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-
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-