Wednesday 15 February 2023

Howden Minster open day

Last night I gave a talk to Gilberdyke WI and on the way home, through thick fog, saw a badger run across the road in front of me. I know they are around but only see them infrequently and was surprised at how fast this one ran.  The only other wildlife out was  a solitary rabbit. It was good to get home although I didn't need supper as the ladies of the WI provided a lovely buffet.

I am busy at the moment refreshing my knowledge of the history of Howden Minster. I am taking tours around the church on Easter Monday, 10th April when the Minster is having an 'open day'. The idea is to show off the church to everyone, young and old, locals and visitors. There will be old photographs, archaeological discoveries, refreshments from That Tearoom, musical interludes on both piano and organ and activities for children including brass rubbing.

Howden Minster has always been at the centre of the town and driving home its beautiful lantern tower and green roof are the signs that you are nearly there. Many travellers in the M62 are attracted by its beauty and increasingly are stopping off to visit both church and town.

What follows is a very very brief summary of the church history - come along on Easter Monday to find out more.

It is believed that there was a church here in Saxon times although the written evidence is a little uncertain!  A twelfth century chronicler, Gerald of Wales wrote several centuries later that

"In the north of England beyond the Humber, in the church of Hovedene, the concubine of the rector incautiously sat down on the tomb of St. Osana, sister of king Osred, which projected like a wooden seat; on wishing to retire, she could not be removed, until the people came to her assistance; her clothes were rent, her body was laid bare, and severely afflicted with many strokes of discipline, even till the blood flowed; nor did she regain her liberty, until by many tears and sincere repentance she had showed evident signs of compunction."

Osred was king of Northumbria and died in 716 AD . There is nothing more known of Osana beyond this mention but it does suggest evidence of an early church at Howden.

We are on more certain ground with the knowledge that the church was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 and eventually, when Howden became associated with the bishopric of Durham it became very important.

In 1267 the church became collegiate - ie a college of priests was set up and thereafter much building took place until a magnificent church, with a beautiful chapter house and its own song school dominated the landscape. Around 20 priests lived in Howden, some in separate prebendal residences on Churchside and some in the bedern [like a sort of hall of residence] which was where Parson's Lane is now. And there were too regular visits by the bishops to Howden when they stayed in their palace and where at least two kings  [ Edward II in 1312 and Henry V in 1421] were hosted

The church became a place of pilgrimage after a supposed miracle took place at the funeral Mass of John of Howden in 1275 when he apparently sat up in his coffin to receive the Host. He was an eminent poet and philosopher and had been chaplain to Queen Eleanor of Provence, the wife of Henry III

Although never officially created at saint he was held to be one and of course St John Street leads directly to the Minster. His shrine was in the centre of what is now the ruined choir

So many pilgrims  visited Howden that enough money became available to build a new choir and raise the height of the nave. We can still see the old roof lines both from the Market Place and inside the church.

 View from the Market Place showing the ruined choir and the older roofline

But then came the Reformation and Howden became an ordinary parish church. No one repaired the choir and in 1696 the choir roof and walls collapsed in a storm. The chapter house roof went the same way in 1750. But the choir was totally ruined and it is hard to imagine what the church must have looked like when it was complete.

Many repairs were made to the church in the nineteenth century and then in 1929 a disgruntled farm worker set the tower on fire. A lot of damage was done both by the fire and by the water used to extinguish it by the firemen. The alarm was said to be have been given by a sea lion from a circus parked in the Market Place. It took three years for the repairs to be complete.

  The dramatic and awful sight of the tower on fire in 1929

There is lots to see inside the church today, some lovely stained glass and statues as well as memorials to many Howden families.  And do not forget to visit Peter de Saltmarshe, lying in his armour in the centre of the Saltmarshe chapel with a dog at his feet to symbolise loyalty.

This  is a picture of the Minster choir in 1982.