The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 1/8: Foundation, destruction, and restoration.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway

This is the first in a series of eight articles about the medieval musical iconography of Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Beverley Minster has a remarkable 71 medieval carvings of musicians in stone and wood, more in one place than any other site, as well as 68 magnificent Tudor misericords, more than in any other church. The current building originates from the 13th century onward, its musical carvings largely from the 14th century, with some additionally from the 16th and 19th–20th centuries.  

This series of articles is the first and so far the only available account in print or online to photograph and describe all the medieval musical iconography and many of the allegorical carvings of this historically important church. The articles are illustrated by colour photographs by the author, acting as a survey of the musical instruments and religious culture of 14th century England.

This first feature is an introduction to the Minster’s history: its foundation in the 10th century under King Athelstan; its attempted destruction under Henry VIII and then the Puritans; with a particular focus on the repair of its stone medieval minstrels in the late 19th and early 20th century by John Percy Baker, making it possible for visitors today to admire the minstrels rather than view only vandalised fragments.

Following articles explore the carvings of 14th century minstrels high in the arcades, triforium and capitals (article 2); on three walls at eye level (article 3); and in the rest of the church, such as the Minster’s two tombs (article 4). This is followed by a gathering of evidence to answer the fundamental question: why are there so many medieval minstrels in the Minster (article 5)? Because they are too interesting to omit, the next article surveys the wonderful 14th century stone carvings of allegorical dogs, Reynard the fox, beard-pullers and dragons, some with two heads (article 6). The penultimate article surveys the musical aspects of the 16th century misericords and 19th–20th century neo-Gothic organ screen, with its imitation medieval instruments (article 7). The final article surveys literature about Beverley Minster, puzzling over the paucity of print publications about the magnificent medieval minstrels, and the Minster’s declared lack of interest in its own heritage (article 8).

Read more

Coventry Carol: the power of a song

Angelo Visconti, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1860-1861, Italy.
Angelo Visconti, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1860-1861, Italy.

Coventry Carol sings the loss of slaughtered infants in a play depicting Herod’s massacre of the innocents. These mystery plays were religious community events, telling Bible stories in the vernacular with humour and pathos, from the creation right through to judgement day. They were performed annually by the local trade or craft guilds, a tradition that began in the middle ages. The mystery plays were threatened in 1548, along with the banning of the Feast of Corpus Christi that was the occasion of their performance, in a royal and ecclesiastical bid to rid England of all vestiges of Catholicism.

The play that carried Coventry Carol has only been preserved through acts of good timing and good luck, surviving the general loss of many period artefacts, royal suppression of its staging, and a devastating fire that destroyed the original document.

My first hearing of it was an act of theatre that changed my life. This was way back in 1984, but even now a shiver runs down my spine each time I think of it. The experience showed me the door to early music, a door which John Renbourn later opened; and it taught me what, at its best, a song can be.

This article was first published on 19th July 2015, now updated to include an interview with the author, Ian Pittaway, in an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music, and his performance of the song for the programme with Andy Casserley in the early music duo, The Night Watch. A video of the recording of the song for Soul Music is included in this article. The Coventry Carol edition of Soul Music was broadcast on Christmas Day 2019.

Read more