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Wimborne Minster

HIS ancient town is called Wimborne Minster to distinguish it from Wimborne All Saints and Wimborne St. Giles's in the same county. It has a fine minster or collegiate church. It is situated in the eastern part of Dorsetshire, in a lovely vale on the Allen, near its confluence with the Stour; there is a bridge over either river. Wimborne is a very ancient town, and was a Roman station of importance; for they made it their winter camp; their summer station being at Bad bury Rings. The appellation of the town was then Vindog ladia; its present name is thought to have been derived from Win, the ancient name of the Allen, and bourne a rivulet. But Win also signifies "battle," and a great one was fought near the town in 901. When Edward the son of Alfred succeeded to the kingdom, his first cousin Ethelwald the Atheling seized the castles of Wimborne and Christchurch, carried off a nun from her convent at Wimborne and married her. Edward the Elder was not a man to permit such conduct to pass with impunity. He marched at once, with his forces to Badbury, near Wimborne, where he encamped. Ethelwald was in the town with his followers, "the men who had submitted to him," and had fortified all the approaches to the town, declaring that he would either live or die there. But he was not steadfast in this resolution, for in the night he fled, and his wife followed him. Edward ordered him to be pursued, but they could overtake neither him nor his bride; they both reached Northumbria safely, and were cordially received by the Danes, who acknowledged Ethelwald as king of England. But he found it vain to oppose Edward the Elder's power, or to evade his pursuit, and fled to Normandy.

He landed, however, a few years afterwards in Essex, marched into Suffolk, and was defeated and slain at Bury St. Edmund's.

The nunnery from which he had won his wife was one of the first built in England. It was founded by Cuthberga, daughter of Kenred, king of the West Saxons, and sister of his successor, Ina.

Cuthberga had in 705 been betrothed to Egfrid, king of Northumberland, but having previously vowed herself to a religious life, she took refuge, before the wedding day, in the nunnery of Parking, in Essex. Returning to her native place eight years afterwards, she founded the nunnery of Wimborne in 713, and completed it in ten years' time; here she passed the remainder of her life, and was buried, 727, in the church, where her festival during those ages was celebrated on the last day of August. The nunnery was de stroyed by the Danes. It was succeeded by a deanery or college of secular canons established by Edward the Confessor, though it is thought that this college had been in existence at the same time as the nunnery, and was merely restored by the Confessor. He, at any rate, amply endowed it, furnishing it with a dean, four prebendaries, three vicars, four deacons, and five singers. Henry VIII. spared the college, as his grandmother, the Countess of Richmond, had been one of its benefactors; but it was dissolved by the government of Edward VI. The famous Reginald Pole, afterwards Cardinal, and Archbishop of Canterbury, was appointed Dean of Wimborne in 1517. The revenues of the college or deanery were taken by the Duke of Somerset after the dissolution.

Queen Elizabeth restored the portion remaining to the corporation of the college, and added greatly to it, but required an annual rent, which was remitted by James I.

Some of the lands were, however, set apart by Elizabeth for the support of the Grammar School that had been founded by Margaret, Countess of Richmond, though now called Queen Elizabeth's School.

The minster is very ancient, and it is said was partly dedicated to the Virgin Mary, partly St. Cuthberga. Its shape is cruciform; it is one hundred and eighty feet long, and is divided like a cathedral with chancel and choir, aisles and crypt, transepts, nave, and long aisles.

The exterior shows two square towers, one in the centre and one at the west end, and three porches. From the top of the centre tower rose once a lofty spire; the following is an account of what happened to it.

"I will not," says Mr. Coker, in his survey of Dorsetshire, "overpasse a strange accident which in our dayes happened unto it (the Minster), viz., Anno Dornini, 1600 (the Choire beeing then full of people at tenne of clock service, allsoe the streets by reason of the markett), a sudden mist ariseing all the Spire Steeple being of a very great height was strangelie cast down, the stones battered all the lead, and broke much of the timber of the roofs of the Church, yet without anie hurt to the people; which ruin is sithence commendablie repaired with the Church revenues, for sacriledge hath not yet swept awaye all; being assisted by Sir John Hanham, a neighbour gentleman, who, if I mistate not, enjoyeth revenues of the Church, and hath done commendablie to convert parts of it to its former use."

The belief is that the spire was undermined by the concussion of the bells. The minster once contained ten altars of alabaster and other costly materials; the high altar was remarkably splendid. At the foot of the altar were two oblong monuments of grey marble.

The first storey of the original tower shows three Norman windows; the centre one is of the earliest pointed arch; the windows at each side of it are circular with clustered shafts and rudely sculptured capitals. The second storey has seven round arches, intersecting one and another. The whole is coloured by the mellow tints of red or iron sandstone, and the ivy creeping round it forms a very picturesque adjunct. The upper part of the tower is far inferior to the lower; the pinnacles are clumsy and the parapet heavy.

The east window is very elegant and uncommon. It has three lights separated by clustered shafts of Purbeck marble rising up in a lancet form, until suddenly they break off into a circular head. The centre light is surmounted by a quatrefoil; those on each side by a sexfoil.

Round the centre light runs a moulding of unusual shape, with zigzag ornamentation.

On the south side of the altar stand three ancient stalls crowned with lofty finials. On the opposite side, on the ground, is a fine brass, representing a king in his robes with crown and sceptre. At the feet is an escutcheon charged with a cross feury, and in the centre a plate with this inscription in Latin: "In this place reposes the body of St. Ethelred, king of the West Saxons, who fell by the hands of the Pagan Danes, on the 23rd of April in the year of our Lord, 573."

Cuthberga is buried here; and one of the grey marble monuments near the altar is the tomb of Gertrude, second wife of Henry Courtenay, Marquis of Exeter, and mother of Edward, Earl of Devonshire, the Edward Courtenay of Queens Mary and Elizabeth. The Marquis of Exeter was beheaded by order of Henry VIII., 1535. His wife was also attainted, but was pardoned, and survived her husband twenty years.

The monument has been much mutilated, and the brass on which the inscription was is only a fragment. The Earl of Devon has put in above it a decorated and very handsome stained glass window.

The other grey monument has on it the recumbent effigies in alabaster of John de Beaufort, grandson of old John of Gaunt, and his wife. He was created Duke of Somerset in 1443, and died the next year, Margaret, his wife, was the only daughter of Margaret, Countess of Richmond and Derby, and mother to Henry VII.; whose sister the duchess was. This sister of a king erected this monument to her parents, and endowed the free school of the town.

The male effigy is in rich armour; a pointed helmet with a coronet is on his head, a collar of SS round his neck; a dagger on his right side, and the hilt of a sword on his left, inscribed I.H.S.; the garter is round his knee, two angels, support his head, and a lion lies at his feet. His gauntleted left hand rests on his breast, his right hand clasps his wife's. She is dressed in a tong robe with a veil and a coronet on her head, which is also supported by two angels, and at her feet an antelope. She holds a string of beads. The duke's helmet still hangs over the monument. The Duke of Beaufort has placed in the arch above the monument some fine stained glass, with the heraldic emblazonments of the Beauforts, Somersets, and Richmond.

In the south aisle beneath an arch is a raised black marble coffin, painted with heraldic shields, and guarded by iron railings, which contains the remains of a very eccentric old gentleman, named Ettrick, the first Recorder of Poole. He had a conviction (probably created by some dream) that he should die in 1691, and had his coffin thus prepared, and the date cut on it. But his previsions proved false; he survived till 1717, and the alteration of the date on the coffin is visible. He fixed it in position with his own hands; for in a fit of anger, caused by some offence the people of Wimborne had given him, he had vowed to be buried neither in their church nor out of it, neither above their ground nor below it. In order to keep this paradoxical vow he obtained permission to place his coffin within the thickness of the wall, and on a level with the pavement. He left a sum of twenty shillings a year for the repairs in trust with the corporation of Poole.

The nave of the minster is now used as the parish church.

The library is very curious; it is reached by a winding staircase from the vestry, and is a plain plastered room, round two sides of which are massive shelves, containing tarnished, worn old books of all kinds and all colours (sadly faded), in strong bindings, but now dropping to pieces with age. Here are black-letter books, manuscripts, a fine old Polyglott Bible, and many other copies of the sacred volume in the original languages and early English translations.

But the peculiarity of the library is that the books were chained to the shelves. Each volume had a chain screwed on to one side of the cover (as Bibles had in churches at the beginning of the Reformation, and they are still seen in some very old churches), and at the end of the chain was a ring; this ring was slipped on an iron rod that ran along the edge of each shelf, and was padlocked at the end; there was a portable reading desk and stool, which the reader brought to the required spot, drew the chained book on the desk, and read it there. Now, the festoons of rusty iron chains hanging thickly from the shelves have a most singular appearance.

There is a fine copy of Sir Walter Raleigh's "History of the World" here, with a round hole burned through more than a hundred of its pages. This mischief is said to have been done by Prior, the poet - who is supposed to have been born at Wimborne. He used to read here, and one winter evening, poring over his book, he fell asleep, and the candle in the tin sconce having burnt nearly out, fell upon the middle of the open book and burnt slowly the hole mentioned. The smell of smouldering paper woke the poet, who at once extinguished it, with no little dismay, we may be sure. He repaired it as well as he could by pasting pieces of paper over the places. The hole burnt was about the size of half a crown, and on these round pieces he transcribed the missing words from memory; they are therefore in the handwriting of Prior.

How precious books must then have been! How great the change in their value and use since those days! Their great cost and the difficulty of obtaining many important works made them of immense value, and the manner in which they were studied created what Bacon called, "a full man." Has their great diffusion been of as much or more benefit to the student, than when they were under this careful guardianship in the days of Queen Anne and Matthew Prior, the poet? We will hope so, but we are always glad when we see a proper value placed on books; the preserved thoughts and words of the great writers who have gone before us especially. Prior's studies at Wimborne Minster, as a poor youth, resulted in his advancement to the political post of secretary to two congresses - that at the Hague and Ryswick, - he was also secretary to the Embassy in France, and gentleman of the bedchamber to William III.

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Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004