A monster of a minster

The magnificent York Minster
Slightly smaller Stonegrave Minster

On 29 September 1979, my dad mentions a letter from a reader asking him to explain the difference between a minster and a cathedral.

It struck me that 40 years ago when the question was posed, the writer would have had to sit down to write the letter, then take it to the nearest post box, after which at least a week would pass before it landed on my dad’s desk (having likely been first sent to the newspaper, and then forwarded on to our home address). And then it was probably another two weeks or so before the answer appeared in his column. So let’s say, around three weeks from start to finish.

It took me 15 seconds to find the answer, which is nearly two million seconds fewer than in 1979, despite the fact that I accidentally Googled ‘difference between a monster and a cathedral’. Cleverly (or perhaps sinisterly, depending on your outlook), Google automatically assumed I meant ‘minster’. It is astonishing how much the world of information and research has advanced since 1979, and a gazillion queries can now be answered within seconds.

But we don’t get as much of a thrill from it as I imagine that reader did when they saw their question in print and a column resulting from it. And although the internet is very convenient for us writers, I do still love delving into my dad’s library of books and his huge collection of cuttings to discover facts that you simply cannot find elsewhere.

Going back to minsters, York is home to the most famous building in the county, and so you might imagine all minsters to be large, imposing places of worship. But close to where I grew up is the tiny village of Stonegrave which has its very own minster, the whole of which would probably fit inside York Minster’s North Transept. Not too far away is Kirkdale Minster, again another small, ancient building, well worth a visit as it dates from around A.D.1060 and features an old, rare sundial above its door.

A minster is a church that was established during the Anglo-Saxon period after Pope Gregory (A.D.590-604) sent out missionaries to convert the heathens in England. It was mainly a teaching establishment, or one attached to a monastery, and as such was known as a monasterium, which entered the Saxon language as ‘mynster’ and is where the modern word comes from.

A cathedral, on the other hand, is the most important church within a diocese, so called as it houses the ‘cathedra’, or the throne that only the bishop is entitled to sit upon. Originally bishops dressed the same way as ordinary priests, and so to distinguish them, they were given a dedicated chair within the church that only they could occupy. So York Minster is a cathedral, and in 1836, the diocese of Ripon was established, and thus Ripon Minster became its cathedral.

The Church of Holy Trinity at Stonegrave was first mentioned as a religious establishment in a letter dated A.D.757 sent by Pope Paul I to Eadbert, King of Northumbria, in which he asked for the monasteries of Stonegrave, Coxwold and Jarrow to be restored to their rightful owners, and to the service of God.

Very little of that early Saxon church remains although, according to my dad’s archives, a relic can be seen immediately inside the south door. This is an ancient stone cross which is believed to be one of the finest examples of a Saxon wheel-headed stone known as a Celtic cross. It dates to around the 10th century and is unusual because of the carvings upon it. One panel shows the Ascension into Heaven, while another depicts an evangelist holding on to a book.

Dad also wrote about Stonegrave Minster in 1978, saying: ‘No minster has been constructed since the Reformation, and it seems this can no longer happen.’ And that was the case until the Church of England designated additional minsters by bestowing an honorific title on certain parish churches of regional significance in recognition of their importance to their communities. In our region, that includes Dewsbury (1994), Rotherham (2004), Doncaster (2004), Halifax (2009), Leeds (2012) and most recently Holy Trinity, Hull, which was made a minster by Archbishop John Sentamu on May 13th 2017.

Incidentally, Google still can’t tell me the difference between a monster and a cathedral.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 27th September and the Gazette & Herald on 25th September 2019

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