Southwell Minster is renowned for its exquisite medieval carved stonework, second to none in any English Cathedral. The deeply undercut foliage, often with glimpses of wildlife and green men beneath, is truly spectacular.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. So let’s begin at the beginning. A church believed to have been founded in 627 by Paulinus, the first Archbishop of York, is where Southwell Minster sits.
A later Anglo-Saxon church was followed by a Norman one, its two western towers topped with pepper-pot spires.
A huge Perpendicular window was inserted between them a few centuries later.
A third Norman tower occupies the crossing.
It hovers over the centre of the transepts between the nave and the proportionately long choir to the east.
When the Normans began their reconstruction in 1108, unusually, they started at the east end so that the new high altar could be used as soon as possible, with work proceeding westward, demolishing and rebuilding as they went, reusing a lot of the stones from the Saxon construction in the process.
The floor and tympanum (the carved stone arch which rests above the lintel of a doorway) are the only remains of the Saxon building.
New word for me: tessellated. Southwell’s Saxon floor is tessellated, “comprising tiles in one or more geometric shapes, with no overlaps and no gap”. Neat!
The nave construction began in 1108.
The arcades (bottom layer), triforium (second layer) and clerestory (top layer) are weirdly disproportionate. The triforium is commonly split into double arches, visually lightening the progression as the eye travels vertically upward.
Not so at Southwell; the single arch triforium looks ponderous. The heaviness is relieved somewhat with a subtle zig-zag frosting on the arches; the capitals of the columns have a deeper ring of decoration.
The pulpit is Victorian, featuring five carved figures: King Edwin of Northumbria, his wife Queen Ethelburga, St. Augustine (the first Archbishop of Canterbury), the Blessed Virgin Mary with Jesus, and St Paulinus (the first Archbishop of York).
St Paulinus’s robes are decorated with the White Rose of York.
The nave ceiling is a Victorian reconstruction of the plain barrel-vaulted original.
The baptismal font sits on the right side of the photo above. The original font disappeared in the mists of time, likely removed during the Reformation. The current font is dated 1661, one year after the Restoration of the Monarchy. It is one of ten fonts made by William Baulme; the rest are in other Nottinghamshire churches. The cover, which can be raised and lowered, is Victorian.
Before we leave the nave, let’s turn and look west at the gorgeous Perpendicular window. Subtle blue and green shades predominate in this modern Angel Window. The tracery is medieval, but artist Patrick Reyntiends created the glass in 1996. It is an excellent example of a successful collaboration of modern and medieval—it fits right in with its surroundings. There is nothing shouty about it, as is regrettably so often the case.
The seven angels along the bottom hold spheres depicting the Seven Acts of Creation: light, the vault of the heavens, the dry land, day and night, the birds and fish, the living creatures on the earth, and human beings.
Over in the nave aisles, the ceilings have ribbed vaulting rather than wood.
Let’s go to the crossing and enter the choir at its west end. Once in the choir, we can see the east window. The stained glass is Victorian.
We are now in the Early English Gothic part of the Cathedral – note the arches and vaulted ceiling. It was rebuilt after 1240 by the then archbishop of York, Walter de Gray, and financed with the unsavoury practice of the sale of indulgences.
Let’s peek beneath the choir seats at the six surviving misericords.
The high altar, with a complex mosaic floor, is at the east end of the choir.
Here we find the tomb of Edwin Sandys, a leading figure in the English Reformation. He seems to have been a man of some political skill. He walked the fires between the Reformation and the counter-reformation, ultimately serving under Elizabeth I.
Here we see images of all nine of his children kneeling along the side of his tomb.
From here, we can look west toward the beautifully carved pulpitum, which Simon Jenkins of England’s Cathedrals calls “an eruption of Decorated design”. Two layers of ogee arches sit on either side of a central ogee.
However dubiously funded, here is where Southwell Minster shines. In the choir and the Chapter House, where we will go in a minute, the deeply undercut stone foliage, often with glimpses of wildlife and green men, is truly spectacular.
The skill of the Gothic masons produced an entirely new level of intricacy.
The carvers rarely selected simple leaves, such as lime, willow or beech; they chose complex patterns, including maple, hawthorn, oak, and hops with vines.
The pulpitum features more than fifty miniature heads of clergy and laymen.
All springing from a crust of delicately incised foliage.
I think this guy looks like Donald Trump.
Let’s wander over now to the piece de resistance—the Chapter House. We approach down a flagged passageway lined with seats where tenants likely waited to plead their case to the clerical authorities in the Chapter House.
A band of exquisitely carved leaves surrounds the portal into the Chapter Hosue.
Who were these stonemasons with such incredible skill? Scholars believe it is the work of just three carvers. Was it a local master with two apprentices? Or an itinerant group of craftsmen? Don’t you wish the walls could talk?
The chapter house is octagonal, with no central support.
Southwell was never a monastery. It was founded as a collegiate church served by prebendaries (a type of canon) rather than monks.
The Chapter House accommodated thirty-six canons, each of whom enjoyed a fixed income, or stipend, from an endowed prebend, making canons independent of the Bishop of the diocese.
Being a canon was a popular occupation for younger sons of the nobility. By 1291 Southwell had sixteen prebends. Just think—we might have been spared “Spare” if Harry had taken up such a post.
With no monastery to dissolve, Southwell’s drama played out a bit differently during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Henry VIII planned to make Southwell Minster a Cathedral for the newly created diocese of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. That plan fizzled, and Southwell’s collegiate status continued.
Edward VI, who displayed even greater Protestant zeal than his father, Henry VIII, suppressed almost all collegiate churches; he pensioned off the prebendaries and sold the estate that had supported them. Still, Southwell Minster continued as a parish church, to the relief of the parishioners, who had petitioned for its survival. So far, so good for Southwell—it scraped through its conversion from a still-lightly-Catholic to a fully-Protestant parish church unscathed.
Enter devoutly Catholic Queen Mary, Edward VI’s older sister, who succeeded him upon his death. Her counter-reformation was a tricky, bloody time, but the luck was apparently with Southwell because she restored the prebends. When Protestant-but-practical Elizabeth I succeeded Mary, she confirmed Southwell’s status and, in 1579, created a set of statutes under which it would continue to operate until 1841.
Even then, when the Ecclesiastical Commissioners abolished the chapter, Southwell got something of a reprieve, as the chapter’s dissolution was gradual. Upon the death of each canon, his prebend was extinguished, the final one taking place on 12 February 1873 with the death of Thomas Henry Shepherd.
Southwell Minster was reborn as a Cathedral proper in 1884 when the diocese for Nottinghamshire and a part of Derbyshire, including the city of Derby, was created. And in 1927, Derby got its own Cathedral when the Diocese of Derby was formed.
We will leave the Chapter House now and head back outside, where we can hop aboard Southwell Minster’s drone to fly around the property and through the Cathedral. What a way to wind up a tour!