The heavy walls, sharp corners and definitive rounded arches of Southwell Minster peered out from the pages of a book I was reading – or was it an on-line, social media post? – late last year, drawing me in with it’s grand, austere Norman architecture and emitting an aura of the medieval times in which it was conceived.
The plain simplicity of it’s Romanesque west front reflects the piety and devotion to a Higher Power of those who built it. But in it’s simplicity the building’s architecture serves another purpose – a projection of power and authority, a domineering fortress to protect against an oft anarchic age.
The Christians were not the first ones here – they rarely are in any place where these huge stone temples have been built, trampling on early buildings and cultures. Dig into the ground around here and you’ll find a timeline that reaches deep into time, each measure below ground another year around the sun, another year of anarchy, chaos and the whims of Kings.
Dig deep enough, as archaeologists in the 1790s and later did, and you’ll uncover part of a world once dominated by Rome. A villa to the east of the current Minster has been discovered (and since recovered to protect it) while Roman dead and the bones of their later followers in history can be found in the ancient burial ground discovered on Higgons’ Mead, a field also to the east.
All that remains of these now is left buried, or picked and moved to the air conditioned, temperature controlled environs of a museum; or the dark, hidden shelves of some curator’s archive.
The first church here rose out of the ground around 627AD. Paulinus, the first Archbishop of York, was visiting the area, converting the pagans and baptising them as new believers in the nearby river Trent and it was he who founded Christian worship at Southwell.
But over 300 years passed before it became a Minster church during the reign of the young , harassed King Eadwig the All Fair.
King at the tender age of 16 years old and dead not much later at 19, his rule was marked by dissent and chaos amongst the church and nobles, so much so that he ended up giving away most of his kingdom to the latter in order to protect it from them and their support for his younger brother. Some five percent of all Anglo-Saxon charters were made in 956AD alone – most of them probably attempts to buy off the malcontents who threatened his throne.
It was probably in this spirit that King Eadwig gifted the land at Southwell to the then Archbishop of York, Oskytel, who founded it as a Minster.
Significant though this change in status may have been, the Anglo-Saxon building itself didn’t last much longer, for in 1108AD the current Minster was begun. The new was no longer new and had become old itself, another measure of earth and time burying what had gone before, as it had done with the traces of previous Roman life.
Keen to keep the high altar in use, work began at the east end of the old church, tearing down the stone work and using the material to recreate the new Norman building.
Pieces of the past remained in the new building and remain there to this day, the south transept’s tessellated flooring and in a tympanum (see image left) on the north transept being the only above ground parts of the Anglo-Saxon forerunner visible to the modern eye.
Elsewhere the architecture rose from the ground in rounded arches, heavy set columns, a gallery above the nave’s aisles and solid square towers at the west end and over the crossing. The new east end was square and shorter than it is presently, with rounded, apse chapels on the north and south transepts and similarly rounded ends to the aisles behind the quire (see image below right).
It’s austere, Romanesque design reflects the period in which it was built, a time far more chaotic than that of King Eadwig the All Fair. The age itself provided little certainty for those who lived in it and just as the kingdom and England were never a finished work, so it was with the Minster building.
Between 1234AD and 1251AD the smaller, square Norman east end of the building right up to the transepts was demolished and rebuilt on a longer scale, having proved intolerably inadequate for those who worked and worshipped in the building.
The effect of the rebuild is to give representation to the changed times, to make physical the distinction between the mid-13th century and the world that went before.
Stand at the crossing, from within the pulpitum and you will see two worlds in stark difference to each other – to the west the Norman age, its low-lit, gloomy atmosphere instantly evocative of the times it was built, times of conquest, civil war and upheaval, of holy, crusading piety.
But look east to the high altar, and you will see a very different world in the Gothic presbytery – and world that seems lighter, lifted with vaulting that speaks to the glory of the worship that took place there. It is as though the minds that made this part of the building were themselves lifted to a higher spiritual calling and, untroubled by the strife of conquest and Anarchy, they gave vent to their ideals in stone.
The bodies of some of those who worshipped here in the medieval age are buried in the west end of the nave, where stone tablet markers once adorned with brass plates and imagery and letter tracings mark their place. But any clues about who they were are now gone, the brass plate removed and stolen or reused, as it is in so many places, and there is little to say to the lay man visitor about what their lives meant to the Minster.
When I visited Southwell in September 2020 the building itself was undergoing some renovation in the Chapter House and was, at the same time, limiting visitors due to the pandemic regulations. That renovation work has finished now and the Minster is open to the public and to worshippers daily. Mask restrictions remain in place for the time being.