed in the roof.

A tread wheel crane was placed above the vault of the central tower and materials were hauled into the roof by someone walking within the wheel. The wheel was in working order until 2017 although it had been replaced with an electric hoist.

An elaborate stone choir screen designed by Hawksmoor was built at the entrance to the quire, in the niches of which stood statues of St. John and King Athelstan (in the 19th century moved to the south door of the nave). New iron gates were placed within the screen (in the 19th century moved to the north choir aisle). In 1726 a new elaborately carved cover was placed over the font. The wooden west doors were carved by Thornton and include figures of the four evangelists and their symbols. The restoration included some Classical elements: a wooden altar screen with Corinthian columns higher than the Percy canopy, was placed in front of the ruined reredos screen. This was removed and sold in 1825.

1756 A carillon was made and installed.

1767 The most prominent organ builder of the day, John Snetzler, was commissioned to build an organ for the Minster. It was opened in 1769 with a great festival of the music of Handel. The present organ still contains some of Snetzler’s original equipment and pipes.

The 19th Century

1824 some of the work of the 18th century was removed – the cupola, the nave galleries and the Corinthian altar screen. The whole of the west face of the medieval reredos, which had been damaged during the Reformation, was renewed by William Comins, the Minster’s master mason.

1859-61 The glass in the Great West window  by Hardman and Co. of Birmingham was installed depicting people and scenes related to the early history of Christianity in Northumbria.

1870s a restoration scheme took place under the guidance of George Gilbert Scott, designer of the Albert Memorial in London and known, after 1872, as Sir Gilbert Scott. The whole of the interior, which had accumulated the dirt of centuries, was cleaned and the Purbeck marble shafts repolished; and the roof was redecorated.

1876-1880 the Hawksmoor choir screen was removed and replaced by an oak organ screen designed by Gilbert Scott and carved by James Elwell of Beverley. A brass lectern was made in memory of the Revd Birtwhistle who died in 1879.

1880  During the time that Canon Nolloth was vicar many improvements were made to the Minster. Forty-four statuettes carved by Robert Baker were placed in niches over the choir stalls and sixteen statuettes by Nathaniel Hitch were carved for the pillars supporting the organ screen. Fifteen new stained glass windows were installed.

1897 twelve statues, also by Nathaniel Hitch, were carved and placed in niches on the west side of the reredos: they include St. John of Beverley and King Athelstan. Sixty nine statues were carved in stone by ‘Mr Smith’ and John and Bryant Baker, and fixed in niches of the west towers and inside the west end.

The 20th Century

1901 Nolloth was very interested in bells and arranged for major overhauls. When the bells were refitted in 1901 the peal in the north-west tower was increased from eight to the present ten bells.

1902 A new bell known as Great John was hung in the south-west tower. The hours are struck on Great John and the quarters on all the ten bells. New chimes were composed by the organist, John Camidge.

1921 The memorial chapel, cenotaph and windows in the south transept were unveiled.

1927 The east window was cleaned and restored.

1931 The Henin Cross was placed in the Great War memorial chapel.

1936 The tomb slab inscribed to St John of Beverley was placed in the nave floor.

1970 A new round altar for the nave was provided by the Friends of Beverley Minster.

1974 The Sanctuary Chair was moved to the north end of the altar table.

Sources: Tanfield, Pickford, Palliser, Phillips.

A ground plan of the Minster showing the main styles of architecture may be found here.

For further information, two books (funded by the Friends of Beverley Minster) are recommended:

  • Beverley Minster: an illustrated history (2000) edited by Rosemary Horrox
  • ‘Of a Fair Uniforme Making.’ The Building History of Beverley Minster 1188 – 1736 by John Phillips. Read more here.

Both publications are available from the Minster shop.