The medieval diocese of York contained, in the churches of York, Ripon, Beverley, and Southwell, four ancient foundations of secular canons. The early history of each is obscure and there is uncertainty in the case of Southwell as to the date at which Nottinghamshire became transferred to the see of York. It seems probable that this took place around the middle of the 10th century, and that it was immediately followed by the grant of lands which possessed in great part the boundaries of the later manor of Southwell. The date generally accepted now is AD 956 and the donor was King Eadwig who gave the lands to Oskytel, bishop of Dorchester on Thames, just promoted to the see of York.

Archbishop Oskytel was thus in possession of a large estate centring on the village of Southwell, but including land in a number of neighbouring villages. In all the land 'between the Humber and the Welland', no other well-defined estate of such a size was owned by an individual subject. This became the basis for the later exclusive ecclesiastical jurisdiction or ‘Peculiar’ of Southwell (see further below).
It is probable that the foundation of the collegiate church followed hard upon the Archbishop's acquisition of his great estate. Oskytel is one of the more obscure Archbishops of York, but he is known to have been an ecclesiastical reformer and may be regarded as the founder of the collegiate church of Southwell.

The first church

The founding of that collegiate church (which we refer to nowadays as 'the Saxon minster') does not necessarily mean that no earlier church building existed in Southwell. There are references in early histories to the rôle of Paulinus, who was a monk sent from Rome by Pope Gregory I to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. It is surmised that Paulinus baptised people in the River Trent (which is likely to be correct) and an inference is then made from that circumstance that Paulinus was the 'founder of the first church in Southwell' (which may be much more problematical). It is more than possible, however, that a form of church, built either with or without the aid of such a distinguished hand, already existed in AD 956.

It is generally considered that by the year 700 the people of eastern England were nominally Christian and as a consequence churches were being built (or perhaps Roman structures were being adapted) across the region. It seems improbable that Southwell was a barren pocket as church buildings sprouted around it: hence the conclusion that the settlement did not have to wait for Archbishop Oskytel to furnish it with a worshipping church.

Churches built in the latter part of the 7th century and the beginning of the 8th often utilised the sites of Roman villas (perhaps echoing the continuation of a late Roman Christian site) and the existence of one such in Southwell lends further support to the notion of a church dating from this period. Roman sites that contained burial grounds were often chosen as church sites and the recent discovery of an extensive burial enclosure within the site of the Southwell villa lends further credence to the existence of a predecessor to the later Anglo-Saxon building. Evidence from the excavated burials suggests that it already served an early Christian community.

One further matter must be aired. It is known from authentic documentation that there was a shrine to St Eadburh at Southwell. According to one version, St Eadburh was an early 8th century abbess of Repton, whose remains were moved from a shrine at that Derbyshire settlement to Southwell in order to escape Viking attacks. If that was the case, her remains might have been placed either in a purpose-built chapel, or into a church which was already extant.

There is an alternative version, however, which holds that St Eadburh was the abbess of a monastic institution in Southwell itself and that after she had died, her shrine was established in her own church. That account promotes St Eadburh as the 'founder of the first church in Southwell'.

We are deep in the realms of speculation here, but on balance, it seems more feasible to point to St Eadburh, rather than St Paulinus, as the founder of the first church in Southwell.

The Saxon minster

There seems no doubt, however, about the existence of a shrine to St Eadburh (whomsoever she might be) contained within the mid-10th century minster in Southwell. The Pilgrim’s Guide to the Saints of England (1013) records that: 'There resteth St. Eadburh in the Minster at Southwell'. It is possible that the remains were transferred to the Norman minster when that was completed, but there is no reliable documentary evidence for that circumstance. In the early part of the 20th century, however, the Early English chapel to the east of the north transept was renamed 'The Chapel of St Eadburh', on the grounds (presumably) that her shrine had been at some time lodged within the former apse at that location.

The new foundation was destined for a long life, but for more than a century we have no coherent narrative of its progress. In 1051 Archbishop Ælfric Puttoc died at Southwell, implying that there was an archiepiscopal residence associated with the church. It is recorded that Ælfric's successor Cynesige (1051-60) gave bells to the church, and then Ealdred, Archbishop of York (1060-69) established a common refectory for the use of the canons. He is also reported to have purchased certain estates which he had procured for his archdiocese with his private wealth. These he used to endow the Minster. Some of them may already have served to support individual canons or prebendaries by the time of Domesday Book (1086) as will be noted further below.

The Norman Minster

After the Norman Conquest, the Normans embarked upon a countrywide building programme. New castles and new churches were built, using a similar architectural style ('Romanesque') for both. Some of the churches represented new parishes, but many, such as the one at Southwell, were replacement buildings within the same foundation.

Building of the new Norman church began in 1108 or 1109 under Archbishop Thomas II, and in 2008 the Minster held celebrations to mark an official 900th anniversary of the start of building. There is a strange curiosity about the layout and positioning of the Norman minster: although the site is a spacious one and there would appear to be plenty of room to build the new church alongside the old one, the Norman builders set the new footprint to overlap the old one. This meant that, in order to keep the Saxon Minster open for worship for as long as possible, work on the new Norman nave had to be organised in an unusual sequence, leading to some slight irregularities and inconsistencies in the present building.

Between 1109 and 1114 Archbishop Thomas II issued an order to the men of Nottinghamshire to take their Pentecostal offerings in future, not to York as they had previously done, but in procession to the church of St Mary, Southwell, in order to contribute to funding his new church. This custom, and the scale of fees which individual parishes were to pay, continued down into modern times, possibly even to the abolition of the Chapter in 1841.

There is no definitive record of when the Norman minster was completed, but the accepted view is that it was roofed and in use for worship by about 1160. There is evidence that the upper stories of the western towers, with their Rhenish caps (spires), were not completed until later than that. It is further believed that the north-western tower was completed well in advance of the south-western tower, as evidenced by a change in the design of the blind arcading in the upper reaches of the latter.
The building was begun during the reign of Henry I, fourth son of William I, a monarch who did much to stabilise governance and allow England to prosper. In 1135, however, when Henry died, Stephen of Blois seized the throne, usurping the claim of the Empress Matilda, Henry’s daughter, and prompting conflict. Matilda’s supporters harassed Stephen continually and in 1139, a full-fledged civil war broke out, with action across both England and Normandy. Nottinghamshire was drawn in and a report of 1142 describes a defensive earthwork or rampart, erected around the partially-completed minster to protect it.

Money to complete the works as the Minster gradually grew in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was constantly needed. In 1233 Archbishop William Gray granted an indulgence to those who contributed to the fabric of the Minster which was described as incomplete '...fabricae consummationem non sufficiant...'. More funds were required for the erection of the Chapter House at the end of the century, while maintenance has been a concern of every subsequent generation.

The prebendal system

Ealdred, Archbishop of York at the time of the Conquest, has been credited over the centuries with the creation of a number of prebends for the Saxon Minster thus establishing the Prebendal System of church governance. He may well have done so but the evidence remains very slight for the wide-spread belief that by 1066 there were six prebendaries rather than canons living in residence and jointly taking charge of the Saxon Minster. By the time of Domesday Book (1086) the evidence is more convincing that some prebends had been established, one for Southwell itself at Normanton, and at North Muskham, Norwell (where there appear to have been two, Overhall and Palishall) and Woodborough. Despite the absence of documentation, it seems likely that other prebends had been formed by around 1100 for the Sacrist and at Oxton (again with two prebends, one including Cropwell Bishop), bringing the number upto eight.

Under the Prebendal system each prebendary fulfilled a double function—that of a parish priest in the church which gave title to his prebend, combined with participation in the duties of the collegiate body of which he was a member. In course of time, the average prebendary discharged his parochial office through  a resident vicar and by the 13th century was represented in the choir of Southwell by a vicar choral. A main reason for this was that prebendaries were often important figures in the administration not only of the church but also of the country, spending much time at Westminster, since the king frequently persuaded (or insisted on) the archbishop rewarding his counsellors and clerks by granting them prebends.

This practice of non-residence played havoc with the premise upon which a college of secular canons had rested. By the middle of the 13th century, however, non-residence was recognized as the normal condition of affairs; and the two finally-established prebends of Eaton and North Leverton were provided, at the time of their creation, with a special endowment for vicars parochial and choral. By this time, too, when in Southwell, the prebendaries did not live communally like early canons had done, but in their own mansions, built around the prebendage. Some of its still-surviving houses like South Muskham prebend and the former Norwell Overhall prebend preserve fragments of medieval masonry and carpentry from their first construction.

It is perhaps surprising that William I, upon coming to power, maintained the organisational practices of the church across England. Apart from replacing Saxons with Normans when offices fell vacant (Lanfranc becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 1070 after Stigand had been canonically deposed and Thomas of Bayeux succeeding the deceased Ealdred as Archbishop of York in the same year). One reason for accepting the emerging prebendal system was that the Normans were already familiar with various forms of collegiate governance before the Conquest.

Gradually over the years the number of prebends attached to Southwell was increased until it reached the full complement of sixteen, a number attained in 1291 by the separation of North Leverton from Beckingham. Detailed information concerning the foundation of eight later prebends is available, but the date at which the remainder were created is a matter of inference. The table below summarises what is currently known:



No endowment in land, but probably created early, as connected with the maintenance of the services of the church.



Undoubtedly early; the Prebendary of Normanton was patron of the vicarage of Southwell, and the statement in Domesday Book that 2 bovates in the manor of Southwell were in a prebend almost certainly refers to the Normanton prebend.



The church of Southwell had possessed a manor of Norwell before the Conquest. Overhall was the most valuable of the sixteen prebends and is certainly one of the earliest.



Palishall was also valuable. It is not mentioned directly until the early 13th century but appears to be amongst the earliest established.



Tertia Pars was much less valuable. It was created by division of Norwell Overhall c 1191 to c 1194 by Archbishop Geoffrey Plantagenet at the request of the then prebendary Master Vacarius in order to provide a living for his nephew, Reginald.



The Prebendary of Woodborough can be recognized in the 'clerk' who is entered in Domesday Book as holding 1 bovate in the village under the Archbishop. In addition to this bovate, the Archbishop possessed 7 other bovates in Woodborough, making a total estate of 1 carucate. As the clerk's holding is only spoken of in the present tense, it was probably detached from the carucate in question after 1066, and the foundation of Woodborough Prebend may therefore be assigned either to the last years of Archbishop Ealdred or to Archbishop Thomas I, more probably to the latter.



The Archbishop's holding of 1½ carucates is entered in Domesday Book as a note to the description of Southwell. It is uncertain whether any prebend had been created out of this estate by 1086, but it is not improbable.



The creation of these prebends presents great difficulty. They included an endowment in the distant village of Cropwell Bishop which 'St. Mary of Southwell' had held in 1066. The Archbishop's land in Oxton itself had been acquired during the reign of William I, and had not apparently by 1086 been appropriated to the Church of Southwell. It is therefore possible that the Oxton prebends date between 1086 and Archbishop Thurstan's time, though in their later form they may represent the addition of land in Oxton to an earlier prebend or prebends in Cropwell Bishop.





Created c 1200 by Archbishop Geoffrey, by division from the rich prebend of North Muskham (cf. Norwell Overhall and Tertia Pars), its first known prebendary was in post c1204-c1210.



The church of this royal manor was given by Henry I to Archbishop Thurstan for the foundation of a prebend sometime between 1119 and 1133.



Created by Archbishop Thurstan and confirmed by another grant of Henry I, 1119-1133. Beckingham was one of the 'berewicks' of the Archbishop's great manor of Laneham.



With the exception of Normanton, the only prebend created within the limits of the Manor of Southwell. The foundation of Archbishop Roger de Pont l'Evêque, c 1162, with the approval of Henry II, whose Italian clerk Roger de Capella was the first prebendary, was later confirmed by Pope Alexander III.



The solitary lay foundation among the prebends of Southwell; bestowed upon the church by Pavia de Malluvel and Robert her son sometime between 1191 and 1197.



Founded by Archbishop Romayne 1290.



Created by Archbishop Thurstan, 1119-1133, with Beckingham, and separated from Beckingham by Archbishop Romayne in 1291.

The Taxation Roll of Pope Nicholas IV in 1291 has details on all the sixteen prebends, though they have to be identified with care, as some are given under the name of the prebend and others under the name of the prebendary then holding the preferment. The estimate of the annual value of these prebends (including £4 13s. 4d. for the vicar of Dunham prebend; the church of Rolleston—which was assigned to the common fund—£13 6s. 8d.; and the church of Kirklington, £5) amounted to the respectable total of £342 13s. 4d. But the different prebends varied very greatly in value; thus Dunham and another one held by Master John Clarell (Norwell Overhall) were each worth £36 a year, but the recent foundation of North Leverton was worth £13 6s. 8d., whilst that of Eaton was listed as only £6 13s. 4d.
In 1310 there was a hostile demonstration by 'certain sons of unrighteousness' at the Whitsunside procession at Southwell which was intended to divert the offerings brought to this ceremony from every part of the archdeaconry of Nottingham. A later attack in 1348 indicates that such disturbances were periodical.

Statutes governing the Chapter and the lesser clergy attached to the Minster were issued by Archbishops Gray, Romayne, Corbridge and Melton. The Chapter only very reluctantly accepted those of Gray after many years delay. Romayne and Corbridge were more insistent on enforcing discipline. All these archbishops were concerned by the problems of absenteeism. In June 1329 Archbishop William Melton issued a mandate for convocation of the Chapter of Southwell for discussions concerning the residences of canons; which holy orders each prebend required; the need for a common lodging for lesser clergy; and a possible pay-rise for vicars. Eventually, although as already noted, the prebendaries now lived independently, a common residence or college was established in the late 14th century for the Vicars Choral on the site where Vicar’s Court later developed, while about 25 years later, a similar college was established for the Chantry priests in the north-west corner of the cemetery where the old Minster School replaced it in 1819.

Fifty years after the 1291 tax, the Nonarum Inquisitiones provided taxation valuations for 1341. Taxes applied to the three Norwell prebends show the variation in their importance and wealth: Norwell Overhall £36 13s 4d, Norwell Palishall £26 13s 4d and Norwell Tertia Pars £10. North Muskham had to pay £40, but South Muskham only £13 6s 8d. The smallest tax valuation appears to be Woodborough at £6, whilst nearby Oxton came in at £20. In general terms, the prebendal wealth in 1341 had changed little compared with 1291.

When the Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1534 was drawn up, separate returns were made for each of the sixteen prebends. The prebend of Dunham had then fallen in value, being worth £28, but Eaton was worth £9 6s. 8d. Each prebendary at that time paid £4 a year to his vicar choral, and 2s. 2½d. to the chapter for visitation fees. Each of the sixteen vicars was in receipt of £7 4s. 8½d. (including the £4 from his Prebendary), their common revenues being equally divided. There were also thirteen chantry priests attached to the minster, whose incomes varied from £8 7s. 5d. to £4 16s. 5d. A fabric fund brought in an annual income of £10 12s. 6½d. By the 15th century around sixty priests, clerks, deacons and a few lay officials served the Minster community.

When the College and Chantry Commissioners of 1545 visited Southwell Minster, they described it as 'reputed and taken for the head mother Church of the Town and County of Nottingham, .... founded by the Right famous of memory Edgar, the King’s Majesties most noble progenitor'. (Eadwig, who gave the land in 956, died in 959 and was succeeded by his younger brother Edgar). There were three Canons Residentiary, a parish Vicar, sixteen Vicars Choral, thirteen Chantry Priests, four deacons and sub-deacons, six choristers, two 'Thuribales,' and two clerks. The sixteen Prebends and the thirteen Chantry Priests are all specified; the latter had each a chamber and share in their common hall.

Disruptions and dangers

The reign of Henry VIII was a time of disruption distortion and danger for the churches of England and for their clergy. The Collegiate Church at Southwell, despite its special status, was uniquely threatened – and then uniquely reprieved.

On 12 August 1540, Edward Lee, Archbishop of York, surrendered the Collegiate Church of St Mary, Southwell and confirmation of the same by the Chapter of Southwell carries the same date. On the same day also the Vicars Choral surrendered their chief house or mansion in Southwell with all their possessions, and like surrenders were also executed by the prebendaries and by the chantry priests. These definite and recorded surrenders, however, were, through some unknown influence and the unpredictable actions of the ageing monarch, Henry VIII, overturned within three years. In January 1543 their effect was formally annulled by a special act of Parliament, whereby 'the College and Church Collegiate of Southwell' was legally re-established in every particular; the whole of its property and officials were restored, including lamps, obits, chantries, and chantry priests.

More than two hundred collegiate foundations extant throughout England in pre-Reformation days, both great and small, were ruthlessly confiscated by either Henry VIII or Edward VI; even the fabrics were in many cases destroyed and merchandise made not only of the lead and bells but of the very monuments, brasses, and gravestones. In some cases, like Beverley and Ripon, Southwell's sister minsters, the churches were bought back by the inhabitants and turned into parish churches. In only five instances were fabrics and endowments eventually spared, Windsor and Manchester being amongst them, but of these by far the most ancient and famous, as well as one of the largest, richest, and most beautiful, was the collegiate church at Southwell.

It seems that it was the intention of Henry VIII to make Southwell into a bishopric. The revenue was set down as £1,003, of which one-third was to be allotted to the bishop, who was designated in the person of one of the prebendaries, Dr. Richard Cox, who afterwards became Bishop of Ely. This plan, however, like so many of the King’s paper schemes, came to naught.

The Commissioners of Edward VI, carrying out a visitation in 1547-8, made meticulous records of what they found. Of the Chantry Priests, one is entered as a preacher, two as 'meetly learned,' and four as 'unlearned.' Three chapels-of-ease are mentioned as being served from the minster, namely Halam, Halloughton, and Morton. We have details of the inventory in full:

The inventory of ye ornaments pertenynge to ye cburche there, presentyd ye same day by John Wylugbbye, henrye Robertson, thomas weldon & Edmunde Caithleye churchwardens Edmunde Culbye, & Rycharde Wodwarde paryschoners as folowyth

fyrst one chales of sylvere & gyltte / wt ye corporaxe /
It'. ij candlestykks of latten / and ij aultf clothes /
It'. ij towells / ij crewetts of lede /
It'. one vestment of grene sarcenett wt ye aube /
It'. a comunyone booke / a byble / & iij salters
It. in the steple / vij bells / wt cloke & chyme of the same bells & a hand bell
It'. as for the chapell in the burgage / mf beamude hathe pullyd ytt downe to the grownde / and we have the bell /
It'. one chappell in normanton / & one bell pertenynge to ye same /
It'. ther belongythe to ye par)'sche of Sou1Jlwell viij chappells or churchys as nortoo bleisbye halughton farnyfeld Edingley halome vpton & Kyrtlyngton ye inhabytantts of the whyche towns hathe pssented as apperythe by there bylls
It'. as for magdalene chapell yt ys sold by the kyng & pullyd downe to ye grownde

This visitation, however, not only swept away all the chantries of Southwell, but the college itself, the church being continued as the parish church, on the petition of the parishioners. John Adams, the Sacrist's Prebendary, was appointed parish vicar with a salary of £20, and two others made 'assistants to the cure' at £5 each. By an act, however, of Philip and Mary (1557) the chapter was restored. Most of the confiscated property had passed to John Beaumont, Master of the Rolls, but he had fallen into disgrace and his estates had been resumed by the Crown in payment of his debts.

After this restoration until the final dissolution of the chapter in 1841 the constitution of the collegiate church was governed by a set of statutes promulgated by Queen Elizabeth on 2 April 1585, interpreted by injunctions issued by successive Archbishops of York as Visitors of the Church and by resolutions of the chapter itself. No definite scheme of residence was propounded in these statutes, which left the performance of this duty to the will of the Prebendaries.

A new officer, elected by the canons from among their number and known as the Vicar-general, was created at the same time to exercise the ecclesiastical jurisdiction belonging to the chapter. The whole set of statutes represented a very thorough reorganization, which reflected much credit upon the Queen's advisers, amongst whom was Edwin Sandys, the reigning Archbishop of York.

Whilst the statutes of 1585 appeared to authorise and underpin the chapter and its work, there remained enemies of the church who sought to undermine it through legal challenge, alleging that an extensive portfolio of properties belonged, in reality, to the crown and not to the minster. The death of Elizabeth I and the accession of James I inspired these enemies to attack again. The chapter mounted a powerful defence and the new monarch instructed his attorney-general to take all necessary steps to make Southwell Minster secure. In 1604, King James confirmed that all its ancient possessions would remain in the hands of the collegiate church.

In 1620, the chapter suffered an assault of a different kind in a surprisingly bitter and sarcastic poetic form, which landed its author in serious trouble with the ecclesiastical authorities, leading to a huge fine of £500 levied in Star Chamber. A resident named Gervase Lee (whose ancestors had been installed in various Chapter estates by their relative Archbishop Reginald Lee at the Reformation) published a catalogue of serious complaints: services were being neglected, the divinity lecture was not read regularly and the catechism was not taught every Sunday afternoon. In addition, Lee alleged that the prebendaries were not keeping residence as they should, that there was a shortage of Vicars-Choral and, most importantly of all, that there were major financial irregularities and misappropriation of funds. The first three (of twelve) verses give the flavour of Lee’s cleverly-directed attack:

Noverint universi per presentes
That the canons of Southwell are much to be shentes,
In seeing their churches pitifully rentes,
By not glazing of which they be greatly offendentes.
                                                Well said Christmas.

Again they hold of their Virgin Mary,
Ecce quam bonum est cohabitare!
And neither keep bakehouse, brewhouse nor dairy,
Nor any residence, nor tell us quare.
                                                Well said Christmas.

Again, they preach unto their Uxoribus,
And say, it was written in Aristotle de moribus,
That the right summum bonum to cozen the pooribus,
Is to say, that the butler is gone out of dooribus.
                                                Well said Christmas.

The charges were most serious and the chapter eventually made a detailed response. It rebutted the charges, explained the problems which management of the minster’s affairs presented and (significantly) published the whole finances of the church.

Five of the prebendal estates were valued at one hundred pounds or more: Norwell Overhall £150, North Muskham £143, Norwell Palishall £130, Oxton II £100 and Dunham £100. Seven were valued at between £60 and £90 and three had estates worth £40-£45. Sacrista had no estate, just a house worth £8 – this prebend was reliant upon the college for income.

There were three accounts for income and expenditure: the Residentiaries Fund, the Account of the Vicars Choral and the Fabric Fund. The many fascinating details revealed in this material illustrate the growing strength and importance of the chapter in the economic development of Nottinghamshire.

A century after the disruption caused by the Reformation, another violent upheaval came along, as the struggle between King and Parliament raged hither and thither. Whilst Southwell played a prominent part in the English Civil Wars, there is a dearth of information about the minster during that period and the Commonwealth that followed. They were unstable times and records were either lost or destroyed deliberately.

In 1649 Southwell Minster was deprived of its collegiate status by The Commonwealth and became an ordinary parish church once again. The chapter ceased to exist and the Prebendaries were dispersed. The archbishop’s lands were sold off and minster property was sequestrated. For eleven years the great collegiate church, neglected and ungoverned, fell into decline and disrepair. Then on 29 May 1660, the restoration of the House of Stuart revitalised the fortunes of the minster. One of the first actions of the new government was to pass The Act of Oblivion, which reversed most of the actions which had paralysed churches across the land.

The years of stability

By 1661, the minster had become a collegiate church once again and work began to re-staff the church, recover its property and restore the building. The first step was to re-establish the chapter at its proper complement of 16 prebendaries. Twelve members of the pre-interregnum chapter had died or could not be traced so some new men were brought in as early as 4 August 1660. By July 1661 the staff of the minster was largely complete and the church, with a new font installed, was open for business once more.

Reinstalling minster staff and resuming services appears to have been achieved with remarkable ease, but the recovery of church property was another matter. Much property had been commandeered without any legal authority, some owners and tenants had moved away and could not be traced and (a great difficulty for the courts) proper records had not been kept. Eventually however, settlements were agreed, and legal ownership established. In general, it was the owners of property who suffered and not the tenants. Inevitably, as the years of chaos were replaced by some initial stability, many individuals had to accept severe reversals of wealth and personal standing.

At the Restoration, the minster building was in a poor state of repair. The rents and revenues appear to have received an immediate boost and that allowed materials to be purchased and many important repairs to be carried out in the period 1661 to 1664. Stonework appears not to have been a priority, but in 1663 the chapter demonstrated a progressive approach by taking out a lease on a quarry at Mansfield, thereby helping to perpetuate the uniformity of stonework which is a hallmark of Southwell Minster.

The main feature of the constitutional history of the church in the succeeding period of one hundred and eighty years lies in various attempts made by the canons to arrange a permanent system of keeping residence. In 1693, by a Resolution of Chapter, which received the sanction of Archbishop Sharpe, it was decreed that for the future each Prebendary, in the order of his seniority, should keep a term of residence for three months, an arrangement which in theory prevailed until the dissolution of the Chapter. It followed from this that the canon in residence became in effect the temporary head of the whole collegiate body; he presided over the sessions of the chapter, and was responsible for the conduct of the services of the church.

On 5 November 1711 a major disaster occurred. As a result of a severe electrical storm, the south-western spire was struck by lighting and the timber was set alight. A strong wind fanned the flames and the fire spread rapidly throughout the nave, the crossing and the transepts. Through a combination of individual heroism and good fortune, the fire did not progress into the choir and, though the damage was substantial (the complete destruction of the south-west spire, the roofs of the nave and transepts, the clock and the bells and extensive damage to the organ) the church was still usable.

It was clear that restoration work was beyond the resources of the chapter, so a public subscription fund was opened. 153 Nottinghamshire parishes subscribed and various wealthy notables contributed. In a very short time repairs were started and, according to a chapter report, carried out 'with all speed'. New roofing was put in place and damage repaired. Unfortunately, in their anxiety to get back to normal as rapidly as possible, the chapter did not pay proper attention to the quality of the work being undertaken and a great deal of 'make do and mend' seems to have taken place. Surveys carried out in the 19th century revealed just how slipshod the work had been and it was necessary to correct it effectively and at a more appropriate speed.

The chapter and its powers

The constitution of Southwell Minster was based upon that of York. In the bull of Pope Alexander III, granted in 1171, confirming the canons in all their possessions and rights, it is expressly stated that the ancient customs and liberties 'which the church of York is known to have had from old time and still to have' were renewed and solemnly maintained to them. The special privileges that the Southwell canons enjoyed, in common with those of York, were freedom in their common lands and also in their respective prebends from all ordinary jurisdiction, spiritual or temporal, of archbishop or king. No action could be taken by the sheriff without the chapter's leave, or without the individual prebend's leave in the case of prebendal lands.

The canons had civil and criminal jurisdiction over all their tenants and people in their liberty, with the right to summon them to their individual prebendal courts (the equivalent of lay manorial courts) and to the Chapter’s own court, which had oversight of any appeals against judgements in prebendal courts. The judges on circuit had to hold the pleas of the Crown at the south door of the church; in criminal cases in one of the canon's houses, outside the minster yard. They had to make a return of their proceedings to the canons, and the fines and forfeitures inflicted went to the canons and not to the king.

The canons also held the assize of bread and beer throughout their liberty and could fine the infringers of this and other market regulations; but they did not possess either pillory or tumbrel. They and their tenants were also free from every form of toll and custom throughout England. These extensive powers and privileges were granted by charters of the first three Henrys, and were fully maintained until the beginning of the reign of Edward I (1272-1307). But he and his grandson, Edward III (1327-77), instigated a series of inquiries into privileges claimed by their leading subjects, including those in the Church, in a process usually referred to by its opening words, Quo warranto, By what warrant do you exercise these rights? In the case of Southwell, the most detailed inquiry came between 1329-1331 when the Chapter and all the prebendaries were summoned to prove their rights to the privileges they were exercising. After long legal wrangling, in 1333 Edward III finally recognized that they had proved their case and issued a confirmation of their rights. It was one of the first and longest documents transcribed into the Chapter’s medieval cartulary The White Book of Southwell (a collection of its title deeds), whose own compilation may well have been started in order to respond to the king’s demands.

In spiritual matters the collegiate church of Southwell was exempt from all archiepiscopal jurisdiction, save that the diocesan had the power to visit to see that they kept their statutes; but this power was seldom if ever put in force after the early part of the 14th century. The chapter alone exercised jurisdiction over the Vicars Choral and chantry priests, and over their Prebendal or parochial vicars (whom they instituted), and also over the laity throughout their peculiar.

The Peculiar Jurisdiction of Southwell comprised the following 28 villages where the writ of the chapter ran: Beckingham, Bleasby, Blidworth, Calverton, Carlton, Caunton, Cropwell Bishop, Darlton, Dunham, Eaton, Edingley, Farnsfield, Halam, Halloughton, Holme by Newark, Kirklington, Morton, North Leverton, North Muskham, Norwell, Oxton, Ragnall, Rampton, Southwell, South Muskham, South Wheatley, Upton and Woodborough. South Wheatley was granted by Archbishop Geoffrey Plantagenet 1191-1205 to the Minster 'in pure and perpetual arms and free from episcopals, with all its appurtenances, so as to provide a candle to burn perpetually on the high altar of that church'.

In one important respect the Canons of Southwell differed from those of York. Unlike any other foundation of secular canons save that of Ripon, they possessed no titular head such as a dean or provost. Even Ripon gave a recognized supremacy, though no special title, to one of their number, the prebendary of Stanwick; but at Southwell all the prebendaries were of equal rights throughout their history, with one short possible exceptional period around 1200 when Hugh of Pickering may have acted as dean but it was not a permanent innovation. In practice it is probable that the Senior Canon in Residence would preside at Chapter meetings, and in other ways take precedence, but that was a custom and not a right.

Eleven of the churches of Nottinghamshire which gave title to the Prebends are with us today: Norwell St Laurence (three Prebends); Woodborough St Swithun; North Muskham St Wilfrid; Oxton St Peter and St Paul (two Prebends); South Muskham St Wilfrid; Dunham-on-Trent St Oswald; Beckingham All Saints; Halloughton St James; Rampton All Saints; Eaton All Saints; North Leverton St Martin.

(Sacrist’s Prebend had no church and Normanton was within the Manor of Southwell).

A change of governance

By the early part of the 19th century, progressive voices were calling for sweeping electoral reforms, but Parliament was slow to respond. The country’s population was rapidly growing. Major changes reflected the agrarian and industrial revolutions that had been occurring since the early 18th century with considerable redistribution of settlement, especially in the industrial towns of the Midlands and North, where church provision as well as political representation was often minimal. Eventually, however, after several minor improvements, the Great Reform Act of 1832 was passed. This increased the franchise, revised constituency boundaries and made radical changes to the distribution of seats to reflect recent social developments. These changes prompted calls for the reform of other public bodies to reduce corruption, improve accountability and monitor the link between wealth and power.

The church was ripe for reform and it became one of the next areas to be tackled. The traditional customs and practices of the post-Reformation church as exemplified by the Chapter at Southwell Minster had become intolerable. Root and branch reform was needed. The two succeeding Minsters had been governed by their Chapters of canons (prebendaries) for almost nine hundred years when, in 1835, Parliament undertook a major review of the efficiency and effectiveness of dioceses and their churches. This identified the problems and proposed sweeping changes, including the establishment of new dioceses to reflect population growth. This led to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners Act of 1836 (amended 1840), which transferred the governance of individual churches to a centralised public body and to redistribution of some financial resources from churches considered wealthy to poorer ones.

In 1837 the process of reform led to the Minster being transferred from the Diocese of York to the Diocese of Lincoln. A casual biproduct of this decision, but one of historic consequence, was that Southwell moved into the Province of Canterbury, thereby severing the historic link with York which had endured since at least Archbishop Oskytel’s acquisition of the manor of Southwell in 956 and the establishment of a collegiate church serving Nottinghamshire.

So it was that in 1841 provision was made by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for the lingering abolition of the Chapter of Southwell Minster. It was decreed that the decease of each successive prebendary after that time would result in the extinction of his prebend, and thus on 12 February 1873, this ancient collegiate body came to its appointed end upon the death of the Rev. Thomas Henry Shepherd, rector of Clayworth and Prebendary of Beckingham.

The minster now had no revenues and all its property and land had been appropriated by the new commissioners. Some of its livings, for example, were transferred to the patronage of the bishops of Manchester and Ripon. The commisioners had, however (and crucially) undertaken to keep the fabric of the Minster under repair. It soon became apparent, however, that the building required not merely repair, but major restoration. In 1848 a programme of repairs began, involving the western towers and the nave. Whilst that work was important, it was clear that a much more comprehensive plan was required.

Ewan Christian

In 1851 Ewan Christian, Architect to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, was asked to prepare a detailed report on the fabric and to recommend a scheme of restoration. This Christian did and so began an association with the Minster which was to last for 44 years, while he also undertook the restoration of a number of churches that had once belonged to the Chapter including Caunton and Norwell. The sensitivity and the thoroughness with which Ewan Christian undertook this work and the skill and craftsmanship of the host of contractors who worked under his direction has given Southwell a building with a unique character which continues to be admired by all. 

Cathedral status

In 1884, eleven years after the death of the last surviving Prebendary, the church of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Southwell became once more a centre of ecclesiastical organization in the county by its elevation to be the cathedral of the newly created diocese for the counties of Nottingham and Derby.

The first Bishops of Southwell were also Deans of the Cathedral Chapter, with day-to-day governance in the hands of the Archdeacon of Nottingham. The holder of the latter office also held the appointment of Rector of the Parish of Southwell. In 1930, however, the post of Provost was established, and the holder of that office took overall charge of the cathedral and acted as Rector.

In 1927 the Diocese of Southwell was split and the county of Derbyshire became a Diocese in its own right. Then in 1936 the Diocese was transferred back to the Province of York.

The Cathedrals Measure (1999) introduced a uniform system for all the cathedrals. The term dean was henceforth to be applied to the person in charge of a cathedral: thus it was that Southwell had to fall into line with the rest and the distinctive title of provost was abandoned. 

In February 2005 the diocesan synod voted to request a change of name for the diocese, which was approved by the General Synod of the Church of England in July and by the Privy Council on 15 November 2005. From that date the diocese has been known as the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham and the bishop as the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham. The name of the cathedral remains unchanged: its full title is expressed thus:

Southwell Minster
The Cathedral and Parish Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary