Royal Saxon Foundation

Axminster’s Minster – A Royal Saxon Foundation

 There is no doubt that a church was founded in Axminster in Saxon times. On this fact all writers agree. Most historians are of the opinion that the Saxon church was located in either the same place as the present building, or very close to it. However, beyond this there has been much discussion and some disagreement. The purpose of this leaflet is to put forward the various arguments as to the Saxon origins of the church and allow the readers to form their own opinions accordingly.

 In AD 673,1 Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called the English bishops to a Synod at Hertford. The Venerable Bede indicates that ten canons were enacted by them. In addition to these canons, a significant reorganisation of the English Church was initiated. In the years immediately following the synod, the number of dioceses was increased from six to fourteen. This was accompanied by more effective structures within the dioceses.

 However, the Diocese of Winchester remained intact – covering a huge area that stretched right into the west country. In AD 705, Haedda, the Bishop of Winchester died: King Ine of Wessex divided the see into two and appointed Aldhelm, the Abbot of Malmesbury as the Bishop of the West Saxons. Aldhelm set up his cathedra at Sherborne. Axminster fell under the jurisdiction of this new diocese which included Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. From the 8th century onwards a few manors became both administrative and ecclesiastical centres of extensive areas of land, much larger than our modern parishes. Some became small, but important, market towns. Minsters were set up to assist with the administration of the diocese. In some cases the word ‘minster’ could mean a monastery, nunnery, cathedral or mother church; equally, it could apply to any church whose clergy lived a

1 Some authorities give AD 672.

communal life either formally or informally. In the early days of the English Church, minsters became centres of mission as they were the only form of permanent church in any area. It is also quite clear that minsters were founded by the king-in-council and endowed by the king. Other minsters in the west country have Saxon origins; for example, the minster at Wimborne in Dorset was founded in AD 705 as a nunnery, (i:e: at the same time as the new diocese) under King Ine’s auspices, by his sister, Cuthberga. In his book, ‘A History of Devonshire’ written in the late 19th century, R.N.Worth said, “One of a group of ‘minsters’ the like of which is not to be found elsewhere, Axminster was in all likelihood founded by King Ine…” He goes on to suggest that this was to commemorate his conquests, following the defeat of Gereint, the King of Dumnonia1, in AD 710. The reason for the conflict was that Aldhelm had written to Gereint insisting that, in accord with the decisions of the Synod of Whitby, the Dumnonii should comply with the doctrines of Rome rather than those of the Celtic Church. Gereint refused. King Ine was a skilled administrator, law-maker and organiser besides being a devout Christian.  In AD 726, he abdicated to go on a pilgrimage to Rome where he died in AD 728. He was buried in the Church of San-Spirito-in-Sassia and later revered by some as a saint. Was Axminster’s church founded as a minster during his reign?

 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Cynehard, the atheling (prince) was buried in Axminster in AD 786. It has to be remembered that the Chronicle was written between the 9th and 12th centuries and that the name, ‘Axminster’, was contemporaneous with that writing and may not have been the name of the settlement at the time of Cynehard’s burial. However, the fact that a royal personage was buried in the church  suggests  that  it  would have been sufficiently important

1 Dumnonia: a kingdom, taking in all of Cornwall (Cornubia), Devon (Dyfneint) and much of Somerset. Its capital was Isca (Exeter).

to be styled ‘minster’. The circumstances that led to Cynehard’s  burial in Axminster are relevant to the foundation of the Minster.

 Sigeberht, Cynehard’s brother, became King of Wessex in AD 757. He acted unjustly and was removed from power by a council of nobles in favour of a distant kinsman, Cynewulf. After Sigeberht murdered one of his own men, he was killed on the orders of Cynewulf. Cynehard was exiled. In AD 786, Cynehard ambushed the King at Merantum and killed him while he was there with his mistress. The Wessex nobles refused to accept Cynehard as king and executed him. Cynewulf was buried at Winchester, the home of the Wessex kings, whilst Cynehard’s body was taken to Axminster. Where was Merantum? The 19th century historians, James Davidson and George Pulman believed that it was where the town of Morden in Surrey is located. They argued that the fact that Cynehard’s followers carried his body such a distance for burial indicates that he must have had prior connections with the church and that Cynehard was probably the founder of the church at Axminster. Other historians of that period and later suggest that Merantum may have stood for Merton in north-west Devon or Marden in Wiltshire and that Axminster was a convenient large church in a Royal Manor and, as such, suitable for the burial of a prince. Robert Cornish, who updated Davidson’s history of Axminster Church, later wrote in a paper presented to the Exeter Diocesan Architectural and Archaeological Society in 1932 that he had received correspondence from other historians concerning the location of Merantum. J.Alexander had written to him, stating that the location of Merantum was uncertain, but probably in Hampshire, Wiltshire or Dorset (perhaps Martin in Wiltshire), but certainly not Merton in Surrey or Merton in North Devon. G.Carter had written to Cornish, “I cannot see anything probable in the theory that Cynehard founded Axminster. My presumption is that he was buried there merely because it was  most convenient.” Carter also felt that Merton should be looked for in Devon, possibly in the Shebbear Hundred.


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