What is a Minster?

Berkeley’s Paddock trench has revealed more information suggesting the site was a part of an Anglo-Saxon minster. But what were minsters and why are they so important?

Visitors view a very wet Paddock trench in Week 4 of excavations

Minsters are the forefathers of common English parishes, they were the initial religious dwellings in early Anglo-Saxon Christianity. The first minsters were founded a century after Augustine of Canterbury’s religious mission to Anglo-Saxon England in 597AD, and they are found in the Royal charters in the seventh century.
Anglo-Saxon Kings made grants of land to named individuals, which then found a minster. They were commonly founded by king or royal thegn (or thane), with the primary purpose to support the king and the thegn in regular worship of the divine office.

Thegn seal made of walrus ivory showing religious iconography, c.11th century (Source: British Museum 1881,0404.1)

The word ‘minster’ actually derives from Old English ‘mynster’, meaning monastery, nunnery, mother church or cathedral. They were designated by a settlement of clergy living in a communal life, which was mostly endowed by charter and maintained a daily office of prayer.  

Both men and women lived could live in a minster but were separated by a wall or division due to religious celibacy. However unlike later monastic life they were a religious community that lived and worked among ordinary people.

Minsters were original catalysts for and defining marks of urban growth, they initiated a collection of people living together and producing items for living, such as food and clothing. This in turn attracted nonreligious people to live by them, in a way developing the towns we see today. However in the ninth century all English minsters suffered severely from Viking invaders, which helped lead Later Saxons to change to a monastery or collegiate church.

York Minster (Source / www.yorkminster.org) 

Minsters are now referred to as a large or important church, such as York Minster. This act of continuing the title of minster was perhaps to maintain the dignity of these religious buildings as they declined in the eleventh century.

There are very few records of early minsters left and most minsters are now parish churches.  Archaeological evidence is also scarce. Inside early compounds, the buildings were mainly of timber with thatched roofs, as early Anglo-Saxons rarely built with stone. This indicates why the find at Berkeley is so ground-breaking; it could be a definitive, rare example of an early Anglo-Saxon religious community building.

It is known from historical records that Medieval Berkeley was a large port and market town in Gloucestershire. This minster could show the initial building that housed the community, providing insights into the developments and change of this small town.