The “strange beasts” and “dancing fools” of Beverley Minster with Dr Emma Wells

in Beverley

After the foundation of a monastery at Beverley was undertaken by John, Bishop of York in 721– the future Saint John of Beverley—a Norman church was formed around his tomb following John’s canonisation to sainthood in 1037. One surviving feature from this early era is the frith or grythstool, i.e., a chair of sanctuary. ‘Frith’ refers to peace or peace-making, and even peace breaking. These stone chairs supposedly marked a point of safety as, when a fleeing offender arrived at them, they were thus protected. This would imply that laymen (rather than just clergy) could freely access the eastern, most sacred, area of the cathedral to claim protection, which seems counter indicative to everything we know of the hierarchy of space in the medieval church. Therefore, the stories behind such stools (at Beverly and Hexham) have likely been reinvented by Victorian antiquarians.

A conflagration later razed the Norman church to the ground yet led to the construction of the present building. This Gothic masterpiece evolved through the Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular style, commencing in 1220 and taking around 220 years to complete. Of this era survives a curious 70 or so carvings, reflecting the importance of Beverley as a centre of secular music in the north of England. They showcase about 20 different instruments including bagpipes, fiddles, organs, tambourines, trumpets, flutes and pipes, lutes, a psaltery, shawms and cymbals. While 68 carved misericords similarly delight visitors with wit and whimsy. The roster features everything from strange beasts to dancing fools.

Come Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, this former collegiate or secular church (run by a chapter of canons rather than monks hence it’s ‘Minster’ honorific title) found itself reduced to parish church status. Though the building continued on (all but the chapter house), it suffered a lengthy period of neglect until the 18th century saw restorations that ensured its survival to the present day,

Books by Dr Emma Wells

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