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Southwell Minster: The "Village Cathedral"

by Julia Hickey

MinsterSouthwell Minster became the cathedral of Nottinghamshire in 1884, but this church of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been a minster (or missionary church) covering most of Nottinghamshire since Saxon times. Sometimes called the "village cathedral," it boasts Roman remains, a Saxon carving, solid Norman architecture and the world famous chapter house filled with unique carvings. No wonder Cardinal Wolsey liked the place so much that he stayed in the Archbishop's Palace for three months in the summer of 1530.

Visitors can follow an hour-long audio tour or hunt for the 28 wooden mice that can be found carved into the wooden furniture in the church. A tour should also include an exploration of the exterior of the building with its Norman arches, dog tooth carving and distinctive towers on either side of the West door, not to mention the assortment of gargoyles and grotesques that look out onto the quiet churchyard and the remnants of the Archbishop's Palace.

Southwell MinsterInside the Minster, take time to admire the modern west window that throws light into the Norman nave with its typical sturdy columns leading up towards the triforum --the blind level (so called because there are no windows) and the third level (called the clerestory). The sandstone glows with light and your eyes are naturally drawn heavenwards towards the wooden barrel vaulted ceiling. The beams are not original. Unfortunately the Minster was struck by lightning on Bonfire Night in 1711 and the wooden roof was destroyed in the fire that followed.

The nave and crossing are excellent examples of the Romanesque style, and more evidence of the Roman builders who inspired the Norman masons can be found elsewhere in the church. A fragment of the original Saxon floor remains in the south transept. It is decorated with recycled mosaic tiles found in the remains of a Roman villa. A fragment of painted plaster dating from the same period can be seen nearby. The quire screen is carved into an intricate network of foliage, fretwork and faces. Beyond the organ the quire is a good example of the Early English style and contains several 14th-century misericords (choir stalls), many of which are delightfully carved and include examples of green men with foliage sprouting from ears, nose and mouth.

Visitors should also be on the lookout for the oldest carving in the Minster, which dates from the Saxon period. Look for a tympanum -- a round-headed lintel above a door way -- in the north transept. St Michael is shown fighting a dragon. The dragon's tail is particularly impressive as it twists and coils like an illuminated letter.

Saxon Tympanum Southwell Minster

The font, found in the nave, explains a great deal of the Minster's history. It is engraved with the date 1661 and was commissioned to replace the original font, which was destroyed by Cromwell's armies. It is sad to think that this lovely building faired relatively well during the tumultuous religious upheavals of the Tudor period only to fall victim to Scottish parliamentarian troops, who reduced the Archbishop's palace to rubble and destroyed the majority of the medieval windows. They also found time to deface the dragons happily playing in the foliage of the doorway leading to the chapterhouse. Of the glass, little remains except for the occasional fragment. There are four panels of 16th century glass, but the majority of the windows were completed during the Victorian period. The Great West Window was completed in 1996 and is called "The Seven Acts of Creation." The angels add to the sense of light and peace that fills the nave.

Southwell Minster

The real treasure of Southwell Minster is the Chapter House, which is filled with foliate decoration, leaf-sprouting green men and a fine assortment of real and mythical creatures. Be prepared to spend some time studying the carvings in this space; your patience will be by a glimpse of a snout here, a grimacing face there and of course the dragons who play hide and seek in the world famous "Leaves of Southwell." It is perhaps not surprising that the masons were inspired by a woodland theme. After all, the majority of the stone was quarried in Mansfield and then transported through Sherwood Forest.

Then it is time for a coffee. The Minster offers good hospitality and an excellent shop, but for a real treat, go to the Saracen's Head Hotel. The wooden halftimbered building with its central archway -- wide enough for a coach or a farm cart -- dates from the 12th century. It has been visited by King John, Edward I, II, III and IV and most notably by King Charles I, who gave himself up to the Scots here and was then handed over to the parliamentarians before finally being executed. It is said that the oldest part of this building is haunted by this unhappy monarch. This is perhaps not surprising when visitors realise that before Charles was executed the hotel was called the King's Arms, but the name was changed in 1651 to The Saracen's Head because it was believed that Charles was executed with a Saracen sword dating from the crusades. There were no creaking floorboards or unexpected drafts, just an extremely tempting bar menu and a pleasant rest in the lounge area!

Saracen's Head Hotel Southwell

More Information:

Southwell Minster

History of Southwell Minster

Saracen's Head Hotel

Julia Hickey is passionate about England's heritage and particularly of Cumbria, where her husband comes from. In between dragging her family around the country to a variety of historic monuments, she works part-time as a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. She spends the rest of her week writing. In her spare time, she enjoys walking, dabbling in family history, cross-stitch, tapestry and photography.
Article and photos © 2006 Julia Hickey


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