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Why ‘minsters’?

31 August 2012


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Why are some cathedrals (and other churches) called minsters?

"Minster" was the Anglo-Saxon version of "monastery", and was originally applied to churches served by monks. In the ninth century, many monasteries turned into more worldly institutions whose clergy were known as "clerks" or "canons", and these continued to be known as minsters, too, so that by 1066 it was possible for a minster to be either a monastic community (Westminster Abbey) or one of canons (York Minster).

Most monasteries and minsters came to an end at the Reformation, but the name continued to be used for York, for a few surviving minsters such as Southwell and Wimborne, and for former minsters such as Beverley or Iwerne Minster. The name is now largely historic, indicating a church that in the remote past was a monastery or community of canons; but in recent years it has been revived as a title for what is considered to be an important church, such as the mother church of a town.

I am not aware that any law lays down what may or may not be a minster, or that a church so named acquires a different legal status.

(Professor) Nicholas Orme (Lay Canon)


Minsters are churches founded mainly during the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh and eighth centuries. They were often founded at a royal or noble residence, since the conversion relied so much on the good will of the local ruler. A group of priests worked from the minster, going out into the surrounding area to convert or to minister to people.

Gradually, more churches were built, and the parish system developed, but minsters sometimes kept their old name. Some are still famous, such as York Minster, but some have become very obscure, such as (Old) Woking in Surrey.

It is possible to some extent to reconstruct the pattern of minster churches from the old administrative unit of the hundred, as the hundred was sometimes called after the minster. Other clues may be a large parish and a royal connection.

(Dr) Mary Alexander

Address: Out of the Question, Church Times, 3rd floor, Invicta House, 108-114 Golden Lane, London EC1Y 0TG.




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