Howden Minster

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Howden Minster, in the Diocese of York, is one of the largest and most magnificent churches in the East Riding of Yorkshire. It is dedicated to St Peter and St Paul and is a Grade 1 listed building.

The Minster was owned by monks from Peterborough Abbey in Saxon times, but in 1080 it was gifted to William of Calais, the Bishop of Durham. The Norman church was rebuilt in the early English style in the 13th century and rebuilding work was completed in the 'decorated' style around 1340. A small octagonal Chapter House was built after 1388, the last of its kind to be built in England.

The church survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries as it was not a monastery, but fell victim to the Dissolution of Collegiate Churches and Chantries in 1548.

Although the Minster was not destroyed in the Dissolution, the choir or chancel was allowed to fall into ruin, and only the nave was used for services. The roof eventually collapsed in 1696, and the chapter house roof collapsed in 1750. The ruins are now preserved by English Heritage, and are in the condition of a 'safe ruin'. The chapter house received a new roof in 1984.

The western end of Howden Minster serves as the parish church for the town of Howden and surrounding villages. It continues in use for regular acts of Christian worship and to support the community, education and the arts.

The church in Howden became a Minster because the Prince Bishops of Durham had an important palace here from which they ruled Howdenshire for 500 years, from the Norman Conquest to the Reformation.

The present Bishop’s Manor is all that remains of the palace. It was restored in the latter part of the 20th century and is now the training centre for The Press Association, the international news agency, whose operations centre is based in Howden.

The present church was one of the first churches in the north in what is known as the 'decorated' or 'geometric' style (where all the abstract design has been drawn with a pair of compasses) and with slim and elegant pillars. The arrangement of the nave arcading was bold and innovative, merging the traditional triforium and clerestory (upper windows) into one. Stylistic detail suggests that some of the masons (or their sons) from Notre Dame de Paris, who went on to work on the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey under King Henry III, then came north to build Howden Minster. The first senior canon at our new minster was John of Howden, who had been confessor to the queen, and was a noted poet in Latin and Norman French. This John of Howden was locally regarded as a saint, and after his death in 1275 his tomb became an important place of pilgrimage. He is remembered at the Minster each year on 2 May.

In the early 15th century, Howden was a favourite residence of Bishop Walter Skirlaw, an East Riding man, who made the final additions to the medieval minster: the chapter house and the top stage of the tower. His successor as bishop was Thomas, Cardinal Langley. The cardinal was the most high-ranking person ever to reside at Howden. He was Lord Chancellor (chief minister) to three kings including Henry V (of Shakespeare and Agincourt fame). He added a fine new brick gatehouse to his Howden palace, still standing in the minster rectory garden. The cardinal's time, perhaps, saw Howden's greatest splendours.

Howden's great days came to an end in the 16th century. In 1536, Howden Minster was at the heart of the Pilgrimage of Grace, the most serious Catholic rebellion against Henry VIII. The rebel leader was Robert Aske, a Howdenshire lawyer, who raised an army of over 30,000 men, but the rebellion failed due to treachery and betrayal. The Reformation removed the canons and most of the revenues from Howden. The shrine of St John of Howden was broken up and pilgrimage ceased. The prince bishops withdrew to Durham, abandoning their palace to decay and ruin. The townsfolk continued to use the nave of the Minster as their parish church, as they still do today, but the glorious days of cardinals and kings in Howden were done.

In the 17th century came the Civil War; parliamentarian troops marching from Hull through Howden in 1644, on the way to attack Wressle Castle (four miles west, and now in private ownership), caused serious damage to the choir. They broke up the organ and used the pipes as whistles on the march. In 1696, the choir roof finally collapsed in a storm. The draining of the marshes, and the coming of the canals to Goole, (carrying produce from the industrial towns of the West Riding to deep water and the North Sea), changed the local landscape beyond all recognition. Howden went into eclipse.

Catastrophe struck Howden Minster in 1929, when drunks forced their way into the tower and started a major fire that gutted much of the interior. After the fire, the building was restored as if the building actually stopped under the tower. In the cardinal's day, the choir stalls would have been east of the screen, not coming back west into the nave, and the floor would have been level rather than raised. There would have been a clear walkway from the north door to the south door under the lantern tower. The famous Yorkshire wood carver, Mousy Thompson of Kilburn, made the fine choir stalls and much of the other Minster furnishings. Children love to hunt for the 30+ Thompson mice hidden around the Minster. Archbishop William Temple came to rededicate the restored Minster in 1932.

The Great West Window contains some very fine 19th century glass by the Belgian stained glass worker, J B Capronnier. His masterwork is in Cologne Cathedral, the medieval shrine of the three kings; hence the subject matter here. Two fine 20th century windows are at the end of each transept: the south window commemorates those who fell in the First World War; the north window commemorates the present queen's coronation, depicting figures from the history of the town.

A modern flying cap, symbolising the flames of Pentecost, was added to the font in the 1950s. A new side chapel, dedicated to St William of York, was established in the north transept in 1979 using part of the stone high altar from the ruined east end of the medieval Minster as its new free-standing altar. It is regularly used for weekday services. In 2001, the upper Grammar School (disused since 1925) was reordered and dedicated as the Chapel of the Resurrection. It is now used for private prayer and meditation as well as being the song school for the modern choir, echoing once more to children's voices.

Some very rare medieval statues survive to this day in Howden Minster. Most of them show signs of weathering. The statue now venerated as representing Mary, the Mother of the Lord has been carefully protected from wind, rain, snow, war and vandalism across the centuries. Some art historians hold the opinion that this was originally carved to represent a different saint. A modern series of abstract sculpture by John Maine R.A. was installed outside the Minster between 2002 and 2008. Funded by various civic amenity bodies, they run from the West Front, and down the north side along Churchside. Their drum shape and patterning echo the ancient link to Durham Cathedral. It is hoped to replace two of the badly eroded west front statues (possibly of Saints Peter & Paul) with specially commissioned 21st century figures.

The West Front of the minster was substantially restored during 2006/7. Architecturally, the West Front was so important that it became the model for that of the 19th century Roman Catholic Cathedral at Salford (Manchester), at an 80% scale. Restoration along the south side was completed in the autumn of 2009.

Like most historic churches in England, Howden Minster is part of the Church of England within the world-wide Anglican Communion.

Howden Mister outside

Interior of Howden Minster