In the latest in our occasional series on great Yorkshire churches, STEPHEN LEWIS visits one of the finest parish churches in the North – Beverley Minster.
SOME time in the early eighth century – so about 1,300 years ago – John, the ageing Bishop of York, founded a small monastery in a marshy woodland in what is now East Yorkshire. There were lots of beavers living in the woods, goes the story, so it became known as Beaver Ley.
John retired there to live out his final days, dying there a few years later, in 721 AD.
Thirteen hundred years later, rising from that very spot, is a building of soaring, airy beauty. Beverley Minster's beautiful west front was said to be the model for the front of Westminster Abbey: and in the style of its architecture - its weathered stone, its soaring Gothic arches - it resembles York Minster.
That's not really surprising, says the Rev Jeremy Fletcher, Vicar of Beverley Minster. "It was built at about the same time, by the same people, in the same stone." He then can't help himself. "But this is more beautiful."
Beverley's Minster may not be quite as grand or imposing as York's: but it is lighter, more slender, more elegant somehow in the way it reaches towards the heavens.
It takes an effort of will to remember that this magnificent building isn't a cathedral at all. It is merely a parish church, one of three in Beverley.
It is, admits verger Neil Pickford, very big for a parish church – in fact, far bigger than it needs to be. "You could say it was somewhat over-engineered. It is larger than one third of all the cathedrals in England."
So why is it here at all?
The answer to that is simple: it is here because, in the early medieval period, it became a shrine to its founder, Bishop John of York (later canonised as St John of Beverley), and a place of holy pilgrimage.
John was one of the leaders of the early Northumbrian church. He ordained the Venerable Bede as a deacon and then a priest – and Bede later wrote an account of five miracles John was said to have performed.
Pilgrims began visiting the site of his death, and in 937 AD King Alfred's grandson King Athelstan prayed at his tomb and then was given his flag to take into battle as a banner. Athelstan defeated a coalition of Northumbrian enemies, becoming the first king of a united England – and John's reputation was secured.
He was canonised in 1037. The monastery he had founded had become a Minster – an Anglo-Saxon missionary teaching church – and rapidly became a centre of medieval pilgrimage. St John's reputation turned this remote spot into a thriving medieval town. Between 1220 and 1420 the Norman church which had replaced John's Saxon monastery was rebuilt as the magnificent gothic Minster we have today, with a shrine to John at its heart.
Much more than a parish church, Beverley minster was a showcase for one of England's greatest saints, says Neil Pickford. "The Minster came first, the town came later."
In 1415, King Henry V credited St John with helping him to win the Battle of Agincourt, later visiting the saint's shrine to give thanks and making him one of the patron saints of the Royal family.
Despite St john's reputation, the great Minster came close to being demolished during Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, however.
It was listed to be sold and demolished for salvage – the stone was very valuable – and was only saved because it was bought by Beverley town council for the then princely sum of £50 to become Beverley's civic church. St John's remains are still buried beneath the nave to this day: a small tomb set into the floor marks his presence.
The Minster is a classic example of the Gothic style of church architecture which swept across England in the early medieval period, says Neil Pickford.
Gothic architecture allowed the weight of a church roof to be spread through arches and passed down through pillars, making for much taller, lighter buildings. "It was a revelation – bright and light," he says.
The Minster as we have it today owes much to the work of the great 18th Century church architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. By the early 18th century the church was in a bad state – decaying and neglected. Worse, the north wall of the north transept – built on a marsh, don't forget - was listing badly: it had actually leaned four feet into the street.
Hawksmoor was called in to advise how to save the building. The roof of the north transept was removed, and a wooden cradle, designed by York joiner William Thornton, was fixed around the wall. Then, over a period of 11 days, using ropes and pulleys, the entire wall – 200 tonnes of stone – was pulled back upright.
Hawksmoor also supervised the laying of a new stone floor in the nave, a geometrical patterned marble floor in the chancel, and the rebuilding of the central tower in lighter brick as opposed to stone.
On top of this tower he placed an onion dome or cupola, although this was removed a century later, in 1824, during a later restoration. "The good people of Yorkshire did not like it," says the vicar, Jeremy Fletcher. A contemporary drawing shows the Minster with onion dome still in place.
There is plenty to see and marvel at in a visit to the Minster. There's the airy grace of the nave itself, with its arches and pillars, each of which has a minstrel carved in stone at the top. There is the tomb of St John in the nave: the Norman stone font; the quire with its 68 'misericords' or mercy seats; and the reredos, where once the shrine of St John stood.
To the north side of the alter is the Percy canopy, a carved stone canopy made in the mid-14th century as a memorial to a lady of the Percy family – the most powerful family in the north at the time – and regarded as a masterpiece of Gothic style.
No visit to the Minster is complete without taking the guided tour, however, which leads you up a narrow spiral staircase into the tower itself.
There, two huge plain-glass Rose windows – one facing north, one facing south – look out over Beverley. Look carefully at the panes of glass in the North Rose window and you will see that some have the initials of the names of the glazier carved into them.
One, dated 1794, bears the name John Hunsley. Next to it is another pane dated 1986 – almost 200 years later – carved with the name AA Hunsley: John Hunsley's great great grandson.
It is high up in the central tower itself that you get the biggest surprise, however. There stands a giant wooden wheel that looks for all the world like the wheel from a water mill.
It's actually a treadmill, installed in the 1700s. A workman standing inside the treadmill and 'walking' it (like a hamster in its wheel) could haul materials up from the nave below, through a boss in the ceiling, and so into the roof.
That hole looking down from the tower into the nave below is still there, and the treadmill still works. Neil Pickover gives a demonstration, using the treadmill to lift the cover off the hole leading down into the nave.
It weighs a quarter of a tonne, he says - and he lifts it with no effort whatsoever by walking the wheel. A classic piece of Georgian engineering, hidden high above a classic example of medieval Gothic architecture.
There is a 113-step climb to get up into that tower – but it is worth every step.
Beverley Minster, Minster Yard North, Beverley.
Entry to the Minster (a parish church) is free.
Services of morning and evening prayer are held at 8.30am and 5pm weekdays, with Sunday services at 8am, 10.30am and 5.30pm.
Guided tours of the Minster begin at 11.15 and 2.15 every Monday to Saturday. They cost £5 and include a visit to the tower and the two rose windows.
This coming Bank Holiday Monday there will also be a rare chance to climb the north tower. Tours of the north tower on Monday August 25 only begin at 10.30am and continue throughout the day at half-hourly intervals to 4.30pm, subject to demand. The tours cost £10.
At a special "What The Georgians Did For Us"event at the Minster next month there will be a chance to find out more about the work that Nicholas Hawksmoor did to save and restore the Minster in the early 1700s. Date yet to be confirmed: keep an eye on the Minster's website – beverleyminster.org.uk – to make sure you don't miss it.
Contemporary drawing of Beverley Minster showing Hawksmoor’s onion dome above the central tower. Image supplied by Beverley Minster