The first known date in the history of Southwell Minster is 956 when King Eadwig gave Southwell and much other land to Oskytel, Archbishop of York. There was a church on the site at that time which contained the tomb of St Eadburgh, a lady saint of the Saxon church. By 1066 a group of priests (not monks) known as a 'college' was established here, and it became a collegiate church or minster.
The present church, which is mostly Norman, was built by Archbishop Thomas who wrote a letter in the early 12th century asking all of Nottinghamshire to give alms to finance the building of the Church of St Mary of Southwell. Building commenced in about 1108 and was largely complete by 1340. Perhaps because of lack of resources, the church has been little altered since then. It is said that it narrowly escaped destruction during the Civil War.
The church remained collegiate until 1841 when it became the parish church of St Mary the Virgin. However, in 1884 the new diocese of Southwell was formed from part of the archdiocese of York and the Minster became its cathedral. The diocese covered the counties of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire until 1927 when Derby cathedral was consecrated. It now covers Nottinghamshire alone.
From the western Norman gateway with its yews (planted about 1850) there is a fine view of the Minster, built of cream-coloured magnesium limestone (from Mansfield). The west end is the finest surviving Norman west front in England, apart from the large Perpendicular west window inserted around 1450, and the pyramidal spires of lead (or 'Rhenish caps') which were added much later in 1880. On the north side behind the transept is the octagonal chapter house. Most of the round-headed Norman windows are 19th century replacements of large 15th century ones, inserted to let in more light. The building of the Norman church to replace the original Saxon one started at the east end in about 1108, and the nave would have been reached about 1120-30. The western towers would not have been completed until after 1150, the north-western one has pointed arches heralding the Early English style. The west doorway with zig-zag moulding surrounds an original 12th century door with hinges and ornamental scrollwork of contemporary iron, from which the magnificent Norman nave may best be seen. The arcades of the nave are in three tiers of half-round arches, reducing in size as they ascend to the roof. There are bold round pillars along the length of the nave with little decoration on their capitals, supporting the smaller arches of the triforium (upper passage) above which is the clerestory with its round windows. The wagon timber roof of the nave was made by Ewan Christian in 1880. The quire, showing the choir stalls and the Decorated screen. The north porch has a magnificent inner doorway and a 14th century door. Above is a room with a fireplace for the sacristan or his assistant, who slept in the church. The stone screen or pulpitum at the entrance to the quire, built 1320-40, is a luxuriant example of Decorated architecture. The Norman quire was too small to accommodate the vicars choral and choristers, so a new one was built 1234-41, a splendid example of the Early English style with clustered columns having fillets, pointed arches and a profusion of dogtooth ornament. A passage from the north of the quire leads to the Chapter House, an exquisite early Decorated building of about 1290-95. The profuse carvings on the arches and capitals, of trees and plants interwoven with natural and imaginary beasts, are known as the 'Leaves of Southwell'. It is the decorative carving in the Southwell Chapter House which gives it a special place in medieval art. It spreads over capitals and corbels, tympana, crockets and finials, vaulting shafts and bosses, a profusion of leaves, fruit and flowers, from fields, hedgerows and forests, executed with a lively realism and a depth of perception never expressed before. But there are also animals - goats, hares, birds, and fabulous creatures - and human heads in portrait and caricature, completing a vivid record of visual experience, religious beliefs and superstition and fable.