Southwell Minster I

By William Morris

On behalf of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, a Society whose objects are explained by the circular enclosed herewith, I beg most respectfully to address you with regard to the works proposed to be done to the Collegiate Church of Southwell Minster.

The Society recognises with satisfaction that since the building has been under the control of the Commissioners thesecurity of the fabric has been considered and its condition as regards stability improved, but at the same time many alterations have been made which in the view of the Society have been destructive of its artistic and historical character.

The removal of the modern fittings of the choir, which were in themselves of no great value, but inasmuch as the removal also involved the destruction of the very interesting side screens, was a step which the Society greatly regrets should have been taken, and the rearrangement of the pewing of the choir appears to them to have been an entirely unnecessary alteration, as though the design of the pewing was modern and poor in quality it was quite adequate to the requirements of cathedral service.

It is understood that the Commissioners have sanctioned a scheme for removing the present low-pitched roofs and the flat ceilings and substituting high-pitched roofs, open internally, throughout the church.

Against this proposal the Society desires to enter its energetic protest, and respectfully asks the Commissioners to reconsider their decision for the following reasons, which the Society trusts that the Commissioners, as guardians of one of the most important public monuments in the kingdom, will not consider unworthy of their consideration.

The proposed alteration, if carried out, will necessarily involve the destruction of the present wooden ceilings of the nave and transepts. These ceilings were laid shortly after the fire of 1711, and are in all probability rude but still not unsatisfactory copies of those which were destroyed by fire. They have an excellent effect, are broad and simple in design, and are much more in accordance with the architecture of the church than an open roof.

The ceilings are of oak and are apparently perfectlysound, no flaw being perceptible from the floor of the church. The outer roofs do, it is true, admit water in places after heavy rains or continued snow, but as they are covered with slate this is no more than what would occur in the roof of any other building of a similar size.

The Norman nave was in all probability covered originally with a flat roof similar to Gloucester and St. Albans. This was replaced in the Middle Ages by a pitched roof; but we have no evidence to show that the alteration was an improvement, but, on the contrary, the subsequent removal of this roof and the substitution of a flat roof tends to show that its effect was not found satisfactory.

Although the present roof dates back no further than the beginning of the last century, it is indisputable that the lowering of the roofs took place at least a century earlier, as Hollar's engraving of the cathedral (which was made in 1672) seems to show them in their present condition.

All trace has been lost of the design of the medieval roofs, so that any restoration must be entirely conjectural, and therefore unsatisfactory, when regarded from an antiquarian or architectural point of view.

A matter of even greater importance arising out of the contemplated raising of the roofs is the obliteration of the wooden lantern between the western towers, which would be swept away if any other roof is substituted for the present.

In all probability the destruction of this lantern was not present in the mind of the Commissioners when the question of the alteration of the roofs was under consideration, and the Society earnestly hopes that now that the entire effect of the proposed raising is brought to their notice that the Commissioners will hesitate before they give their sanction to a proposal which will inflict an irreparable injury upon thechurch, and deprive it of one of its most interesting and characteristic features.

The lantern is perhaps unique of its kind, and though exceedingly simple in design, it is so dignified in expression and adds so much to the charm of the church that its removal would be a source of the deepest regret to all who are truly interested in what is most native in one of our first and best preserved national monuments.

The Society trusts that the Commissioners will, for these reasons, refrain from carrying out an alteration which is perfectly unnecessary and uncalled for, which will in no sense add to the safety or beauty of the church, and that they will devote the funds at their disposal to the preservation in its present state of the interesting building committed to their charge.

It would be a lasting disgrace to the century if it should happen that through injudicious interference the Collegiate Church of Southwell, after having escaped the rapacity of Henry VIII and the followers of Edward VI, and has come down to us almost unimpaired in its essential features from very nearly the earliest historical times, should in these last days have its identity destroyed, and its value as a national record placed in jeopardy by a mistaken zeal for restoration.

I have the honour to remain, my lords and gentlemen, your very obedient servant.

Letter to the Architect, 30 April 1878.

The reference to this piece of work in the Chronology