I wouldn’t start here if I was you
Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford goes back to the very beginning of it all.
I’ve given a few tours recently which were concerned with the history of Beverley Minster from an engineering viewpoint, and it suddenly struck me that this gave things a very fresh perspective. So, flushed with evangelical zeal I thought I’d share this viewpoint with you before I forgot it.
Firstly, let’s look at what we’ve got here today – tens of thousands of tons of limestone and lead, with a fair amount of wood as part of the mix. Then you look at where we’ve put it and you can imagine some dodgy car mechanic sucking through their lips and saying: “Ooooh, dunno who put that up there, mate, but they was a right dodgy bunch of cowboys. Cor, that’s gonna cost ya.”
And they’re right in a way because, if you were going to build the Minster from scratch then you probably wouldn’t put it where it is now.
I describe the patch of land where it stands as the cheap part of town, geologically speaking, because it’s on the spring line. That’s why we don’t have an undercroft or crypt – if we tried digging down we’d end up with a swimming pool that might be useful to Baptists in our modern ecumenical age but wouldn’t have been of any interest to the Catholics who were paying for it back in the 13th century.
No, in an ideal world we’d have put the building up at the top of town where St Mary’s is now – the land is higher and it’s properly drained instead of being a marsh. This would have meant we could have stuck our walls up with much less chance of them falling over but, because we didn’t they do – if you see what I mean. And sticking the walls back up is an ongoing expense that we would rather not have to budget for.
But it is the sheer unsuitability of the site that gives it its historic significance. You see, all this work has to be done here because this was the very spot where St John of Beverley’s body was laid to rest back in 721AD when he was a merely a former Bishop. And the reason why he was buried on that spot was that this was where his monastery was. And the reason why the monastery was put where it was in the middle of a marsh was probably down to the good old human habit of ‘making do’.
You see the original monks were very much pilgrims in an uncaring world. The people in East Yorkshire (or Deira, as it was then named) were largely of immigrant stock from North Germany and Denmark and they’d not been part of the Christian Roman Empire. They were nature-worshippers, or pagans but King Edwin of Northumbria became the region’s first Christian king in 616. He was subsequently deposed by a pagan but Christianity became the official religion again in 634, then it alternated with paganism for the next few decades as successive kings were killed on battlefields.
However, most of the population wasn’t affected by any of these newsworthy events and probably continued as they had done for generations. In consequence, when the monks first arrived in Beverley it’s fair to assume they met complete indifference – that’s if there was anyone living here in the first place. So they had to rely on their own resources which meant that they almost certainly selected the first suitable clearing with fresh water they could find – after all, it was easier than having to chop the trees down as well before they could start building work.
There was no way they could have been expecting Bishop John to join them when he retired from public office; they cannot have dreamed that the Venerable Bede would transform Bishop John into one of the most powerful symbols of miracle-working Christianity in the Saxon world, nor that King Athelstan would credit John with overseeing his overwhelming victory against a huge military alliance gathered in the north of England around 930AD. But these all happened and, as a consequence, the monks tending Bishop John’s tomb were granted considerable wealth, land and income to help them glorify the tomb.
Once he became St John in 1037 the spot of his burial was fixed and became sacred land – if anyone had wanted to build a bigger Minster on a better site it was now too late. So that is why, every few hundred years, we have to prop up another of our walls that is leaning too far away from the vertical – the last such chore was only three years ago when we put 15 metre piling down into the marsh to save the Percy Chapel.
Various other bits have tipped over, twisted or been taken down over the centuries but it’s still standing, a tribute to religious devotion, duty, aesthetics and many other virtuous things.
There’s another bit of wall down the nave that’s currently giving us some early warning signals so watch this space – some time in the next few decades we might have to launch another appeal, and it will all be due to those pioneers who chose to start work in a swamp.
First published October 2010