12 March 2011

The suppression of the Chantries

Some time ago we took buses to Shipton-under-Wychwood (don't we have entrancing place-names in England?) and did a walk in the valley of the Evenlode (and beautiful river names?). In Shipton church is a palimpsest brass (the search engine should enable you to find my account of the palimpsest brass at Waterperry).

The 'front' bears an inscription about a woman who died in 1548. Interestingly, it bears no hint of expectation that it might be appropriate to pray for the repose of her soul. This calls for explanation: out in the Oxfordshire backwoods where in 1549 the people rose against the Prayer Book, you don't expect to find evidence of a Protestantism which by then had made little progress beyond some very small areas in the East of England. But the inscription cheerfully assured us that her virtues and her virtuous deeds had undoubtedly brought her straight to heaven.

You don't need to remind me that this assumption is not quite what poor dear Brother Luther thought he meant when he was plugging Justification By Faith Alone. But it is in line with the tens of thousands of funerary inscriptions dating from the ensuing Protestant centuries, postulating certain and immediate sainthood for every deceased person on account of their unbelievably virtuous lives (there is the old story about a little girl who read the gravestones in a churchyard and asked "Mummy, where are all the bad people buried?"). I wonder if anyone has ever written an interpretative account of how the academic doctrinaire Protestantism of Luther and Calvin led with such immediate and apparently automatic ease to its precise and polar opposite, a practical popular Pelagianism.

I do have a theory about this. It is that it was precisely the much-derided 'chantry' system, with its financial link between clergy remuneration and masses for the welfare of the souls of the Faithful Departed, which de facto reminded common unacademic medievals that we are all sinners who depend upon God's gracious mercy for our salvation. De facto, take that away and common unacademic folk, needing to fill a conceptual vacuum, will replace it in their own minds with the assumption that since the recently departed Mary Smith doesn't need masses said for her soul - the government has just declared this and has sequestrated all the assets of all the chantries - ergo if we love Ms Smith we need to be convinced that her good deeds outweigh any sins. It becomes psychologically important to shy away in our minds from the disturbing consequence that, if this is not so, then she is, er, in Hell. Moreover, if there is no Purgatory, then she is already in Heaven ... or Hell. So I see the paradoxical emphasis in popular Protestantism upon salvation by works (which is ultimately to feed into a facile Universalism which assumes that everybody except probably for Adolf Hitler and Myra Hindley will end up Saved), as emerging from a mass crisis of popular rethinking about soteriology and the Departed in 1548.

On the back of the brass, in the reused original dating from 1492, we have a potent reminder of the complex and deeprooted system which was destroyed by the suppression of the chantries. It is an account of bequests to the Guild of our Lady in Aylesbury for Masses and Dirges. Presumably it came on to the market in the despoliations which followed the suppression of the chantries (statute of December 1547). It reminded me of the manuscript* description of endowments made by Sir John Percival, Lord Mayor of London in the reign of the first Tudor, which hung by his tomb in the London City church of S Mary Woolnoth; presumably such public declarations were at least partly intended to ensure the compliance of future generations in fulfilling the dispositions.


*Recently rediscovered at the back of a cupboard in S Mary Woolnoth; the interested can find an account in a piece I published in 2007 in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association (they might also reread Duffy Stripping pp 515ff.). Sir John's document survived because, amid all the provisions for masses for his soul, which will have become obsolete in 1548, there were a few other provisions for benefactions which did not thus become obsolete. A later hand has marked these surviving provisions with an arrow in the margin.


Andrew said...


Matthew the Curmudgeon said...

Well, so protestantism and most people who call themselves 'Christian' be the Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox are in fact 'Pelagians'. How many people have you known that were really 'rotters' or deemed evil have been said by their friends (if they had any), relatives (if there were any living), or enemies(if any survived), who would outwardly say that so and so is burning in hell for all eternity. I've never me any in my 63 years. People may claim they believe in 'faith alone' but in the end we all grab on to the default position of well, they were good people, whether they were or not. Saint Pelagius wins! Funny.

Hughie said...

You could tell the little girl that at least one of the bad people is buried in a graveyard in Dublin. Gerald Warner has claimed that he once saw a headstone in one which read: "Here lie the bones of Murphy who was leading the life of Reilly until Reilly came home unexpected."

Father Anonymous said...

In agreement with matthew, although before the fact, one of my theology instructors used to remark sadly that "Pelagianism is the true religion of the people." Experience has proven him right time and again.

James said...


Well, I've never been to the funerals of any “rotters” but I have been to many Catholic funerals (esp. Hispanic ones). At least around here the custom is to say a rosary for the repose of their soul the night before burial during the viewing. Combined with other typical Catholic practices the idea of Purgatory is rather ingrained.

When my Aunt's mother-in-law died (a saintly woman if there ever was one) her daughters had a novena of rosaries for the repose of her soul – nine straight nights of praying for that good woman. For twenty-five years my Grandmother has had masses said for my Grandfather on the anniversary of his death and his birthday. On November 2nd even my Protestant relatives are in the cemetery lighting candles for the dead. My Grandfather's brother just died and while he was a good man his faults were well known to us. He received the sacraments before he died so we have good reason to believe that his final place will be with God but I can guarantee that many a mass will be said to hasten him there.

You'll find no Pelagians here where the old customs still prevail. Loose them and yes, pretty soon everyone but puppy-kickers will automatically go straight to glory.

James G