Chantries (and Nunneries!)

Whilst describing life a couple of hundred years before the Newman Chapel was added to Fifehead Church, the following extract from "ENGLISH SOCIAL HISTORY" by G.M. Trevelyan, Penguin 2000 reprint mentions the practice of the building chantries (see bold text below) which may have some relevance, even though the Newman Chapel would hardly qualify as a "chantry" per-se. The same page happens to mention the state of the nunneries at the time, and I have left this bit of text because it is both informative and amusing.

(On the subject of nunneries in the 15th century): ..... The episcopal visitor was often deafened by a flood of shrill female eloquence, the prioress complaining of the nuns, and all the dozen nuns together accusing the prioress, till the good man fled before the storm, having effected little by his visitation. In vain the bishops attempting to dislodge the regiments of `hunting dogs and other hounds' - and sometimes the monkeys - with which, contrary to rule, the poor ladies solaced their long leisure. 'At one nunnery in the Lincoln diocese, when the bishop came and deposited a copy of the Bull in the house and ordered the nuns to obey it, they ran after him to the gate and threw the Bull at his head, screaming that they never would observe it.'

The nunneries, though numerous, were very small. Of the one hundred and eleven Houses in England only four had over thirty inmates. The total number of nuns in the country was between 1,500 and 2,000. But of course each nunnery had also servants attached and one or more priests.

In the fifteenth century these establishments were going downhill financially and otherwise. Before Henry V I I I took the matter so drastically in hand, eight nunneries had been suppressed in the course of forty years at the instigation of orthodox bishops. For example, Bishop Alcock of Ely in 1496 founded Jesus College, Cambridge, in place of St Radegund's nunnery, of which, he procured the dissolution on the ground of `the negligence and improvidence and dissolute disposition and incontinence of the religious women of the same house, by reason of the vicinity of Cambridge University'. The successors of those two Cambridge scholars who visited the Trumpington Mill in Chaucer's day had apparently been paying too much attention to the nuns of St Radegund. At the very end there were only two nuns left, one an absentee and the other an 'infant'. So at least said the Bishop, anxious to clear the ground for a more useful institution.

St Radegund's was an exceptionally bad case, but it remains true that the nunneries of England were less useful and admirable houses of religion in the later Middle Ages than they are today.

Between the time of Wyclif's criticism on the great endowments of the Church, and the onslaught of Henry V III, gifts of land and money were still commonly made, but they now went less often to houses of monks, nuns, and friars than to chantries and schools. In these latter days, wealthy gentry and burghers in their gifts and bequests seemed to be thinking more of themselves and of their fellow laymen, and less of Holy Church. The endowment of a school was in the fifteenth century as useful for the education of laymen as of priests. And the foundation of a chantry was largely a self-regarding act: in a chantry, one or more priests were paid to say mass for the soul of the founder. And whatever one's expectations about the next world, it was clearly a way of endowing a living monument to one's own memory, here below. A chantry often took the architectural form of a delicately wrought side-chapel in a church, with the founder's tomb large therein ; sometimes it was a separate building, a small church or chapel, carrying down to posterity the founder's name. `There's hope a great man's memory may outlive his life half a year : but by'r lady he must build churches then, or else shall he suffer not thinking on....'

The fifteenth century, for all its troubles, was a great time for increased educational facilities and endowments. There had been many schools in Chaucer's England, but there were many more on the eve of the Reformation. The fifteenth-century bishops, often worldly-wise men of a good type, loved to endow schools. Municipal guilds and individual burghers and merchants, increasing in wealth and in family connexions with the landed gentry, took pride in founding schools which would give to other boys of their town or shire the chance to rise, either to be future priests and bishops, or equally well to be …..

Created 5th Feb 2003