The south Dorset town of Wimborne Minster is named after the ancient church at its centre, a large and elegant building that retains some Saxon components but was mostly constructed by the Normans in the 12th century, and is now a parish church. In even earlier times this location was the site of both a monastery and a nunnery, until these were replaced by a collegiate church in 1043, founded by Edward the Confessor, such non-monastic churches being known as minsters.
Partly because of its unusually long history, and previously elevated status, the church has several notable features that are more common to cathedrals, including a vaulted crypt, a medieval astrological clock, a chained library and a number of ancient tombs. The most famous person interred here is the Aethelred of Wessex (died 871), brother of Alfred the Great, though the exact location is not known and the king is instead honoured with a brass plaque from the 14th century, on the north wall near the altar.
Wimborne Minster church enjoys peaceful surroundings, with a tree-lined graveyard on three sides, and sits in the middle of town close to High Street and Market Street, where free parking is usually available. The official name is the Minster Church of St Cuthburga, referring to the saint who founded the original nunnery, around the year 705.
St Cuthburga was a member of the royal house of Wessex, and the nunnery she established at the start of the 8th century was soon joined by a monastery; both survived for another 200 years, until mostly destroyed by a party of invading Danes in 1013. The central church was rebuilt, to became the collegiate church of Edward the Confessor, and then further remodelled about a hundred years later to form the core of the building seen today. The Saxon church had a basic cruciform layout, with an aisleless nave to the west, north and south transepts below a central, square tower, and a chancel to the east; the Normans added aisles, built chantry chapels off the transepts, and extended the chancel, while in the next century the transepts were doubled in size, and the east end of the church further modified to create an ambulatory all around the choir, with a lady chapel beyond (now the chancel). This chapel was later raised by six feet to allow construction of a vaulted crypt beneath, entered directly from the ambulatory. The final major changes, in the 14th and 15th centuries, included widening of the eastern parts of the aisles to create side chapels (north, or St Georges, and south, or Holy Trinity), plus addition of a vestry, north and south porches and a second square tower, at the west end of the building. One other addition, later in the 15th century, was an upper floor of the vestry, initially a treasury, then later housing the chained library, which survives intact, one of very few such examples in the country; others are at Wells and Hereford cathedrals. The church was renovated in Victorian times when the chapels were rebuilt, the windows replaced, and the clerestory above the nave modified.
The church exterior is clad in a mix of light grey limestone and dark brown sandstone, giving it an curious mottled appearance, and an impression of great age. The usual approach from the town centre is through the two-storey north porch, leading to the north aisle, which is divided from the nave by an arcade of five rounded pillars, four of which are from the 12th century, and linked by graceful, two-centred arches with chevron ornamentation; the south arcade is similar. The west end of the nave leads to the square space beneath the 15th century west tower, illuminated by just one window, containing heavy Victorian stained-glass, and so generally rather dark. The astronomical clock is positioned on the south wall, and dates from the early 14th century, contemporary with other such timepieces in the cathedrals of Exeter, Salisbury and Wells. The two transepts each contain masonry from several different periods, and are lined with many memorials; they lead to the north and south chapels, either side of the chancel, and the two flights of steps down to the crypt. The organ, some pipes of which are over 350 years old, occupies part of the south chapel, and one of the two alcoves in the wall between this and the chancel contains the most famous tomb in church, of John Beaufort (Duke of Somerset, died 1410) and wife Margaret Holland. Another more ornate memorial, formed of painted alabaster, is for Edmund Uvedale (MP for Dorset, died 1606), along the north wall of the north chapel. The chancel comprises the choir and the altar, the two areas separated by a flight of seven steps, and is lit to the east by three tall lancet windows, the centerpiece topped by a quatrefoil window, and the outer pair topped by a sexfoil; all components are deeply recessed.