Another page from the Minster book of history
Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford looks for ancient meanings.
I must immediately apologise to readers from last week who were hoping to discover something about rabbits. I am afraid that I currently have nothing to say, profound or otherwise, on the subject of cute, cuddly cottontails so the subject will have to rest.
I’ve been unable to concentrate on such matters because I’ve recently been getting very angry about overpaid po-faced juvenile journalists spouting ignorant, emotive and innumerate tosh on TV about public spending cuts. The BBC is producing an unending parade of spokespersons who are unquestioningly allowed to tell us the cuts will end civilisation as we know it but a simple maths exercise shows it’s only a reduction back to 2009 funding levels. Back in my own journalistic youth my boss would have said – actually, you wouldn’t want to read what he said in a family newspaper but, to précis: “don’t let yourself be spoon fed. Ask the lying so-and-so why they’re lying”. But not one of these modern TV ‘journalists’ or ‘correspondents’ is! Grrrrrrr.
However, this is probably not the right place for that discussion – although I’d be delighted to continue it in a suitable hostelry, if you’re paying.
Anyway, as an cooling down therapy I have been contemplating the difficult subject of things that are, or were, regarded as especially ‘sacred’ in Beverley Minster, and why. It’s an interesting exercise (I think).
Once, some 500 years ago, the most important object in the Minster was the reliquary of St John of Beverley – the second most significant shrine in the north of England. This reliquary was so important that it had to have a church as magnificent as the Minster to house it. The whole building was designed as a sort of taster for pilgrims as they got ever-closer to their objective, which was nothing more or less than the miracle-working remains of a humble but deeply inspirational Saxon bishop from around 720AD.
The monks who guarded this tomb were granted substantial rights and possessions in the Saxon period; the conquering Normans’ respect for the remains protected the town from the ‘Harrowing of the North’ in 1069. It was John’s remains that continued to attract vast wealth to Beverley in the Middle Ages and made it one of the richest towns in England. John’s tomb was truly ‘sacred’ yet suddenly, because our national religion changed from mediaeval Catholicism to a relic-free brand of Protestantism, all such worship was outlawed overnight. The reliquary became redundant and was melted down for Henry VIIIth’s treasury. Even the exquisite stone platform it stood on was denounced as too ‘papist’ and dismantled.
So a richly decorated shrine that, for nearly 800 years, had been a source of wonder and veneration for peasants and kings alike was transformed into an object worth more broken into its component pieces than when still in one piece.
And what about the formerly holy contents – you know, the holy remains of St John himself? Well, they were just stuck in a lead-lined box and forgotten about for a while.
A similar ‘de-holying’ transition happened in the transepts of the Minster, (the bits that stick out from the main length of the church). Once there were around 16 different permanent altars in these areas. Each of these would have been fenced off from its neighbour, with its own rich decoration, priest, programme of worship, closed-off sanctuary area, secure storage for communion elements, candles and mystique.
Today most of those spaces are utilised for completely mundane purposes and we can’t even be sure what was there before. For example, was the space that now houses the changing and robing area for the choir ever an altar? It’s certainly not very holy now. And some of the other formerly sacred spaces now contain, (in no particular order of non-holiness): the shop (three bays); the town exhibition (three bays); an open space (two bays); storage for staging and plastic chairs (one bay); display cases and the Henin Cross from World War I (one bay); a memorial bay for the East Yorkshire Regiment and the fallen of World War II – and the Cenotaph (one bay).
Aha, now, the Cenotaph! That’s an odd one and it’s a space that has taken on an increasing importance to me over the last two years. If you’re still interested I’ll tell you why next week.
Until then I’d like to leave you with a profound thought – but I haven’t had one yet. Maybe I’ll come up with something in time for my next scribble.
First published February 2011