Minsterley derives its name from two Saxon words. A minster was a Church served by a group of clergy who lived in community and ministered to an often very substantial area. As time went by these vast parishes were subdivided, often still under the minsters’ control, into smaller units each with its own small church and priest. The “-ley” in Minsterley refers to a clearing in a forest. The early settlement, therefore, was centred on either a collegiate church or one of its dependent chapels and built in woodland glade.
In 1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales described Minsterley like this:
MINSTERLEY, a village and a chapelry in Westbury parish, Salop. The village stands near the river Rea, under the Stiper-Stones hills, at the terminns of the Shrewsbury and Minsterley railway, 10¼ miles SW of Shrewsbury; is a considerable place; and has a postoffice‡ under Shrewsbury and a railway station. Acres, with Westbury township, 11,274. Real property of M. alone, £12,402; of which £4,000 are in mines. Pop. in 1851,988; in 1861,890. House’s, 178. The manor belongs to the Marquis of Bath. The lead mine of Suailbeach is within the parish, and employs very many hands. The living is a p. curacy in the diocese of Hereford. Value, £96. Patron, the Marquis of Bath. The church is an old brick edifice, with a bell turret. There is a free school.
Nothing remains of the early church, which was almost certainly a wooden structure. Local tradition maintains that it was built on the banks of the brook to the north of the present building, behind the two of houses now called Kensington Gardens. That it, or more likely a successor building, existed up to the seventeenth century is indicated by references to rebuilding in the records of the building of the present church.
The Church of the Holy Trinity
The present church was built between 1688 and 1689 at the expense of the 1st Viscount Weymouth, Thomas Thynne
He was born the son of Sir Henry Frederick Thynne of Caus Castle, Shropshire.
The Viscount was a member of the Thynne family, who had long been local landowners and who were to become Marqusses of Bath. Though established at Longleat in Wiltshire, some ladies of the family lived in Shropshire, moving to Minsterley Hall after the destruction of Caus Castle by parliamentarian forces in the Civil War (1642-1651)
The Architect was one William Taylor, a Londoner who was also employed at Longleat. The craftsmen were local, the foremason and bricklayer being one Thomas Hudson of Shrewsbury, and the carpenter being one Joseph Moateham. Hudson’s contract dated 4th May 1688 is for £170 and Moateham’s for £50 – the money in each case being stipulated as ” … good and lawful money of England”. Much of the stone used was robbed from Caus Castle and bricks which were bought. It has been reported that it was built to save the Thynne family travelling to Westbury every Sunday. The Thynne Family even had their own path from the Hall to the Church with their own gate in the churchyard wall.
The apparent gulf between completion in 1689 and consecration on Trinity Sunday 1692 was probably due to a vacancy in see. Herbert Croft of Croft Castle near Ludlow had been Dean of Hereford from 1644 to 1661 and Bishop from 1662 to 1691. The assumption must be that the journey to Minsterley was too taxing in the evening of his life and the consecration was delayed until after the enthronement in 1691 of Bishop Gilbert Ironside.
At this time, and very probably before it too, Minsterley was a chapelry or ease within the Parish of Westbury. The clergy had the status of perpetual curate. Many were non-resident and employed an assistant curate to carry out their duties. This is not known to have harmed the spirtitual health of their flock save in the late eighteenth century when Isaac Davies became so notorious for his immorality that the villages successfully petitioned the curate, John Mainwaring, for his dismissal in 1790.
The late seventeenth century was not a period of great church-building outside London (and even there the Churches replaced those consumed by the Great Fire of 1666). Minsterley’s Church is thus a rarity, and doubly so by virtue of a rustic classical-baroque stylistic mixture.
The most notable fieature of the exterior is the west end (pictured) with its giant rusticated pilasters, its original weatherboarded belfry and its profusion of carving.
Apart the cherubic heads over the windows this carving lends towards the morbid with memento mori including skulls, crossbones and hourglasses.
The south and west doors are original, but the outer doors of the south porch were hung to celebrate the church’s tercentenary in 1992.
The Maidens’ Garlands
These garlands also known as Virgins’ Crowns hang above the gallery and a replica is displayed in a glass case. (Pictured).
These were originally hung over the pew where the young ladies used to sit when they were alive.
Maidens’ Garlands and their possible origins
Maidens’ Garlands, also known as Virgins Crowns or Crants (derived from the German Kranz, which means wreath, garland or chaplet) are a funerary memento.
At a funeral procession, they were either carried before the coffin or placed upon it. In some parts of the country the garland was placed in the grave: and in other parts it was hung in a prominent position inside the Church. It is unclear whether or not the person for whom it was made had to be female or betrothed, but it would appear that they marked the tragic death of a young person. (The garland found at Astley Abott’s, Bridgnorth, Shropshire was made for Hannah Phillips who died on the eve of her wedding day in 1707). In most parts of the country the garlands have been made specifically for women, but in Abbotts Ann, Hampshire, they were also made for men.
The earliest garland dated 1680, can be located at St. Mary’s Church, Beverley, Yorkshire. The history of this innocent and touching custom is uncertain. Many 19th century historians and antiquarians have documented the ritual, and may have spent much time trying to locate its origins. It is possible that its roots lie firmly in the customs of antiquity of Egypt, Etruria and Rome. Maybe, the Romans bought the custom to England, which instead of being suppressed was involved the emphasis upon Mary the Virgin Unspotted.
During the Reformation many of the early Christian (i.e. Catholic) traditions had to go underground in order to survive, and it is possible that this was such one tradition.
Most garlands that survive today are of the 18th century. Therefore it was possibly a tradition that was important and significant enough to revive fairly quickly unlike the custom of well-dressing and maypoles which were not revived until the 19th century.
Another possibility for the garlands’ origin is an economic one. The skills and technology of early industrialisation (i.e.. to dye the paper permanently blue) would have be required. Potential connections with the wool trade – merchants using trading routes with Europe may have brought the custom to England.
The lead-mines at Snailbeach (3 miles away) were Europe’s largest lead producer. These mines would have employed men with the technology and expertise needed to make the garlands. There is an interesting connection with Matlock in Derbyshire – where another collection of Maidens’ Garlands can be found. Both were lead producers and it was Derbyshire men who began mining for lead at Snailbeach in 1651.
Early writers such as St Jerome (4th century AD) and St. Augstine (5th century AD) have documented the custom of garlanding the deceased. But it is the priest in Shakespeare’s Hamlet who makes the famous reference to Maidens’ Garlands:
“Yet here she is allowed her Virgins crants. Her maiden strewments and the bringing home of bell and buriel” (Act V: Scene 1)
The Garlands at Holy Trinity
During the later part of the 19th century, Holy Trinity, Minsterly became an early tourist attraction because of the garlands. They are fine examples of 18th century skill, ingenuity and pride.
Most importantly there is the work undertaken by Rosie Morris who as a child saw garlands hanging from hooks here in Minsterley, Shropshire and wondered what they were. Years later having been unable to find much information on them, Rosie decided to make them the subject of her dissertation and later Phd. Much of the following information, has been gleamed from Rosie’s research on these delicate garlands.
During her extensive research Rosie found that several descriptions exist in which Mr Syer-Cumming’s (Journal of British Archaeological Association, Vol XXXI, p.190, 1875) reported that Minsterley Crowns are possibly the best known.
“Each measures a full foot in height and is thus constructed. The lower part consists of a hoop of thin wood about 9 1/2 inches in diameter, to which are secured two arches of the same material, intersecting each other at the top, and steadied by a hoop placed mid-height. This wooden framework is covered in linen, and on it are sewed lilies and roses of two sizes, made of pink and white paper. From the lower circle descend short paper streamers, principally blue and white; but in one instance there is the addition of strips of red cloth. The paper gloves, though varying in number, seem to have been thought an essential accompaniment to the crown-formed garlands…”
As you can see from the above photograph, these Maidens’ Garlands are suspended from the original iron heart shaped escutcheons situated above the gallery. These bear the virgin’s initials and age and date. The earliest of the seven is from 1736. Originally they were hung above the maiden’s pew having been carried before her coffin to the graveside and were only later moved to their present position. Rosie Morris has been able to read four of the seven garlands which hold the past, the maidens initials and dates:-
- E.W. 1736
- M.M. 1736
- F.J. 1734 (possibly 1764 or 1794)
- M.J. 1751
Mr Syer-Cumming makes reference to E.W. 1736-
“Elizabeth Woodhouse, daughter of Edward Woodhouse and Mary his wife. Born Sept 1 in year 1715. Died 1736”
Pontesbury Parish records document Mary Matthews was buried 11th June 1736. Possibly her maiden’s garland was returned to her parents’ Parish. At present, other initials and dates have not correlated with Parish Records.
Within the crowns hung gloves made from paper which appear to be an essential commodity. “some of them contain two or three pairs of white paper gloves …” In most garlands 2 or 3 pairs of gloves are found – numbers may have some other symbolic meaning – but the Virgin Crowns at Abbotts Ann in Hampshire contain 5 pairs!. The possible symbolic connotations for the inclusion of gloves vary:- a challenge to the maiden’s reputation, a token of love given at betrothal, and also a sign of respect at a funeral, and white gloves a sign of purity.
Also included are collars and kerchiefs (that display the name, age of the person). An hourglass (The hourglass is a classic example of the ‘momento mori’ or ‘vanitas’ theme that became fashionable in the 17th century representing the fleeting nature of time. As mentioned above and illustration of this can be found on the exterior of the church of the west door. Sometimes a piece of poetry is included. Documented in 1883, Minsterley garlands contained “many ribbons of various colours, but chiefly black and yellow are interwoven”. It is possible that the names and dates of death of the maidens were included in the garlands, but like the gloves have been lost, possibly at the Church Conference 1896.
The tallest garland measures 15 inches and 12 inches in diameter at base, the smallest measuring 10 inches high and has an 8 inch diameter at base. Each of the embossed papers used in the flowers and rosettes which cover the wooden frame is common in each of the garlands and is probably paper taken from 18th century wallpaper sample books. The wood used in the framework is likely to be willow or hazel. Historian Rosie Morris believes that it is more likely to be willow – many willow trees overhang Minsterley brook – a feature that has always been central to the village community. Also willow is malleable and has many uses (baskets, whistles, thatching pegs, pit props etc).
Other Garland locations in Shropshire
The only other location in Shropshire that has a Maidens’ Garland is St. Calixtus in Astley Abbotts, Nr Bridgnorth mentioned above. Accordingly to Rosie Morris’s extensive research the other locations where garlands have been documented were in Hanwood Church until 1856 (7 miles away from Minsterley); another in Acton Burnell which was recorded in 1902 then kept at the Vicarage but now lost and apparently Little Ness Chapel which recorded in 1876 “Within living memory they might be seen … a small chapel dedicated to St. Charles King and martyr formerly the ‘Gretna Green’ of the Midlands … shortly to be pulled down” Shrawardine c.1830-40 there were several garlands. “one of them in memory of a much -beloved younf female in the village, who lost her life crossing the River Severn”.
The Victorian Contribution
The modern appearance of the Church owes much to our ancestors of the last century. It was they who removed the original wooden barrel vault. This followed the curve of the cross beams, which still bear the marks of the joints, and echoed the heads of the windows. The pews date from 1870 and replaced the original box pews, something of which survives in the shape of the panelling.
The machine-made glass also dates from the last century. The 17th century glass would probably have been clear, to judge from churches in which glass from that period survives.
The comparative lack of ornamentation to the underside is probably due to the fact that this would have been hidden by the box pews amongst which it stood. It and its surround box are typical of their period and bear carving echoed in the oak screen between the chancel and nave.
This is the original fornt, which has found a home by the door currently used, having started its life opposite the south door and at some stage been moved to a position to the south of the west doors.
Under the frontal is a Jacobean altar table. It originally stood against the weast wall within a railed and raised sanctuary. This did not extend the full width of the Church, and although it is known to have been raised by three steps, its is not known how high the steps were. The altar rails are, as several weel-known guide books have pointed out to be some of the best, original woodwork. The panels either side of the altar now covered with hangings purchased in 1974, were probably originally intended to carry the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed. (St. Anne’s Church in Worthen, has splendid examples of this).
This is unfortunately, not on display, for security reasons and is brought from the bank for certain great occasions.
The principal pieces are “The gift of the ladies Thynne, 1692” and comprise communion cups, standing patens and flagons. The silver candlesticks date from the Lambeth Palace exhibition of modern church craftsmanship which was part of the Festival of Britain on the South Bank. They were made by Mr W Frank Knights of Wellinborough whose family were closely associated with the famous church architect, Sir Ninian Comper. The matching cross was made at the request of the donor to complete the set.
The Chapel – now the church-yard – formerly extended less far to the east than today. It was extended following the replacement of the curate’s house, which stood to the east of the church, in 1872 by the house that now serves as the Vicarage.
A lychgate, also spelled lichgate, lycugate, lyke-gate or as two separate words lych gate and derives from the Saxon word for corpse, and the construction takes its name from its purpose of providing shelter for coffins and bearers as they awaited the priest to lead them onto the consecrated ground. The Lych-gate was erected in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and was restored ten years later on the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee.
List of Clergy serving Holy Trinity Church, Minsterley.
- Benjamin Clemson 1692
- Anthony Mainwaring 1718
- Robert Wilson ?
- John Mainwaring 1759
- David Williams 1807
- John Jones 1811
- William Jones 1830
- Emelius Nicholason 1838
- Philip Edgar Pratt 1865
- C.G. Woodhouse 1870
- Peter Potter Jr 1876
- Thomas Moore 1879
- John Mitchell 1883
- Francis Lewis Julian 1890
- R.W. Williams 1891
- W.N. Pooter 1930
- A.R. Vincent 1934
- J.B. Morson 1945
- L. Thomas 1955
- R.E. Davies 1960
- M.W. Hooper 1970
- S.J.F. Maxfield 1982
- T.O. Mendel 1986
- W.K. Rowell 1993
- A.N. Toop 2001