BAA Southwell Minster study day: From medieval toilets to one of the purest symbols of western thought

Southwell Minster pulpitum

The British Archaeological Association runs a number of study days that are free for students, the most recent was at Southwell Minster, the dinky little pepperpot-topped cathedral in Nottinghamshire that hardly anyone has heard of. The day was led by Philip Dixon, consultant archaeologist at the Minster and a well-known figure to many BAA members. I highly recommend any students interested in medieval architecture to go on these trips (travel money is reimbursed to a reasonable level), as they are an excellent opportunity to point at things in buildings with people who know an outstanding amount about them and are always a rewarding experience.



Southwell does not have a rail station, so getting there from London means travelling to Newark first, but this did mean I could have a visit to St Mary Magdalene, Newark, one of the finest parish churches in the country. Its enormous steeple, consisting of a fourteenth-century spire and belfry with surviving statues of saints on top of a thirteenth-century base is so perfect in its proportions that it became an exemplar for nineteenth-century architects, and was even copied wholesale at the Catholic cathedral in Salford. The interior is unfortunately oppressively glazed with a hodge-podge of unremarkable and often quite bad Victorian glass, which makes it difficult to experience, let alone photograph.


But for me the south aisle is the most remarkable part, because it is full, free-flowing, vibrant fourteenth-century Decorated Gothic from the best masons of the Lincs/Notts school. However the nave and mirroring north aisle which attach seamlessly to it are grand but ultimately charmless fifteenth-century Perpendicular.


The treasure of the church however is the south-east chancel window, which collects together two separate schemes of richly coloured fourteenth-century and pale fifteenth century glass of very high quality. Unique in England are the figures of the seven deadly sins in the tracery, however only four survive properly, in the lights below a confusing attempt has been made to make up the other sins from bits of fourteenth and fifteenth century pieces.


I did not have much time so went to the sedilia, next to Comper’s enormous golden altarpiece of 1937. These sedilia are rather interesting, and I did not inspect them when I first visited the church a few years ago, and always assumed from the photo I had they were part of the Markham chantry chapel around them, which would fix their date as 1508. However, inspecting them, it is clear the ends are decorated with a floral quatrefoil that is barely visible, and that the chapel must have been built around them. In fact the chancel itself is such Late Perp, that these rather stylish seats might even be from an earlier chancel. It is difficult to date them exactly but I have found such stone seats seem to be most common around c.1300, which would explain the rather plain quatrefoils on the front and naturalistic leaves on the armrests.



But on to the cathedral of Nottinghamshire, Southwell Minster! First Philip Dixon introduced his latest research and findings at the Minster in the morning lecture, then took us round the site, leaving the church till last to keep us going.


Developments east of the minsterSouthwell residents' opinion of the quagmire

After the introduction we went round to where a housing estate was planned to be constructed (much opposed by Southwell NIMBYs in their wisteria-covered villas) but many archaeological finds had been made relating to a Roman double villa and perhaps a fortification. The developer had paid for the excavations, but his permission to build the estate had lapsed in the meantime, leaving the archaeological results as confidential and the site in limbo. Amusing was some wag’s graffito on the hoardings, which shows the popularity of Monty Python references in combating development quagmires in Nottinghamshire villages.


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Philip then took us round to the Bishop’s house, which incorporated the impressive remains of the Palace of the Archbishops of York, who controlled Southwell Minster as a kind of sub-Cathedral in their enormous medieval diocese. The bishop’s house itself was built in the early twentieth century by master of domestic Gothic W.D. Caroe, here chosing a sort of sub-Mackintosh design with regular fenestration, gables and plastering. It is only round the side that you can see how he incorporated the new building into the fragments of the early fifteenth-century palace.

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The most fascinating part of the palace for everyone however was the south-west tower, which was actually a centrally planned toilet, with separate cubicles facing outwards to the side windows – a loo with a view.

The BAA examine a stone sink

Things perhaps got a little too antiquarian when a discussion started around a small stone sink set outside the palace. It was decreed it was too shallow to be a horse trough and was indeed an old stone sink that was now in the bishop’s yard for some reason. It is unlikely this will make it into the next BAA journal so I include it here for posterity.


Things got back on track when we went back into the church and found a rather more stylish old stone to debate. Just what the mysterious “Southwell Stone” in the north transept was originally for, and from when it dated, was certainly not clear. The idea that the carving underneath was  part of a pre-Viking Mercian cross shaft, damaged in a fire, then reused in the late Saxon period to carve this scene of St Michael fighting the Dragon, either as a grave-slab or over the doorway of the building which preceded the current Minster seemed the most inviting theory.

Southwell Jerusalem capital
After this we received a privileged view from the top of the choir screen of a Romanesque capital holding up the Norman crossing tower, showing Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem. This early twelfth-century carving was superb quality but trying to maneuver a tripod up among the organ pipes to get a good shot of it was rather challenging.

Southwell screen, west faceSouthwell screen east face

Unfortunately using it merely as a viewing platform brought attention away from what was clearly the best thing in the church – the fourteenth-century choir screen in the full blown English Decorated Gothic Style, as seen a few miles away in both the south aisle of Newark and the parish church at Hawton. Fellow Courtauld PhDs Lesley and Sophie however were perfectly happy to discuss something amazing that hadn’t been pulled down or you needed to go up a small staircase to see. The restoration is of various dates, some of the 1820s and some looking later, rather stern and pious Victorian work. However occasionally you can see that the fourteenth century master makes an appearance, with his effortless and un-self-conscious naivety. I have uploaded all my obsessive photos of this gorgeous piece of work from the English medieval sculptor at the height of his powers to Flickr, so have a look at that if you are as big of a Dec style fan as me (there must be some of us!).


No visit to Southwell is complete without a visit to the late thirteenth-century Chapter House. It is one of the wonders of medieval art, its carved stone leaves seemingly lifted directly from nature, carved with the utmost precision, but also arranged delicately over the capitals with an artfulness rarely surpassed by any artist before or since. Nikolaus Pevsner wrote a short tract on them – the famous The Leaves of Southwell (available in the gift shop), which is always a reminder he was at heart a passionate art historian seeking profound meaning behind man’s creation of artistic styles and not the pedantic Teutonic fanatic for classification and chronology he is sometimes caricatured as. In Leaves, Pevsner relates the sculpture’s fineness to a new feeling for nature, which would not be equalled again until the Renaissance, although even that age lacked the “firm faith” of the Middle Ages to strengthen it. For Pevsner, these leaves are a “Classic” moment in art, the highest achievement of a style: “one of the purest symbols surviving in Britain of western thought, our thought, in its loftiest mood”. This nationalistic conclusion to the piece is perhaps why Pevsner curiously sees closest parallels to the leaves in Rheims Cathedral, which is, both stylistically and chronologically, a bit of a stretch. Philip Dixon proposed that perhaps why Pevsner chose Rheims was because the Ministry of Information would not be terribly happy funding a study in 1945 that linked the loftiest expression of Western thought to the more plausible parallel of Naumberg.


But what’s this? An embroidery exhibition? Five pounds entry!? Disgraceful! Well of course the Dean knew better than not to let Philip Dixon and his BAA party into the Chapter House without charging us a fortune, so we marched in with our cameras to brave the obstacle course of old ladies and bits of knitting or whatever was in the way of the good stuff.

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Actually, ignoring the silly modern things and royal dresses I did have to admit the copes designed by Bodley and Garner and made by Watts and Co. were rather splendid.


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Finally on the day’s itinerary was a clamber into the triforium gallery, full of all the usual junk that this secret cathedral space is usually filled with. Note how in the right hand image, the gap between the giant arches of the triforium and the porthole clerestory windows gets wider and wider. This was evidently a correction to make the arcades the same height so it would be straight by the time they had to put the roof on. It makes you admire the ambition of Norman cathedral builders all the more, it shows that they really did seem to make it up as they went along a lot of the time. But it is also why their central towers had a tendency to fall down (although, fortunately for the fourteenth-century choir screen, not at Southwell).


Southwell High altar sediliaSouthwell sedilia

So the official day was over but I had work to do with all the sedilia in the thirteenth-century choir. First are the set by the high altar, by the same set of fourteenth-century masons who made the pulpitum, which are unique for having five seats. Like a lot of sedilia I study, no one has really bothered to seriously analyse the evidence around them (leaving it all to muggins here to sort out). Despite much antiquarian interest in Southwell from the late eighteenth century, their earliest mention is quite a funny story (as funny as something involving a fatality can be) recounted in Killpack and Clarke The History and Antiquities of the Collegiate Church of Southwell (1839).

“The situation of the sedilia was formerly occupied by an oak screen. The singing boys used to amuse themselves by climbing to the top of the screen until a fatal accident happened to one of their number by its falling down upon him, which occasioned its removal, and the building of a wall, in which the sedilia is inserted, in its place; its sculpted ornaments and figures were taken from various parts of the interior upon making alterations therein.”

In 1883 Livett’s book on Southwell had a look at them and their sculpture, he rubbishes the idea that they are merely made up from unrelated fragments, and instead an authentic set of sedilia, albeit heavily restored by the (excellently-named) Bernasconi brothers at the same time they were hired to restore the pulpitum and make new plaster choir stalls in the 1820s. What is quite useful about the unusual method the Italian brothers worked in, plaster cement, is that unlike stone it feels warm to the touch, and you can tell what has been added and what is original. The castellation along the top for instance is entirely plaster, presumably because of the way the old oak screen had been attached.

It has often be assumed that the sedila are not in their original position, but while Livett found chapter records regarding removing the old dilapidated screen that the unfortunate chorister had pulled down, they do not mention the small matter of moving an enormous set of stone sedilia. John McNeill to suggested in the 1998 BAA conference transactions held at Southwell that the fourteenth-century sedilia were moved from the fourth or fifth bay of the choir. However, I measured the whole sedilia and piscina group, and they are over a metre wider than the space between the choir piers. This means they would have had to stand in front of the piers and would have surely left some evidence as to their removal. Therefore, I see no reason not to assume that they are now where they always have been, although whether that area was the high altar or a retrochoir (like Bristol Cathedral, with its fine four-seat sedilia) is another issue.

Southwell High altar sediliaSouthwell High altar sedilia

There then is small matter of the sedilia’s figure sculpture, nestled in the spandrels like Ely Cathedral Lady Chapel. Despite my best efforts, it is impossible to decide exactly to what extent the Super Bernasconi Bros. have authentically reworked the original subjects, but some of the sculpture is clearly stone that is part of the sedilia arches and thus original to it. The highest amount of authentic fabric appeared to be the lower bodies of the figures to the east, now apparently God the Father holding a globe and prophets with scrolls. Further east there are what appear to be figures from a Nativity: a Virgin and the Christ Child and a dozing Joseph, and also a Flight into Egypt. Most of these are plaster with rather clumsy heads with deep-set eyes, but some parts are convincingly medieval in character, for instance, the head of Joseph and the ass he is leading in the Flight. All that one can say is that these sedilia did have figure sculpture, possibly on a Marian theme (the dedication of the Minster) and thus as unique as they appear.


Southwell south chapelSouthwell MinsterSouthwell minster

I also had hearsay from the nineteenth-century literature and John McNeill’s article that there were a further three sets of sedilia in the Minster. Certainly the set in the south-east chapel are sedilia, as they are set in the south wall with a piscina and cruet niche adjacent (so I sat in them), but interpreting the arcades in the west walls of the north and south choir transepts as sedilia is more difficult. In the north transept the west wall has five bays of arches, a double piscina in the east wall and a locking cupboard in the north. In the south choir transept there is another double piscina, a wide arched niche one would assume for a tomb, and three arches almost identical to those in the south-east chapel, but like the north transept, set in the west wall. Are these really liturgical sedilia, or just decorative arcading schemes that could be used as seats for a “congregation”? Those in the south transept may be limited to three as there was clearly a feature to the north of them, now a niche consisting of modern stonework containing a noticeboard. Like Bristol Elder Lady Chapel, documented 1220-3 and therefore almost exactly contemporary with Southwell’s choir, there is this trend in Gothic buildings of the first quarter of the thirteenth century to have dado arcades and sedilia almost indistinguishable, implying that this was when the idea came about. Of course, this flies in the face of those full-blown Romanesque ones in Leicester which are quite frankly a pain in the arse. Work goes on!

Thanks goes to Phillip Dixon for showing us round all day, Helen Lunnon and the BAA for organising the event, and the knowledgable and friendly staff at Southwell Minster for being so permissive of me having a good gander at the sedilia. However I was so tired at the end of the day I forgot to put the chair I was standing on in front of them back in the north chapel. Sorry!

There are a lot of pictures of Newark and Southwell on Flickr, so they probably do not need all my efforts, but here are all the pictures of the sedilia and the Decorated choir screen, because that’s what I’m obsessed with.


  1. Dec: yes! Perp: why?
    They hit upon the most sublime architectural style ever invented, and then, inexplicably, abandoned it for one of the dullest. Okay, this is an oversimplification, and some Perp, especially early Perp (eg Gloucester choir), is excellent, but the point stands. Did they feel, after the Black Death, that buildings could no longer be joyous and must be penitential?

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