Southwell Minster is a remarkable cathedral with a history dating back to the 600’s with the current church, mostly Norman in construction dating to the 12th century.
Located in a small town of the same name in Nottinghamshire, it is 6 miles from Newark on Trent and 15 miles from the city of Nottingham.
I had always wanted to visit Southwell, as Norman architecture is one of my favourites and it’s pepper pot towers and Norman arches really appealed.
It is tricky to get to if you don’t drive as it’s not on the railway, so I was grateful to be able to coerce a friendly driver to take me at Christmas time, 2014.
We stayed at the Saracen’s Head, which claims formation back to Richard II in the 14th century.
It is on the same street as Southwell Minster, and happened to be the place that Charles I spent his last night of freedom in before surrendering at Newark Castle in 1645.
Southwell itself has history that dates back to Roman times, and remains of a large villa were excavated from beneath the minster and churchyard in 1959.
It is thought that there has been a church on the site since the 600’s, and in 956 Oskytel, the Archbishop of York established a Minster Church on the site.
The current church is mostly Norman in style and dates to 1108, when the current Archbishop of York, Thomas ordered the rebuilding of the Saxon church.
The current church was begun in the East End, to ensure that the High Altar could be completed to allow for services to be conducted as soon as possible, whilst the rest of the grand church grew up around it.
The stone from the Saxon church was recycled into the Norman Minster. By 1150, the Nave was complete.
Most of the main body of the church you visit today remains from this time, excluding the chancel which was rebuilt in the 13th century.
For me, one of the most magnificent parts of the church is it’s wonderful Norman arches, solid and stoic, marching down the Nave or at the crossing.
The interesting pepper pot towers at the West End were completed by 1170, and were originally topped with spires.
These became unsafe, and were replaced with the current roofs in the 19th century.
In ca. 1290, the small Norman quire was replaced in the Early English style, and the Chapter House was built.
The Chapter House and it’s carvings are considered some of the most remarkable in England. It has beautiful botanical carvings, with realistic depictions of flowers and vines, with numerous quirky faces and Green Men. I wish I had spent more time studying these!
By the 15th century, the West Front had its large window above the door, which lets light in to the Nave.
The King’s Man
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was the main adviser to Henry VIII for ca. 15 years and had commanded huge power. He became the Archbishop of York in 1515, and in the same year was made a Cardinal by Pope Leo X
Unfortunately for Wolsey, he fell from the King’s favour as he was unable to secure him the divorce he desired from his Queen, Katharine of Aragon and retreated to York in 1529.
He was soon recalled to London on a charge of treason.
He spent 5 months in his last year at the Archbishop’s palace and wrote a letter to Cromwell as he left, signing it:
“Thus with wepying terys I byd you farewell. At Southwell, with a tremblying hande.”
Cardinal Wolsey died at Leicester in November, 1530.
Thankfully, the Minster managed to escape much of the turmoil and destruction of the Reformation and change of religion in the 16th century, due to to the fact that it was refounded by parliament in 1543.
Regretfully it was damaged during the civil war of the 17th century.
King Charles 1 was captured in Southwell, and it is said that the Nave was used in stabling. The Bishop’s palace that stands next to the Minster was destroyed by Scottish troops, leaving only the Great Hall which you can see today.
In Summary – The Top 5 Things You Must See
- The Chapter House for its remarkable, unparalleled carvings
- The Southwell Tympanum – a carved stone dating back to the 9th / 11th century, possibly remaining from the Saxon church
- The tessellated floor in the North transept, dating to the Saxon church
- The imposing Norman arches of the crossing
- And if you have time, pop next door to the Archbishop’s palace. Although much of it is in ruins, it is atmospheric, and the Great Hall remains. Many monarchs are thought to have stayed there over the years including Richard the Lionheart, Edward I and III, and Richard II.
The churchyard is expansive, and I can imagine is interesting to explore when not covered in snow 🙂 Also, the refectory is wonderful, had an excellent brunch there.
Yet another place to add to the return list 🙂
If you would like to see more photos of my visit to Southwell, please visit my flickr.