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).

Beverley Minster’s origins   

The story of what was to become Beverley Minster began in the 8th century with John of Beverley. John became Bishop of York, he ordained the influential ecclesiastical historian the Venerable Bede, and he founded a monastery in Inderawuda. That place name, meaning ‘in Deira wood’, no longer exists, but oral tradition and archaeological research suggests this is where Beverley Minster now stands. The original Anglo-Saxon church, almost certainly wooden, is long gone.

During his life, John of Beverley was known for his miracles of healing so, when he died in 721, his grave in a monastery chapel became a place of pilgrimage. By the 10th century, there was a religious community of his followers in Beverley. King Athelstan prayed at John of Beverley’s tomb before his victory over the Scots in 937 and, in grateful response, he bestowed a new title and status on the church that housed John’s tomb: the Collegiate Church of Saint John the Evangelist. A collegiate church is run by canons, clerics whose role is to preach in the neighbourhood. A minster, first attested in England in the 7th century, is the title given to any settlement of clergy, living communally, with an obligation to maintain the daily office of prayer.

Beverley Minster as a place of pilgrimage

The role of Beverley increased in importance after John was canonised as a saint in 1037. As a centre of pilgrimage to his tomb, Beverley gained a significant status. As a result, the town’s commercial wool trade boomed and by 1377 it was one of the largest towns in England.

This 17th century painting in Beverley Minster shows King Athelstan or Æthelstan,
who reigned 924–939, with Saint John of Beverley, who died in 721.
Photograph © Ian Pittaway.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger view in a new window, click in new window to further enlarge.)

In 1214, while Mass was being celebrated in the Minster, an avalanche of stones fell from the church tower. The canons left the church in time to see the entire tower collapse, destroying a large part of the building in its wake. That Norman church is all but gone: only the Norman font and stone blocks in the east end of the church now remain.

The wealth of Beverley as a pilgrimage site was a key factor in rebuilding. (By 1377 the town was the 11th most wealthy in England, judged by tax revenue.) The new building work took place largely between c. 1225 and 1400. During these years the chief treasures of the Minster were created: the tomb of a member of the Percy family, carved between the late 1330s and early 1340s, probably for Lady Eleanor Percy, who died in 1328; a magnificent reredos, an ornamental screen covering the wall at the back of the altar, was built in the late 1330s or early 1340s (both explored in the fourth article); and the stone carvings of human-animal hybrids, everyday figures, allegorical scenes (sixth article) and medieval musicians were made in 1330-90 (explored in the second and third articles). Later, in 1520, 68 outstanding choir stalls with misericords were carved (explored in the seventh article), just before the fortunes of Beverley Minster changed.

14th century minstrels in Beverley Minster’s arcade, playing psaltery,
gittern, and pipe and tabor, described in the second article.
Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
(As with all pictures, click to see a larger view in a new window, click in new window to further enlarge.)
Three of Beverley Minster’s 14th century allegorical figures – the merman Triton, a foolish foliate head, and the he-goat Satan – explored in the sixth article. Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Beverley opposes Henry

The seeds of England’s cumulative break with Rome were sown in 1527, when Henry VIII had an ecclesiastical court meet to discuss the validity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. When his desire to divorce Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn met with Rome’s repeated refusal, Henry declared himself Supreme Head and Sole Protector of the Church in England in 1531. Henry’s marriage annulment was achieved by his appointment in 1533 of Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury to do his bidding. In November 1534, Henry’s Act of Supremacy declared England to be a sovereign state, in no way subject to Rome, with himself as Supreme Head of the country and Supreme Head of the Church of England, with the power to define the faith, declare heresies, and appoint men of his choosing to key ecclesiastical positions. This was the beginning of the Church of England.

Cardinal John Fisher of Beverley, drawn in
1525 by Hans Holbein the Younger.

This led directly to the royal execution of two men in 1535 who denied the validity of both Henry Tudor’s and Thomas Cranmer’s new status. Cardinal John Fisher of Beverley was the only bishop to openly oppose the king, earning himself the distinction of being the sole member of the College of Cardinals to die for his Catholic faith. On Henry’s order, John Fisher was beheaded on 23rd June. Sir Thomas More, who resigned as Henry’s Lord Chancellor and refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn, suffered the same fate for his opposition on 6th July.

John Fisher wasn’t the only one in Beverley opposing Henry. Between October 1536 and February 1537 there was a series of popular uprisings against him in the north of England. They started in Louth, Lincolnshire, on 1st October, leading to a march of 10,000 men to Lincoln to press their demands, resulting in an occupation of Lincoln Cathedral. The protest spread to Beverley on 8th October, where nine armies were formed under the leadership of Yorkshire barrister, Robert Aske, totalling 5,000 men. They marched on York, doubling in number by the time they reached there. Aske named the movement a “pilgrimage of grace for the commonwealth … for the preservation of Christ’s Church, of the realm of England, the King our Sovereign Lord”. For months, they marched in their thousands to oppose the break with Rome, royal supremacy, the ill treatment of clergy of the old faith, Henry’s Act commanding the dissolution of the monasteries, and unfair taxation.

They stated that they did not oppose the royal person of Henry, but his actions. Henry, of course, didn’t see it like this. The protests now known as The Pilgrimage of Grace ended in 216 executions, including lords, knights, abbots, monks, and parish priests. Robert Aske was convicted of high treason and, on 12th July 1537, hanged in chains from Clifford’s Tower, York Castle, until he died.

The death sentence known as hanging in chains involved being locked in a cage or
gibbet iron which kept the victim upright, the cage suspended in the air, leaving the
condemned to die publically of dehydration over several days. The cage for hanging
in chains on the left is from the Torture Museum in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany.
On the right is Clifford’s Tower, York Castle, from which Robert Aske’s cage was suspended.

The destruction of the Minster

The destruction of Beverley Minster in the 16th and 17th century can only be understood within the context of national religious conflict.

Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1541 led to suppression of Catholic colleges, that is, churches with a collection of priests. In 1548 the Crown reduced the Collegiate Church of Saint John the Evangelist (Beverley Minster’s title at the time) to a parish church and seized most of its income. The governor of Hull, Sir Michael Stanhope, and Crown surveyor, John Bellow, were given the church as a gift, and they intended to pull it down to sell the stone, a valuable market commodity. Chapels within the church were destroyed, statues and the gold and silver shrine of Saint John were removed. Its value as an intact building was recognised by Beverley merchant Richard Gray and his supporters, who bought the Minster for £50, together with the chapter house (room for meetings) and charnel house (building to store human remains) for a further £50.

The suppression of Catholicism meant the loss of Beverley’s status as a pilgrimage destination. As a result, Beverley’s wool trade collapsed. The fabric of the church was crumbling and, by the late 16th century, Beverley was so impoverished that the Crown waived the town’s payment of taxes.

In such circumstances, church repair fell down the list of priorities and, worse, the church’s impressive 14th century stone-carved minstrels and allegorical figures were actively destroyed. The English Reformation grew apace during the brief reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, 1547–53. His hard-line Protestant faith and polity drew in particular on the anti-Catholic ideas of French Protestant, John Calvin, whose Institutio Christianae Religionis (Institutes of the Christian Religion) was published in 1536, the same year Henry VIII began his dissolution of the monasteries. Calvin argued that: the ultimate authority for believers is The Bible, not the pope or the doctrines of the Catholic Church; God is sovereign in salvation, not priests, nor the pope or the Catholic Church; images of God or saints in Catholic churches are idolatry; and therefore true salvation in Christ can only be found by leaving the Catholic Church. The word Puritan was minted in the 1560s, a term of abuse by those who opposed them, by which time Puritan beliefs and actions had been active for two decades. 

Henry VIII, Edward VI, and John Calvin.

It was these beliefs that underpinned the Calvinist and soon to be called Puritan actions of Edward VI, his aides and advisors. Edward’s Royal Injunctions of 1547 outlawed many everyday acts of Catholicism, such as processions in the liturgy, the use of Catholic sacramentals (blessed objects or actions) such as holy water, reciting the rosary, and the use of objects of devotion. Following the Injunctions, groups of iconoclasts entered churches to damage and destroy sacred statues, shrines, stained glass windows, even crucifixes, and murals on church walls were whitewashed, replaced by Bible passages condemning idolatry. During this wave of destruction, the west face of Beverley Minster’s ‘idolatrous’ reredos (altar screen) was removed. It may have been at the same time that the Minster’s magnificent minstrels were attacked, damaged, and some completely destroyed, or it may have been later: the Protestant destruction of Catholic art would continue for more than a century.

The plan of the Calvinists, the most fanatical of the Puritans, was to utterly destroy any vestiges of, as they saw it, Roman Catholic idolatry. Calvinists rioted across Europe, destroying church art in sprees of iconoclasm in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1523; Basel, Switzerland, in 1529; Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1530; Münster, Germany, in 1534; Geneva, Switzerland, in 1535; Augsburg, Germany, in 1537; Dundee and Perth, Scotland, in 1559; Rouen, France, in 1560, and Saintes and La Rochelle, France, in 1562. During the 16th and/or 17th century, on some unknown date or dates, Beverley Minster was added to that list, and Puritan weapons rained down on beautiful, irreplaceable 14th century stone art, partially or completely smashing off heads, arms, legs, and musical instruments.

Puritans smashed off the faces of every figure on the altarpiece
in the Cathedral of Saint Martin, Utrecht, Netherlands.
Photograph by Arktos, shared under the
Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.5 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.5) license.

The print by Frans Hogenberg of the destruction of art in the Church of Our Lady, Antwerp, Belgium, on 20th August 1566 (below), shows the means by which Puritans destroyed: clubs and axes, with ladders and teams of men pulling on ropes for the more difficult to reach artefacts.

The Puritan destruction of art in the Church of Our Lady, Antwerp, Belgium, on 20th August 1566, depicted in a contemporaneous print by Frans Hogenberg.

In England during the 1640s, the parliamentarian army engaged in a new wave of iconoclasm to destroy carvings and stained glass windows. Names of Puritans appear on the list of incumbents on display in Beverley Minster (below), so it is possible that the church’s own clergy were responsible for some of the terrible destruction. Among them is William Crashaw, 1599-1605, Richard Rhodes, 1614-32, and James Burney, 1632-60. Richard Rhodes had been chaplain to the rigorously Puritan Hoby family in Hackness, Yorkshire. William Crashaw was an author whose views are plain just from reading his titles, such as Romish Forgeries and Falsifications, together with Catholike Restitutions, 1606, and The Sermon preached at the Crosse, Feb. xiiij. 1607. Justified by the Authour, both against Papist and Brownist, to be the truth: Wherein this point is principally followed; namely, that the religion of Rome, as now it stands established, is worse than ever it was, printed in 1608.

Incumbents of Beverley Minster. Among the names are Puritans William Crashaw in 1599,
Richard Rhodes in 1614, and James Burney in 1632. Photograph © Ian Pittaway.
(As with all pictures, click to see a larger view in a new window.)

Bishop Joseph Hall wrote an account of the actions of troops and citizens, acting on a Parliamentary ordinance, in Norwich in 1643: “Lord what work was here! What clattering of glasses! What beating down of walls! What tearing up of monuments! What pulling down of seats! What wresting out of irons and brass from the windows! What defacing of arms! What demolishing of curious stonework! What tooting and piping upon organ pipes! And what a hideous triumph in the market-place before all the country, when all the mangled organ pipes, vestments, both copes and surplices, together with the leaden cross which had newly been sawn down from the Green-yard pulpit and the service-books and singing books that could be carried to the fire in the public market-place were heaped together.”

The ground level damage in Beverley Minster was extensive but inconsistent and incomplete. The height of the minstrels in the arcades helped them survive with considerably less damage. Thankfully, the Puritans made some odd omissions: the easy to reach Percy tomb (explored in the fourth article) suffered relatively minor damage, the Coronation of the Virgin on the inner roof of the reredos (also in the fourth article) is virtually intact, and some of the allegorical carvings (see the sixth article) were only lightly damaged.

Various levels of damage done to 14th century carved figures in
Beverley Minster by Puritan vandals in the 16th and/or 17th century.
Above left: A lightly damaged harper high in the arcade.
Above right: A trio of smashed musicians in the south transept. Left to right, we see the
remains of a fiddler, the player of a now unidentifiable instrument, and a harper.
Below left: The remains of a man or woman and horse (unicorn?) on the south wall.
Below right: The space left by a completely destroyed figure that was at eye level on the south wall.
Photographs © Ian Pittaway. (As with all pictures, click to see a larger view in a new window.)

The Minster’s minstrels would have had an added frisson for Calvinist Puritans. Not only were these images idolatrous, they were musical. In worship, Puritans considered the unaccompanied singing of Psalms to be godly, but all other music and all musical instruments in worship were anathema. Thus, during the English Civil War of 1642-51, Puritans made a point of damaging or completely destroying church organs. In 1642, for example, Puritans used an axe to demolish the organ of Worcester Cathedral, and we have already seen Bishop Joseph Hall of Norwich’s account in 1643 of “mangled organ pipes”.

To understand the Puritans’ view of music, we turn paradoxically to one of the most influential Roman Catholic theologians, Thomas Aquinas (1225–74). In his magnum opus, Summa Theologica (or Theologiae), he wrote, “The Church does not use musical instruments such as the harp or lyre when praising God, lest she should seem to lapse into Judaism”. On the extreme Calvinist wing of Puritanism, their thinking was essentially the same: we do not use musical instruments when praising God, lest we should lapse into Catholicism. Yet the writer of the Hebrew Psalms of the Old Testament named specific musical instruments used to accompany their singing: harp, lyre, shofar (horn of a ram or goat), trumpet, nagan (unknown strummed or plucked instrument), uggab (unknown reed instrument), timbrel, and cymbal. To counter this inconvenient fact, Aquinas explained that “musical instruments usually move the soul more to pleasure than create inner moral goodness … But in the Old Testament, instruments of this kind were used, both because the people were more coarse and carnal, so that they needed to be aroused by such instruments and with temporal promises, and also because these bodily instruments were figurative of something.” In other words, the Jews of the Old Testament used instruments because they were crude and lustful, but we need to be spiritual and pure. On this, Thomas Aquinas, Calvinists and the Taliban are in agreement.

On the subject of music, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the dogma of the Catholic Aquinas, the Protestant Calvinists, and the modern Taliban share the same ideas. The essential article of faith for any branch of fundamentalism is oppositional splitting, a strict dichotomy and demarcation between us and them: we belong to God (or some sainted figure), they belong to Satan (or some demonised figure); our ideology is eternal, theirs is temporal; our ideas are infallibly correct, their ideas are fallibly wrong; we are pure, they are corrupt; we should control, they should be controlled; our ways should be protected, their ways should be destroyed; and, on the fascist extreme, we deserve to live, they deserve to die. This holds true throughout history for the fundamentalist wing of any self-identifying group, religious or secular, with the same terrible results.

Modern restoration 

In the early 18th century, seeing the poor condition of the building, local townspeople raised funds. In 1716, London architect Nicholas Hawksmoor was invited to advise on the restoration of the dangerously leaning north wall of the north transept, built on a marsh and leaning four feet into the street. It was ingeniously repaired in 1736 by a joiner from York, William Thornton. He raised it back up by scaffolding the entire north transept wall and, using a cradle of his own devising, he screwed it tighter to raise the wall by degrees back into a vertical plane. A new stone floor was laid in the nave, a new marble floor in the chancel, the central tower was rebuilt, and most of the medieval roof beams, except those in the nave, were replaced.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway. (As with all pictures, click to see a larger view in a new window.)

Beverley Minster was being taken care of again, with more work to follow. The medieval reredos, the ornamental screen covering the wall at the back of the altar, built in the late 1330s or early 1340s and destroyed during the reign of Edward VI, was rebuilt in 1824. Sir Gilbert Scott designed a new choir screen, carved in oak by James Elwell of Beverley in 1878-80. In 1880, Revd. Henry Edward Nolloth became Canon Nolloth, vicar of Beverley Minster. A man of independent wealth with a great love of the Minster, he initiated and largely funded restorations and new work during his 41 year incumbency, including the installation of new stained glass windows, the making of new bells, 100 new statues made for the niches of the west towers, and 29 new statues on the internal west wall. Under the leadership of Canon Nolloth, the 14th century stone carvings of musicians and allegories were repaired with great skill and care between 1895 and 1912 by John Percy Baker, a mason based in Vauxhall, Surrey. John Baker’s chief task was to make replacement heads, hands, arms and parts of musical instruments to fill gaps left by the iconoclasts. As we see on the right, in making new parts for a smashed cleric in bay D on the north wall, John Baker carved the new head in the image of Canon Henry Nolloth.

Robert Smith was the stone mason working on new statues in the niches of the interior west wall. When Smith died in 1909, John Percy Baker continued that work with his own son, Bryant Percy Baker. His other son, Robert Peter Baker, was a carpenter, and he made 48 wooden statues of saints in the niches above the choir stalls in 1911-13. In 1919, Mr. N. Hitch of Vauxhall carved musicians in oak for the new choir screen made in 1878-80, most of them carrying or playing medieval instruments, inspired by medieval models, as we see below. (These carvings are explored in the seventh article.)

Some of the musicians carved in oak by Mr. N. Hitch of Vauxhall, Surrey, in 1919,
made for the choir screen created in 1878–80. From left to right we see a portative organ,
harp, timbrel, and organistrum or simfony. Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
(Click to see a larger view in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.) 

The task of restoration and replacement   

It was this 19th and 20th century restoration work that revived the 14th century stone carvings of minstrels and moral allegories. We have seen above the damage that John Baker faced in 1895, still evident when viewing the stone figures on the south wall, which have undergone the least repair, most none at all. Without the skill and dedication of John Baker, the carvings of 14th century musicians would have remained fractured fragments.

Historical reconstruction – of events, of incomplete music, of stone carvings, etc. – always involves a mixture of hard evidence and, when the evidence has run out, speculation. A reconstruction is therefore never a facsimile of history, but an approximation based on incomplete evidence. We see this in the way Mr. Baker completed missing parts of some of the instruments incorrectly. This is no criticism: he was dedicated, highly skilled and, when he worked in 1895-1912, no one could have given him the improved knowledge we’ve only had in the early music world as recently as the last four decades. Since reconstruction can therefore be a misleading term, in these 8 articles John Baker’s work is described more precisely as restoration; replacement; or new creation, as follows.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

Restoration: the repair of existing material with no material change to the original appearance other than that necessary to repair. Either no new parts are made, or new parts are replicated from the carving itself, e.g. a new left arm is made, mirroring an existing right arm.

An example of both types of restoration – repair and replication – are evident on the fiddler on the west wall. On the right we see that the upper right arm (from the player’s perspective) has been glued to the surviving lower arm with the fiddle bow in the hand, which reveals the remarkable fact that some broken parts, vandalised in the 16th or 17th century, were stored and kept until John Baker’s work began in 1895. We see the white glue lines where the dismembered part has been reattached at the forearm and on the body under the bowing hand. The second type of restoration – replication – is seen at the feet. The tumbler’s left hand holding on to the fiddler’s right foot was missing, so a new matching part was made by Mr. Baker, modelled on the opposite hand and foot, to restore the original appearance.

Replacement: the creation of new parts where they were missing, such as a head, or a portion or the entirety of a musical instrument, replaced with Mr. Baker’s best approximation of what was lost, with no definitive model.

We see this, too, on the west wall fiddler. The 14th century head was missing, so a new one was made without information about the original features. The main body of the instrument was also missing. The existence of the original right bowing hand and partial bow, and the left stopping hand with what remains of the neck and peg box, indicates that this must be a fiddle. Elsewhere in the Minster there are surviving contemporaneous 3, 4, and 5 string fiddles of various designs (shown in the following articles), so it is not possible to know the precise details of the missing instrument, but some type of fiddle is a certainty. John Baker’s 4 string replacement is based on the extant fiddle on the right of the reredos (altar screen), shown below.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.
Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Above and below are new heads and arms by John Baker to replace those that were missing, distinguishable in all cases by the different colour of the stone and often by clear lines where the old and new stone meet.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

Two are of particular interest for what they reveal about John Baker’s method. On the figure above left, John Baker used the facially vandalised figure from the north wall with a pet dog, shown on the right, as the model for the style of head dress. The replacement face of Baker’s upward-looking pained man is wonderfully comedic, and realistic enough to be, in all likelihood, based on a real person associated with the church in the late 19th or early 20th century. There is clear evidence that Mr. Baker used real figures in the church as the models for his new faces, as we have seen above with his carving of Canon Nolloth, and as we will see again in the third article.

On the figure above right, Baker created a grinning head for an onocentaur, a man-ass hybrid, common in medieval art. Baker’s replacement head is wearing the distinctive three-cornered fools’ hood, a design first seen in the early 15th century, a little later than the original carving of 1330-40 for which it was made. However, the two-cornered fools’ hood was contemporaneous with the original carving, and we see this on the head of one of the other six onocentaurs in the Minster, foolishly gorging on a tree branch, carved on a capital (decorated top of a column), shown below.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Above and below: the seven onocentaurs – man-ass hybrids – carved in Beverley Minster.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

It is likely that John Baker used the onocentaur with the fools’ hood on the capital as his model for the replacement head, but with a three-cornered hood. Perhaps he also knew that medieval manuscript illustrations contemporaneous with the original sculpture sometimes illustrated onocentaurs with fools’ hoods (seen and described in more detail in the sixth article). There is a fool with the distinctive and slightly later three-cornered hood seen on one of the misericords of 1520 (described in the seventh article), which was probably the model, accounting for the anachronism of Mr. Baker’s replacement head.

Heads and arms were the most affected by the damage done, as we see with the arms on the figure below from the north wall. This style of sleeve with decorative buttons is characteristic of new Baker arms, copied from original 14th century arms on other figures in the Minster.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This type of sleeve was the international fashion of the time, seen on the man being married in the Italian miniature below, painted on a vellum page by Niccolò di Giacomo da Bologna in the 1350s, contemporaneous with the Beverley minstrels. The shoes on the carving above are original, showing the style of footwear copied by Mr. Baker for his replacement feet.

Niccolò di Giacomo da Bologna, miniature on vellum, 1350s, showing
fashionable buttoned sleeves of the type seen in Beverley Minster’s carved
figures of 1330-40, copied by John Baker in 1895-1912 for his replacement arms.

Just as arms needed replacing on the figures at ground level, so did the musical instruments or parts of instruments held in those arms. Below left is a man playing nakers, small kettledrums of the type in the Niccolò di Giacomo miniature above. The naker player’s left arm (from the player’s point of view) has been restored, his left hand and drumstick original. On his right side, his arm, hand and drumstick are all Baker restorations. Next is a man playing two large horns called oliphants or olifants, i.e. elephant horns. The arms, hands and oliphants are all Baker replacements. The shape of the mouth made clear that the figure was a wind player, but it is difficult to imagine, with the instrument and arms missing, that there remained any clues about the specific instrument. On the right is a double pipe and tabor (drum) player, showing a mostly original right arm, with a Baker hand restored to above the wrist. Other restorations are the drumstick in the right hand, two fingers on the left hand, and the whole of the double pipe. The pipe of the pipe and tabor was typically single: in this case, Baker copied the model of the extant double-pipe taborers in the arcade and on the south wall. The head is a Baker replacement.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

In the work of replacement, what neither John Baker nor anyone since has attempted to do is return the carved stone to the riot of colour that the Minster once was. Evidence of original paint on the stone is now almost entirely lacking, with only small patches retaining any medieval colour, such as the splash of remaining red on the north wall’s amphisbaena (seen on the right), a serpent or dragon with a second head on its tail. (For a description of the symbolic meaning of the amphisbaena, see the sixth article.)

The removal of colour over time has an effect on the way eyes appear. A great many statues have survived from ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and the Graeco-Roman Empire, some dating back as far as the 6th century BCE. From the large surviving collection, we see that some statues had pupils that were only painted on so that, when the paint has completely eroded, the face is left with blank eyes. This is particularly true of marble statues. Others had carved eyes, designed to catch the light when painted. A third group had inlaid eyes, often of ivory, which could also have details painted on top, particularly true of bronze statues.

Left: a blank-eyed marble bust of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Octavius,
first Roman Emperor, 27 BCE – 14 CE (Capitoline Museum, Rome).
Centre: the head of the Colossus of Constantine the Great (c. 280–337 CE),
made in marble with carved pupils (Capitoline Museum, Rome).
Right: a rare surviving example of a bronze statue’s inlaid eyes,
The Charioteer or Heniokhos (rein-holder) of Delphi, made to commemorate
the victory of Polyzalus of Gela and his chariot in the Pythian Games of 470 BCE,
held at Delphi (Delphi Archaeological Museum, Greece).

Four examples of Baker replacement heads are shown again below. The example on the left has blank eyes, the pupils dabbed on, while the others have carved pupils. The same variety of blank and carved eyes is seen on the original 14th century heads in the Minster that were largely out of harm’s way, high in the arcades, during Puritan destruction.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway. (As with all pictures, click to see a larger view in a new window.)

Where 14th century figures were destroyed completely by Puritan fundamentalists, John Baker either left the gap where the figure had been obliterated, or made a new creation, an original carving based on existing models and the then-current understanding of medieval instruments. One such is the organistrum made for the north wall (below). The organistrum, also known as the simfony (symfony, symphony, sinfony, simfonia, etc.), was the predecessor of the vielle a roué (wheel fiddle), which first appeared circa 1500 and was later called the hurdy gurdy. The organistrum or simfony carving made by John Baker was copied faithfully from an intact 14th century carving in the Minster’s arcade.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

Above, John Baker’s 14th century model for a simfony player, high in Beverley Minster’s arcade. Below left, the simfony player carved by John Baker for a gap on the north wall where an unknown figure had been destroyed. Below right, we see the carver’s signature on the side of the instrument: “JB [19]08”.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Critical questions

We have seen that the survival of Beverley Minster is thanks in no small way to the people of Beverley. That those of us interested in medieval music can view the 14th century minstrels of the Minster is thanks entirely to the enthusiasm and funding of Canon Nolloth and the skilful restoration and replacement work of John Percy Baker.

John Baker’s work will be ever-present in the articles that follow, describing the medieval minstrels that survive in the church’s arcades, triforium and capitals in the second article; on three walls at eye level in the third article; and in the Minster’s two tombs, the reredos, a wooden chapel screen and the south transept in the fourth article. Baker’s work is equally present in the 14th century allegorical carvings, the meanings of which are explored in the sixth article.

Two critical questions remain.

Why are there so many medieval minstrel carvings in Beverley Minster, more than in any other site? To address this question, the role of the medieval musicians’ guild in the life of Beverley is explored in the fifth article.

Why is there such a puzzling paucity of previous print publications about the marvellous medieval musicians of the Minster? This question, and Beverley Minster’s lack of interest in exploring the treasure of its own medieval minstrels, is examined in the eighth and final article, which includes a commentary on sources used in this series.


© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.


Thank you

Thank you to John Phillips, Honorary Secretary of the Friends of Beverley Minster, for information about the work of John, Bryant and Robert Baker and the role of Canon Nolloth.



The eighth and final article is a survey of and commentary on the literature to date about the medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. 

Aquinas, Thomas (1274) Summa Theologica. Available online by clicking here.

Archaeologist, The (2021) Sculpture Eye-crafting Techniques: The Piercing Gazes that brought life to sculptures. Available online by clicking here.

Barber, Richard (1992) Bestiary, MS Bodley 764. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.

Barnwell, P. S. & Pacy, Arnold (ed.) (2008) Who built Beverley Minster? Reading: Spire Books.

Booker, George (undated) Musical Instruments in the Psalms. Available online by clicking here.

Forster, J. Reay (1945) Beverley Minster A Brief History. Hull: A. Brown & Sons.

Forster, J. Reay & Brown, G. Philip (1979) Beverley Minster Historical Notes. Hull: A. Brown & Sons.

Gurewitsch, Matthew (2008) True Colors. Archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann insists his eye-popping reproductions of ancient Greek sculptures are right on target. Smithsonian Magazine. Available online by clicking here.

Heal, Felicity (2005) Reformation in Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hiatt, Charles (1898) Beverley Minster, an illustrated account of its history and fabric. London: George Bell & Sons.

Horrox, Rosemary (ed.) (2000) Beverley Minster: an illustrated history. Beverley: The Friends of Beverley Minster.

Kamil, Neil (2005) Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots’ New World, 1517-1751. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press

Lipscomb, Suzannah (2009) 1536 The Year that Changed Henry VIII. Oxford: Lion.

Wandel, Lee Palmer (1995) Voracious Idols and Violent Hands. Iconoclasm in Reformation Zurich, Strasbourg, and Basel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

  • 5th July 2023 at 3:08 pm

    What a great start, Ian, to what will surely be a fascinating series of articles.
    Thank you for making your research and expertise available in such a readable and interesting way.

    • 5th July 2023 at 4:22 pm

      Thank you so much so your appreciation, Janet.


  • 5th July 2023 at 6:25 pm

    Very interesting. I’ve known PH.D. theses to be less informative than your works.

    • 5th July 2023 at 7:53 pm

      That’s high praise indeed. Thank you, Alan, that’s much appreciated.

  • 3rd August 2023 at 11:30 am

    Thank you very much for all that information and the fantastic photos! Great work! I think I will print it and make myself a book out of it!

    • 3rd August 2023 at 5:02 pm

      Thank you so much, Gaby. As you’ll see in the 8th and final article, a book is just what these articles were originally intended to be. It was offered to Beverley Minster, and they would have made money from it, as I had funding for the time and production of the book. My motivation was the poor quality of information the Minster was putting out about the minstrels, misidentifying a large portion of the instruments. This was to be part of a wider package to promote the minstrels of the Minster, to include an audio-visual guide to the minstrels, a website and a concert, all fully funded. The vicar said no …

      All the best.


  • 4th August 2023 at 1:26 pm

    Excellent to see work on these, and sorry to see the Vicar’s response. Beverly should be something of a shrine to the mediaeval musicians. There are also some fine carvings in the parish church at Nantwich in Cheshire, which I have not seen for about 45 years, but are worth scrutiny. Thank you so much!

    • 4th August 2023 at 7:52 pm

      Your comment is much appreciated, Alastair, and I couldn’t agree more about the importance of Beverley Minster. Is it Saint Mary’s Church, Nantwich, you’re referring to? That’s not a church I know. Could you say a little more about the carvings?

      All the best.


      • 5th August 2023 at 11:12 pm

        Hello Ian, My memory is a little vague, but when I was at school, my older sister’s history teacher invited me on a trip to the church to identify some carvings, I think mainly on the Misericords, as she knew I was into early music in a big way. Looking on google images it is hard to see any featured, but I think there were a fair few.

        • 6th August 2023 at 5:26 pm

          Thanks, Alastair. Websites I’ve found don’t give any information, but Jeremy and Gwen Montagu, ‘Minstrels and Angels’, says the church was built in the 14th century, and has a 4 string fiddle on a bench end with a possible harp and psaltery on corbels, but the latter in poor condition so difficult to be sure, they say. They don’t list more, but not all the information in the book is first hand, so they may have missed some.


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