- 8th Century monastery and John
- 937 King Athelstan and John
- 1037 Saint John of Beverley
- 1138 Saint John’s banner
- 1214 Re-building
- 1548 The reformation
- 1552 Post Reformation
- 1664 Saint John’s bones
- 1716 The 18th century restoration
- 1824 The 19th century restoration
- 1880 Canon Nolloth
8th Century monastery and John
At the beginning of 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. When he retired from his bishopric he came to this monastery where, according to St. Bede in his ‘History of the English Church’, completed in 731: ‘He wished to finish his life in a manner pleasing to God’.
On 7th May 721 Bishop John died and his body was buried in a chapel of the monastic church. St. Bede, who had been ordained deacon and then priest by John when he was Bishop of Hexham, told the story of five miracles conducted by John and proclaimed that he was ‘well worthy to be a bishop’. Soon after his death pilgrims came to the place where the remains of this saintly man lay. Until the Reformation in the 16th century the two great places of pilgrimage in the north of England were the tomb of St. Cuthbert in Durham and St. John in Beverley Minster.
What happened to that Saxon, probably wooden, church we can only guess. All that remains from that time is the stone chair in the Sanctuary of the present building. What we do know is that by the beginning of the 10th century there was a community based around the cult of John of Beverley and that his name was placed on a calendar of northern saints.
937 King Athelstan and John
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, 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.
Firstly, 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.
Secondly, he gave it the right of Sanctuary, a right which was to last until the Reformation.
Thirdly, for the maintenance of the church he gave certain lands to the Canons.
Historians today would question whether King Athelstan’s visit and gifts were a reality or rather a story to authenticate what had already become accustomed practice. The fact is that the importance of the Minster at Beverley grew and throughout the medieval period kings had a respect for John of Beverley and the town in which his remains lay.
1037 Saint John of Beverley
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 the aforementioned coalition of his enemies in the great battle in 937 described on the timeline under “King Athelstan”.
Persuaded by His holy life and the miracles after his death, the Pope canonized 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, turning the remote spot to which he had retired into a thriving town. By 1377 Beverley was one of the twelve largest towns in England.
Read more about St. John of Beverley here.
1138 Saint John’s banner
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.
In 1214, while the canons were attending mass, stones began to fall from the tower of the church. No sooner had the canons left the church than the entire tower collapsed destroying much of the building. Plans were put together for the building of a new church. All that remains of the Norman church are the re-use of stone blocks in the East End of the new church and the Norman font, still used for the welcoming of new Christians into the church through the sacrament of baptism.
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.
1548 The reformation
On Easter Sunday in 1548 the Collegiate Church of St. John the Evangelist at Beverley, together with its chantry chapels, was suppressed.
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.
1552 Post Reformation
In 1552 it was reported 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.
The Civil War in the 17th century added to the economic difficulties. However by the end of the 17th century the fortunes of the town began to revive.
1664 Saint John’s bones
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’
1716 The 18th century restoration
By the early 18th century the Minster, as a result of neglect, was in a poor state of repair. Money was raised by local townspeople and in 1716 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, William Thornton, was placed on the exterior and interior of the wall; over a period of eleven days the cradle, by the use of ropes and pulleys, 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 chancel, the rebuilding of the central tower, on which was placed a cupola (eventually removed in 1824). Apart from the nave most of the medieval beams in the roof were replaced.
A treadmill was placed above the boss of the central tower and materials were hauled into the roof by someone walking within the wheel. The wheel is still in working order but for health and safety reasons has been replaced by an electric motor.
An elaborate stone choir screen was built at the entrance to the chancel, 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). 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 most prominent organ builder of the day, John Snetzler, was commissioned in 1767 to build an organ for the Minster. It was opened in 1769 with a great festival of the music of Handel.
The restoration included some Classical elements: wooden Ionic pillars supporting galleries in the nave and a huge stone Corinthian column (higher than the adjoining Percy canopy) was fixed to the west side of the reredos. These were removed in the 19th century.
1824 The 19th century restoration
In 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.
The Great West window was installed 1859-61; it depicts people and scenes related to the early history of Christianity in Northumbria.
In the 1870s a restoration scheme took place under the guidance of George Gilbert Scoot, 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.
In the period 1876-1880 the Hawksmoor choir screen was removed and replaced by an oak organ screen carved by James Elwell. A brass lectern was made in memory of the Revd Birtwhistle who died in 1879.
In 1897 twelve statues were carved and placed in niches on the west side of the reredos: they include St. John of Beverley and King Athelstan
1880 Canon Nolloth
During the time that Canon Nolloth was vicar many improvements were made to the Minster:
Over 100 statues were placed in the niches of the west towers in the period 1897-1908. The first of these – of Queen Victoria – was unveiled on 22 June 1897 to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee. Twenty-nine statues were also carved on the west window and west wall of the nave.
Forty-four statuettes were placed in niches over the choir stalls and sixteen
statuettes carved for the pillars supporting the organ screen. Fifteen new stained glass windows were installed.
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. 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.
A low wall with railings was constructed around the churchyard to replace a brick wall said to be ‘of squalid ugliness.’