Magnificent, graceful, awe-inspiring are some of the superlatives used to describe Beverley Minster, a large Gothic parish church, in the East Yorkshire market town of Beverley.
Why is there such an impressive piece of our ecclesiastical heritage in Beverley?
The answer is found 1,300 years ago with a man called John – bishop, teacher, miracle-worker and saint. During his last years as Bishop of York he wished to build a monastery. He chose a clearing in a forest and the site became Beverley. John retired to his monastery and was buried there in 721. He was blessed with the gift of healing and many ‘miracles’ are recorded in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People written c.731.
John’s reputation spread and his tomb became a site of pilgrimage. The monastery was replaced with a stone church following the Norman Conquest. It was damaged by fire and a new church was built in the Gothic style over the 13th to 15th centuries. So sensitive were the builders to keeping a unified design that visitors today are struck by the harmonious whole resulting from the blending of styles.
The crowning glory of the two west towers are so perfect in proportion and design, that Nicholas Hawksmoor used them as the model for his design of the towers of Westminster Abbey. Within the building lie the many details which make the heritage of the Minster so unique – sixty-eight 16th century misericord seats, over seventy 14th century carvings of medieval musical instruments, 13th century stained glass and the most magnificent 14th century canopy tomb, in addition to the Norman font which survived the fire and the Saxon stone chair, called a fridstool – one of only two in existence.
Saint John of Beverley had an influence on royalty. King Athelstan has long been associated with giving the ‘right of sanctuary’ to Beverley in gratitude for victory in battle after praying to John. All the medieval kings visited the Minster at least once, including Henry V who gave thanks for the victory at Agincourt.
In 1522 a report stated: Beverley Minster ‘is in great decay, and in a short space is very likely to fall into utter ruin and decay’. Fortunately, thanks to Elizabeth I, the Minster was saved. Restorations have continued over later centuries until today.
In our own time the challenge of maintaining a building of such architectural prestige and community pride continues.