In English usage, Minster is an honorific title attached to certain major medieval churches. Most of the best known were cathedrals in the medieval period, such as York Minster, Lincoln Cathedral and Lichfield Cathedral. Others retaining this title were once collegiate churches, such as Beverley Minster, Ripon Cathedral and Southwell Minster, although the latter two have since been elevated to cathedral status.
The word derives from the Old English "mynster", meaning "monastery", "nunnery", "mother church" or "cathedral", itself derived from the Latin "monasterium", meaning a group of clergy living a communal life. Thus, "minster" could apply to any church whose clergy followed a formal rule: as for example a monastery or a chapter; or simply to a church served by a less formal group of clergy living communally. In the earliest days of the English Church, from the 6th to the 8th centuries, minsters, in their various forms, constituted the only form of Christian insitution with a permanent site, and indeed at the beginning of the period, the only form of permanent collective settlement in a culture where there were no towns or cities; and where kings, nobles and bishops were continually on the move, with their respective retinues, from estate to estate.
Minsters were commonly founded by the king, or by a royal thegn, receiving a royal charter and a corporate endowment of bookland and other customary agricultural rights and entitlements within a broad territory; as well as exemption from certain forms of customary service (especially military). The superior of the minster would generally be from the family of the founder, and its primary purpose was to support the king and the thegn in the regular worship of the divine office; especially through intercession in times of war. Minsters are also said to have been founded, or extensively endowed, in expiation of royal crimes; as for example Minster-in-Thanet. Minsters might acquire pastoral and missionary responsibilities, but initially this appear to have been of secondary importance. In the 9th Century, almost all English minsters suffered severely from the depredations of Viking invaders; and even when a body of clergy continued, any form of regular monastic life typically ceased.
Following the English recovery, in the 10th century, surviving minsters were often refounded in accordance with the new types of collective religious bodies then becoming widespread in Western Europe, as monasteries following the reformed Benedictine rule, or as collegiate church or cathedral chapters following the rule of Chrodegang of Metz. Consequently by the 11th Century, a hierarchy of minsters became apparent; cathedral churches, or head minsters having pre-eminence within a diocese; surviving old minsters being pre-eminent within an area broadly equivalent to an administrative hundred; while newer lesser minsters and field churches were increasingly proliferating on local estates. Of particular importance for these developments, was the royal enforcement in this period of tithe as a compulsory religious levy on arable production. This vastly increased the resources available to support clergy; but at the same time strongly motivated local landowners to found their own local churches, so as to retain tithe income within their own estates. In the 11th and 12th centuries local estate churches, typically served by individual priests, developed into the network of parishes familiar to this day. The old minsters, mostly then became parish churches; their former pre-eminence acknowledged by the occasional retention of the honorific title; and sometimes by the continued recognition of former estate churches within their ancient territories as being, in some degree, of subsidiary status and dignity.
In England, in addition to the cathedrals mentioned previously, the following are large churches, which may have been collegiate before the reformation but are not the seat of a diocesan bishop:
Where a minster subseqently became monastic, the former status may survive in a place name; as in Westminster Abbey, or Leominster Priory. The name "Peterborough Minster" is now applied to a district of Peterborough, but not to Peterborough Cathedral.
The title "Stoke Minster" was conferred on the parish church of St. Peter ad Vincula in Stoke-upon-Trent by The Rt. Revd. Jonathan Gledhill, Bishop of Lichfield, at a ceremony on May 17, 2005, and St Thomas's in Newport, Isle of Wight, was granted a similar title in 2008.
In other places in Europe, “minster” has become simply a historical term for a particular church, e.g. the minsters of Strasbourg (France); Basel and Bern (Switzerland); Bonn Minster, Essen, Freiburg, Aachen, Hamelin, Doberan (all Germany).