The west front of Southwell MinsterThe west front of Southwell Minster is largely 12th century work (A. Nicholson, 1998)

THERE is no place in the county that possesses greater attractions to those interested in the story of our national church than the town of Southwell. It has a noble minster, that for antiquity and solidity of workmanship, never fails to win reverential admiration, and it has a history interwoven with the names of eminent Archbishops and Bishops almost from the introduction of Christianity into the Midlands until the present year of grace, when it is the centre of an important see. Though a town of small population, and standing in picturesque isolation away from the whirl and bustle of industrial life, it is singularly rich in its associations with historic personages, and nothing could have been more in accordance with ‘the eternal fitness of things,’ than that on the formation of Notts and Derby into a new bishopric, it should take its name from this ancient home of religious truth. Let us take a glimpse—and it must necessarily be but a brief one—at a few of those who have worshipped on this hallowed ground.

To begin with, there is Paulinus, the reputed founder of the minster, of whom and of whose work some details are discernible. Coming to these parts in pursuit of his great mission to win people from darkness to the faith of Christ, he drew crowds of anxious and sympathetic listeners around him, and the moving oratory which had won the heart of a King was not slow to bring conviction to the minds of others. The Venerable Bede records the baptism by Paulinus of numerous converts in ‘the flood of the Trent near Tiovulginacester in the presence of King Edwin, whom he had in A.D. 627 won to the faith. Antiquaries differ, and will doubtless for all time continue to differ, as to the identity of the place with the unpronounceable name which was the scene of this important baptism. We must leave them to indulge in mild contention, and to settle, if they can, whether Paulinus really founded Southwell Minster or not. It suffices for our present purpose to know that the eminent missionary visited the locality, and exerted so great an influence along the valley of the Trent that its waters were frequently used for administering the sacred rite which is a symbol of our faith. We can hardly doubt that Southwell saw that stately figure, a graphic description of which has been fortunately preserved to us on the authority of a Lincoln-shire Abbot, who gave the Venerable Bede a vivid word picture ‘as it was given to him by one who had been baptized in the presence of King Edwin, in the waters of the Trent.’ Wordsworth has reproduced the sketch in vigorous language:

‘Mark him of shoulders curved, and stature tall.
Black hair and vivid eye and meagre cheek,
His prominent feature like an eagle’s beak,
A man whose aspect doth at once appal,
And strike with reverence.’

The central tower of Southwell Minster
The central tower of Southwell Minster (A. Nicholson, 1998).

Such, in outward appearance, was the man to whom Southwell was largely indebted in the first stages of its career, and to whose earnest work in Lindsey and Notts we find frequent allusions. When Thomas, the twenty-fifth Archbishop of York, claimed Newark and Stowe, he did so on the ground that Paulinus had converted them to the faith. If he built here a church, as tradition confidently affirms—and with good show of reason—it would doubtless be a small building of wood. The first Saxon churches were mostly composed of timber, hence the somewhat ill-natured witticism of the author of the ‘Polychronicon,’ when comparing the clergy of his day (A.D. 1360) with those of days gone by: ‘Then had ye wooden churches and wooden chalices and golden priests; but now golden chalices and wooden priests.’

The subsequent commencement of the minster, ‘when sculpture and her sister arts revive, stones leaped to form, and rocks began to live,’ caused Southwell to become a centre of influence and attraction. Hither came, as years rolled swiftly by, Archbishops and Bishops to worship within its sacred walls, and to enjoy the health-giving repose that could always be secured in this pleasant retreat. Archbishop Alfric Puttoc, ‘a very venerable man, and wise,’ resided much at Southwell, and died there in 1050. His body was removed to Peterborough for interment, and the curious discovery of his remains in the seventeenth century is thus recorded: ‘In two hollow places in the wall on the north side of the choir in the cathedral were found two chests of about three foot long apiece, in each of which were the bones of a man. On a plate of lead in each chest the name of the person was engraven—one was Elfricus, and the other Kynsius, both of whom had been Archbishops of York.’ Kynsius succeeded Alfric, and gave bells to the churches of Southwell and Stowe. Aldred, another Archbishop, favoured Southwell with his constant presence, established stalls there, and built a spacious and handsome common dining-hall for the use of the canons. Archbishop Gerard died within the old episcopal residence in 1108, and was carried to York for interment. His death was very remarkable, and we can well imagine what a sensation it must have created amongst the people of the district. Canon Raine, the eminent antiquary, gives us a very full account, gleaned from a variety of sources, of the sudden demise of the Archbishop in his garden. He says: ‘Gerard was on his way to the Court at London, and was suffering from a slight illness. After dinner he went to take his repose in the garden, and lay down to sleep in the open air among the grass and flowers, with a cushion under his head. His clerks left him for awhile at his request, and, on their return, their master was dead. He had passed quietly away. His opponents asserted that this was a fitting termination of a wicked life. He had departed "unhouselled, unanealed." A few persons carried his remains to York, but on account of the way in which he had died they were not received with the customary procession of the citizens and clergy. So a monkish opponent relates, and it is also recorded as evidence against him by his enemies that he was addicted to curious and forbidden arts. A treatise on magic by Julius Firmicus was found under his pillow in his garden at Southwell, and he is said to have been much attached to it. The book, however, was merely a work on astronomy.’II We may add one or two other circumstances which the chroniclers mention. William de Newburgh says: ‘The Archbishop stiffened and died as he rested after dinner upon a pillow in the garden.’ William de Malmesbury says: ‘He went into the garden to enjoy the scent of the flowers and herbs. His attendants retired to the house, at his bidding, to take their repast, and on their return they "bewailed a soulless lord."’ Archbishop Thomas, who succeeded Archbishop Gerard, won from the King a grant of privileges to the church of Southwell, and the next Archbishop, Thurstan, was likewise a benefactor, founding several new prebends. Canon Raine, who has written so learned and entertaining an account of these early Archbishops, gives us, on the authority of John of Hexham, a singular story of his death, which took place on February 5, 1140. He had chanted within the little monastery at Pontefract, to which he had returned, the awful verses of the Dies Ira?, and then, while the rest were kneeling and praying around him, he passed away. A few days afterwards he is said to have appeared in a dream to Geoffrey Trocope, Archdeacon of Nottingham. The Archdeacon tremulously inquired: ‘Is there a hope of thy salvation, oh, my father?’ to which, from the fleshless lips, there issued the solacing reply: ‘To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.’

Interior of the Norman nave, looking east, c.1900.

Half a century elapses from Thurstan’s benefaction, and Southwell sees an episode in the struggle between William Longchamp and his rivals for power. Longchamp met Hugh de Puiset, Bishop of Durham, at Blyth, arrested him at Southwell, and compelled him to surrender. King Richard himself, with the King of Scots, was at Southwell, April 4, 1194, having spent Palm Sunday at Clipstone. Four years previously, in 1189, there had come to the town no less a personage than Geoffrey Plantagenet, with royal blood flowing in his veins, to take up priest’s orders. By the influence of his father he had been thrust into responsible positions in a way that was most irritating. As a mere child he was made Archdeacon of Lincoln, and he was quietly pocketing the revenues of the bishopric when the Pope felt constrained to interfere. The interloper was called upon to withdraw from the bishopric or be ordained. For awhile he relinquished his ill-gotten dignities and emoluments, and led a layman’s life. But other preferments were showered upon him, and the prospect of higher advancement led him to reside at Southwell to take priests orders. He was nominated to the See of York soon after the death of his father, and consecrated at Tours in 1191. The Archbishop in the course of his chequered career quarrelled with his clergy, and Southwell had some participation in the strife. When the Archbishop sent John, Bishop of Witherne, to the minster to consecrate the chrism and the oil the Dean and Chapter would not receive them. Bishop John persisted in performing his functions, and hallowed the contents of the vessels, whereupon Geoffrey of Muskham seized them, and threw them upon a dunghill (A.D. 1196). It is needless to speculate on the excitement such a scene would occasion in the midst of the town, but we can fancy the astounded laity would come swiftly together to witness this bold assertion of independence on the part of their clerical neighbours. Geoffrey, the cause of this unseemly squabble, as of many others, was the son of that Fair Rosamond with whom Henry II. fell, in love, and was thus the natural brother of Richard I.

In 1209 and 1212 royalty again visited the town in the person of King John. This time it was not the minster or the palace that was a source of attraction. John did not come upon religious thoughts or deeds intent, as they were not much in his way, but to enjoy the hunting which the fine old forest of Sherwood afforded. In the Close Rolls, amongst many other letters from the King, are several from this neighbourhood relating to his horses and hawks. Under date Newark, May 30, 1207, is a certificate that his Majesty had received from William Fitzwalkelin a palfrey, ‘which he owed us,’ and at Gunthorpe, on August 13, 1212, he gave £3 to Michael Bebois and others who had brought him a falcon as a present. From his itinerary John would seem to have been at Southwell five times between 1207 and 1213, and to have passed through with his troops on a projected expedition to Wales in 1212.

Though devoted during his visits mainly to his own schemes and pleasures, John did not altogether forget the church, for he gave to it a charter confirming the privileges granted by his predecessors. Henry III., whose love for falcons and hounds was evidently not inferior to John’s from the various missives he directed to the Sheriff about their safe custody, may also have been a visitor to South-well on some of his sporting tours through ‘merrie Sherwood.’ We need not go on to enumerate the long list of wealthy men, clerical and lay, who enriched the church by gifts and endowments, and many of whom must have visited the place that was the object of their pious care and bountiful liberality. Robert de Lexington, of a famous local family; Henry de Newark, a powerful ecclesiastic; William de Gunthorpe, and other Nottinghamshire men, associated their names with the minster by gifts of land, and so it assumed by degrees a position of wealth and influence which made it a centre of Church life and power.

Hither came, in the height of his grandeur, the famous Cardinal Wolsey to enjoy brief periods of repose from the weighty burdens of State which lay heavily on his shoulders. The old palace was a favourite resort of the great prelate. He is supposed to have furnished if not founded a library there; to have inserted the beautiful arch at the entrance of the Chapter-house, and to have purchased for the church the little park which was contiguous to the palace.

Since Mr. Dickinson wrote lamenting there was so little information available, some interesting glimpses of the local transactions of the famous prelate have been revealed. We have notices of him in 1530, when the smiles of the changeful monarch were being succeeded by his frowns. In the spring of that year Wolsey started on a journey to the North, passing through Peterborough, Stamford, Grantham (where he was entertained by Francis Hall, member for the borough), and Newark to Southwell—the favourite abode of his happier days. His residence near the minster being out of repair led to a correspondence with Brown, his receiver, and Magnus, two of the benefactors of Newark, which has been preserved in the State Papers.

The letters which reached Wolsey at Southwell showed him plainly that the storm-clouds were fast gathering around him, and that all his deeds, even to the repairing of his house near the minster, were being represented to the King as evidences of his continuous extravagance. His anxiety to have his walls plastered with lime and hair was cited as a proof that his pride had not sufficiently abated.

In defence, Wolsey wrote from Southwell explanatory letters to the King, alluding to the extremity to which he was being reduced, and his friends pointed out to the monarch that his Grace had been obliged to borrow for the support of himself and his household. But Henry was inexorable, and did not respond to any of the appeals made to him. In July the Cardinal informed Cromwell that through the small hope he had of being relieved he could not write for sorrow, and concludes, ‘Thus with wepying terys I byd you farewell. At Southwell, with a tremblying hande.’ On leaving Southwell, the Cardinal proceeded via Welbeck, Rufford, and Blyth, to Scrooby, where he continued until Michaelmas. From Scrooby he removed to Cawood, and the memorable scene there enacted is thus described by an eye-witness: ‘The Earl of Northumberland and Wolsey were standing by the window by the chimney in my lord’s bedchamber, when the Earl tremblingly said with a very faint and soft voice unto my lord, his hand on his arm, "My lord, I arrest you of high treason." At these words the Cardinal was marvellously astonished, and even stood for a considerable time without uttering a word.’

Leaving Cawood on his melancholy journey, Wolsey passed through Doncaster, Hardwick, and Nottingham. He was very ill when he reached Nottingham, and he died at Leicester Abbey. In his necessitous condition he had been compelled to borrow money wherever he could, and amongst the debts which he owed at his departure from Cawood were the following: ‘Jas. Nicholson, glazier, for glazing Southwell, Scrooby, and Cawood, £58; Robert Brown, of Newark, for money lent for repairs of Southwell Manor, £124; and the College and Chapter of Southwell, for freestone, timber, etc., £9.