Wimborne’s Minster explored
Set at the heart of the town, the Minster Church of St Cuthburga is a treasure trove of artefacts and history, as Joël Lacey discovers
Published in April ’13
Dorset may not have a cathedral, but in Wimborne Minster, it certainly has a right royal place of worship. The Minster Church of St Cuthburga, to give it its full title, can trace its history back to the year 705, when a nunnery was founded on its site by Queen Cuthburga, sister of Ina King of Wessex and wife of Aldfrith, King of Northumbria. She and her husband separated, not long before his death, so that she might learn how to found a double monastery/nunnery. In 705, her brother granted her lands to found it between the rivers Allen (then known as Win) and Stour. In 871, Alfred the Great buried his older brother King Ethelred (not the Unready one) in the Minster.
In 1496 Lady Margaret Beaufort, granddaughter of John of Gaunt and mother of Henry VII, founded a small chantry in the minster, wherein are buried her parents, John Beaufort and Margaret Beauchamp.
The building itself is a kind of TARDIS, older on the inside than it is on the outside. The central tower and nave were founded in Saxon times, but the surviving building is predominantly Norman in design and construction, with Gothic components from various periods.
Its hotch-potch materials and structures from different periods have elicited different feelings from different writers. Sir Frederick Treves, not normally noted for his appreciation of mixed-period buildings, waxed lyrical in his Highways and Byways of Dorset: ‘Not the least among the delightful features of this gracious building is its richness in colour. Owing to the different stones employed, the western tower is a column of soft greens and greys, while the Norman tower is aglow with the red of the Ringwood sandstone, the red of the autumn leaf blended with every phase of yellow, drab and brown.’
Pevsner and Newman’s Buildings of England, is rather at odds with this view: ‘Wimborne Minster… is imposing, but it is not beautiful. What is it that spoils it? The spotty brown and grey stone in the first place, the competition of crossing tower and west tower in the second, too similar in height, neither dominating and too similar in bulk, and the uncouth top of the crossing tower in the third.’ Oh dear.
In terms of construction, the Minster is 198 feet along its centre. In terms of width, excepting the transepts, it varies from 23 feet in the nave to 21 in the choir. The two towers are 95 feet and 84 feet high. The church was enlarged and partly rebuilt several times in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In the fifteenth century, a spire was added to the crossing tower but this fell in 1600. The author of Coker’s Survey of Dorsetshire gave the following as the course of events: ‘I will not overpasse a strange Accident, which in our Dayes happened unto it, viz. Anno Domini 1600, (the Choire beeing then full of People at tenne of Clock Service, allsoe the Streetes by reason of the Markett) a sudden Mist ariseing, all the Spire Steeple, beeing of a verie great Height, was strangely cast downe; the Stones battered all the Lead, and brake much of the Timber of the Roofe of the Church, yet without anie Hurte to the People.’
In the 15th century, a western tower had been added to the minster church, perhaps as a location for ringing of bells, the older portions of the Minster not being thought strong enough to bear the weight.
That is not to say it was entirely without its problems, though. Thomas Perkins, in the 1899 volume Wimborne Minster and Christchurch Priory reports: ‘as early as 1548 it was thought necessary to brick up the west doorway, and notices of unsoundness of the tower occur frequently in the church books. In 1664 we find the following entry made: “Paid in beere to the Ringers for a peale to trye if the Tower shooke £0 1s. 0d”.’ Perkins went on to wonder ‘if the large amount of beer which a shilling would purchase in those days was given to the ringers so as to give them a fictitious courage and blind their eyes to the possible danger of bringing the tower down upon their heads.’ With a peal consisting of 5000 or more changes, one presumes that the beer was given to the bell-ringers after the peal.
Aesthetics aside, the Minster is a treasure trove of artefacts, from crazy coffins to a priceless chained library, from an orrery to a clock with no external face, and a sundial with three.
The south wall of the Minster bears an astronomical clock thought to date from the early 14th century and built by Peter Lightfoot, who was a monk at Glastonbury Abbey. At the centre of the dial is the earth, around which the sun orbits – which gives an indication of best scientific knowledge available in the period in which it was built. There’s also an orb which shows the phases of the moon. The workings are in the belfry and are attached to a grenadier (which dates from the era of the Napoleonic wars, when it replaced a monk) which strikes the quarter hour from which the town gets its many Quarterjack references.
While the clock may have no external face, this is made up for by the sundial, which has three. Why? After the vernal (spring) and before the autumnal equinox, the sun describes an arc of greater than 180° (ie it comes up north of due east and goes down north of due west), so a single-sided sundial could not show the time before 6am or after 6pm, when facing due south. By adding the two additional faces, the sundial can show the time at any moment during the day (at least when an unblocked sun is above
Another of the great treasures of the Minster is its chained library. Housed in what was the Minster’s treasury, a room built in the 14th century, the library came into being with a bequest from Rev. William Stone. This purely ecclesiastical collection is written largely in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, and is a collection unrivalled, except perhaps at some of the great and ancient cathedrals and universities. Half a century later, the library received another handsome donation, this time including books from the collection of Roger Gillingham which were not only for the clergy, but also for: ‘the better class of person in Wimborne’.
He was clearly not limiting his thoughts of those who were to visit the library to that ‘better class’ of person, though; he stipulated in his will that, not only should the books he donated to the library be attached with chains, for which he supplied money for the chains, but also that the existing collection of books be chained in place, to prevent their being pilfered by less scrupulous gentlefolk who might wish to enlarge their own collection.
The most ancient printed book – Opuscala Beati Anselmi Archiepiscopi…, literally ‘the small works of St Anselm, Archbishop’, dates from 1495 and was printed in Basle. The library has five copies of the late 16th-century Geneva (or so-called Breeches) Bible, wherein Adam and Eve ‘sowed figge-tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches’.
The oldest book in the collection is a hand-written and illuminated copy of Regimen Animarum – a 14th-century Dummies’ Guide to keeping one’s soul pure, aimed at priests, which was written on vellum in 1343. It gives advice on spiritual dangers and suitable punishments for priests committing crimes such as ‘rapine and arson’.
For more practical secular matters, one could turn to the 1672 volume The Gentleman’s Companion, which advises that, when seeking a bride, a gentleman should hold not only the prospective bride’s family, virtue and education in mind, but also consider her estate, because: ‘a comfortable estate is the only way to extenuate the innumerable inconveniences of married life’.
Philosophical thinking has (hopefully) moved on since those days, although one of Wimborne’s residents had his own peculiar way of moving on. After falling out with the Minster’s authorities, at which point he swore he would not be buried in the Minster, Anthony Ettrick later had a change of heart and persuaded the church authorities to allow him to be buried in the wall of the Minster, so neither being inside nor outside. Having sorted out this minor existential problem, he commissioned a coffin, on which he had the date of his death inscribed – or rather the year he thought he was going to die, 1693. He outlived his prediction by a decade and, as it would have been too expensive to have another stone coffin made, the original date was amended to 1703. Prior to his death, he was best known for committing the Duke of Monmouth for trial during the Monmouth rebellion, which is, other than the fact it was the location chosen for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Dorset Celebration, Wimborne Minster’s final royal connection.