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 – ?).
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’.
Professor David Palliser
Most medieval kings visited Beverley Minster to pay homage to St John.