In the Footsteps of Treves: Wimborne Minster
Steve White and Clive Hannay follow Sir Frederick into the east
Published in September ’16
When introducing a reader to Wimborne, most authors would probably start in the following manner: ‘It is a pleasant little country town, a blending of the old and the new, in a charming district,’ as did Frank R. Heath in his book Dorset (1905). ‘Wimborne is surprisingly attractive,’ states Richard Ollard ninety years later in his book – also named Dorset. On the other hand, Sir Frederick Treves, when he writes about the town in Highways and Byways in Dorset (1906), says: ‘Wimborne Minster is a commonplace town squatting soberly in the meadows about the Stour. There is little to show that it had ever been – as Leland avers – “a very large thing”. It is a characterless place that, having set its face against any show of individuality, has become successfully mediocre. It looks its best when seen from a distance.’
Treves loathed Victorian ‘red-brick villas’ and Wimborne has its share; could it be this that affected his judgement and brought about his caustic comments? It would be right to say that, despite rain and thunder on the mid-June day we visited, Wimborne appears a vibrant, attractive and popular town. One thing that all books on Wimborne do agree upon is that the minster is the chief feature of the place. It is on the subject of the minster that Treves exclusively concentrates during his visit to Wimborne: ‘Its great and only feature is its splendid minster, which is visited in summer by thousands of exuberant folk in char-a-bancs and coaches. The church has two towers, one a glorious lantern tower of the late Norman period, and a western tower which dates from the fifteenth century. 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 autumn leaf blended with every phase of yellow drab, and brown.’
As if to make amends for his invective on the town itself, Treves turns to flattery when noting the exterior of the minster. This contrasts starkly with Newman and Pevsner’s observation in their book, The Buildings of England – Dorset (1972), which suggests that the ‘spotty brown and grey stone’ is ‘just one of the things that spoil the building’s exterior’. Most people would disagree with this statement; the building is not unattractive and sits well in its surroundings; the neighbouring buildings seem to be clamouring to get closer to this ecclesiastical hub.
Treves moves to the interior of the minster: ‘Within is a nave with Norman pillar and arches, a Norman clerestory, and other interesting features which have been dwelt upon in the endless descriptions of the minster. Few there are who do not know of the library of chained books; of the orrery clock, which, even after the lapse of five centuries still compels the sun to move round the dial once a day and the moon once a month; of the ridiculous figure perched high up in the western tower, where he is convulsed every quarter of an hour, a figure the tourists call a French gendarme and older folk a “centinel” or “Jackman”; and of the ancient chest hacked out of a single log of wood, very archaic and elemental, yet provided with no fewer than six locks. This chest probably contained the documents of some trust.’
Treves is probably correct in surmising that there would be few that are not aware of the chained library and the clock in the minster; they are, after all, among the main attractions of the place. The chained library is accessed via a 26-step, left-handed spiral staircase. One of only five in England, the library is the second largest and, like the clock, it seems to be much as Treves would have seen it. His declaration that the Quarter Jack is ‘ridiculous’ may strike some as being unfair. The figure is currently in the guise of a Grenadier Guard, as he has been since the Napoleonic Wars; before this he was depicted as a monk, and has been in situ since 1612. The chest referenced by Treves is, according to the information in the church, some 1300 years old and is therefore Saxon in origin, the locks being medieval additions.
Treves now quotes Hutchins’s list in his book The History and Antiquities of Dorset (1774), describing some of the relics once kept in the Saxon chest: ‘The minster was, however, at one time possessed of treasures more remarkable than trust deeds. Among those detailed in the list provided by Hutchins are a piece of the Cross and of our Lord’s manger, some of the ground where our Lord was born, some of the hairs of his beard, part of the thigh of the blessed Agatha, one of St Philip’s teeth, one of the joints of St Cecilia, and some of the blood of the blessed Thomas of Canterbury, together with his hair shirt.’ According to the information board next to the chest, the list of relics contained in the chest was a lengthy one. Unfortunately, these have long since disappeared, most likely destroyed during the Reformation. The chest is an intriguing piece of history as well as being the oldest item in the minster.
Treves now looks at some of the minster’s many tombs: ‘There are many interesting tombs in the minster. The supposed burial place of Aethelred, King of the West Saxons and brother of King Alfred, is marked by a curious brass placed over the stone in 1600. On the south side of the chancel is an altar tomb, erected in 1444, to John Beaufort, grandson of John of Gaunt, and to Margaret Beauchamp his wife. The effigies were prepared by the direction of their daughter, Lady Margaret Tudor, mother of Henry VII. The two lie side by side: he a burly fighting man in full armour, she a slender and pretty woman, in robes of state. She wears a veil under her coronet and a jewel on her breast. Their two right hands are firmly clasped together, and so unnatural is the action that the impression remains that it was thus they died. He has taken off his gauntlet the better to hold her hand, while the empty glove is pressed to his cuirass. Above the tomb is a fine “Tourney” helm of the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century’.
The brass to King Ethelred was placed over the tomb in 1440, not 1600; later editions of Highways and Byways corrected this error in dating the object. When Treves came here, the brass was still to be found on the floor of the Sanctuary, purportedly over the burial site of the king’s body. The only known brass to an English king, it is now on the north wall of the Sanctuary. The ‘Tourney’ or Tournament helmet Treves noted above the Beaufort tomb is an extremely rare example of a visored helmet from the 15th century. Painted black, it probably belonged to John Beaufort, above whose tomb Treves saw it hung. It reputedly weighs 14 pounds and is now set high above a door in the South Transept.
As Treves says, the minster was visited by thousands each summer at the time he wrote Highways and Byways in Dorset in 1906 and the same can be said today; the building is a huge tourist attraction and contains a wealth of fascinating historical features, only a few of which are detailed above.
It is intriguing that Treves makes no mention of anything other than the minster in Wimborne. True, he does qualify this omission from the outset in his initial judgment that the minster is its ‘great and only feature’. However, Wimborne has, for its size, a relatively large number of listed buildings; amongst these notable buildings are an ancient moated farmhouse (with part of the moat still extant), some thatched cottages within the town centre and the Priest’s House Museum, a grade II* listed building, close by the minster. The origins of the Priest’s House go back to the early 16th century. In 1872 the building was procured by the Coles family and became an ironmonger’s. In 1960, the then owner, Hilda Coles, closed the shop and turned it into a museum, which opened its doors in 1962. Initially three rooms, the museum now has ten rooms open to the public covering archaeology, costume and local history to name but a few and rewards a visit. The term ‘Priest’s House’ was first used on an 1885 Ordnance Survey map; there is no proof, however, that the building ever served a religious purpose, despite its proximity to the minster.
• Thanks to Christine Oliver for her help compiling this article. For more on the Wimborne Minster visit www.wimborneminster.org.uk or, for Wimborne’s museum, www.priest-house.co.uk