The spire of St Mary's Church in Godmanchester is a familiar and perhaps also comforting sight. Always there, forever churchthe Church of England. But at the beginning of the sixteenth century, St Mary's was not the Church of England but a Catholic Church. This fact can still come as a surprise to many people. What was St Mary's Church like before the Reformation? The recent discussion over the future of dwellings in Corpus Christi Lane was a reminder of  Pre-Reformation Godmanchester. Corpus Christi Lane was named after one of the Guilds in Godmanchester. The Guilds and Chantries have all disappeared and are largely forgotten but once they lay at the heart of the lives of the people of Godmanchester.

Prior to the Reformation, fear of purgatory loomed large in the hearts of lay people as they approached death. Whilst all Christians might hope to go to heaven, only saints were admitted to heaven immediately. Ordinary souls must first suffer physical torment in preparation for heaven.

The medieval mind was fixated with the need to ensure that souls passed safely from this world to the next. As they prepared their will, the soon to be deceased required that "tithes and offerings negligently forgotten should be paid by the executors. Spiritual and material debts left undischarged would result in a longer period in purgatory. Even more important were payments for masses to be sung to aid the release of the soul from purgatory. The prayers of the living could also reduce the time spent in purgatory.

Guilds were associations of lay people under the patronage of for example, Corpus Christi, (The body of Christ), the Trinity or the Blessed Virgin Mary which provided for their members throughout their lives, including at the end a funeral and religious services, such as praying for their soul.corpus

Some guilds also supplied other services like helping the poor with food and shelter. On the patronal feast day (Thursday after Trinity Sunday in the case of Corpus Christi) they would come together for a meal and celebrate a special mass at their altar in the church. There would have been altars in different parts of St Mary's Church that Guilds would financially support and maintain. Both St Christopher's and St Katherine's altars are specifically mentioned in the records. Guild altars could have a statue of a saint and the guild would ensure it was in good repair and also paid for a candle that burned before it. Guilds were controlled by lay people and had officers, rules, subscriptions and sets of accounts. They were a sort of religious trade union or friendly society or poor men's chantry. You could even become a member after your death if for example your children or your friends enrolled you. Some guilds offered a discount if you had already died Chantries were foundations, where priests were employed to say masses for the souls of their founders in perpetuity. Although varying inform, chantries were literally places where a priest would chant masses for the dead, often on the anniversary of a person's death. Whilst many chantry priests were funded by guilds, you could also have your own full time priest if you could afford it. Clearly, most people could not have afforded to support a chantry. But very rich people left vast amounts of money to endow chantries to ensure that after their death, masses would be celebrated and prayers would be said for their souls. It also meant that there were large numbers of chantry priests who were not parish priests in the sense that we are familiar with today.

There were 7 guilds and chantries in Godmanchester:

  • Chantry of St Maryl Roode's chantry (13th century)
  • Corpus Christi (14th century)
  • St. John the Baptist (14th century)
  • Holy Trinity (13th century)
  • St. Catherine
  • St. George
  • St. James

Few records of these bodies now exist but scraps of information can be recovered. The Town Chantry (St Maryl Roode's) had a chaplain who was bound to pray, in English, at the daily mass for the good state, welfare and prosperity of the Bayliffs of this town, and all the Comynalty of the same, fundars of this Chauntre.' The Guild of Corpus Christi had brothers and sisters and was governed by two wardens. The Guild of St John the Baptist had a chapel in 1359. Holy Trinity, St Mary's and St James all held land in Earning Street (or Arnyng Street as it was then called). A number of Guild Chaplains lived in East Street (Cambridge Street) including the Chaplain of Corpus Christi.

Historians have vigorously debated many aspects of The Reformation and in particular whether it was welcomed. Was it sought after and well-received by an England ready and willing to embrace the new religion? Or was Catholicism alive and kicking in 1530? As one revisionist historian has argued, (on the whole, English men and women did not want the Reformation and most of them were slow to accept it when it came). Which side were the people of Godmanchester on in the sixteenth century when chantries and guilds were swept away and purgatory was abolished by Henry VIII and Edward VI?

hENRYWills can take us back to those times and beyond. Whereas we might see the process of making a will being chiefly about what happens to our assets after death, to the medieval mind it was principally a religious document preparing souls for the afterlife. Spiritual and material debts left undischarged would result in a longer period in purgatory. So the soon to be deceased required that "tithes and offerings negligently forgotten should be paid by his executors. Even more important were payments for masses to be sung to aid the release of the soul from purgatory.

Godmanchester wills revealed many examples of gifts bequeathed to guilds and chantries. Here are just a sample. Thomas Robyns left half a quarter of barley each to the Guilds of St John the Baptist and Corpus Christi in his will of 1306. In 1483, Agnes Lane left half an acre of meadow to the Guild of the Holy Trinity and in 1491 Thomas Froste left half an acre of meadow to the Guild of Corpus Christi. John Pownte (Husbandman) left 40 shillings to buy a vestment for St Katherine's altar in 1533. William Pelman's will (1530) required his wife (Johan) in the three years after his decease to arrange for 3 trentals (30 masses on 30 consecutive days) to be said in the church for his soul and his parents' souls.

BOYGodmanchester was fairly typical. Bequests to guilds and chantries were made all over England right up to point of their abolition. There was something of an irony in that gifts intended for chantry priests to say masses in perpetuity lasted no more than a couple of years. Yet the scale of this devotion is impressive evidence suggesting that people were not generally looking for a reformation which abolished these practices.

How do we view it today? Perhaps the biggest lesson is how much our mental world has changed. We are not obsessed by purgatory as medieval people were. Whilst many Catholics still believe in purgatory, it is a very different toned down version from that of the sixteenth century. In the United States today it is customary for Catholics to give the priest 5 dollars for a memorial mass, a far cry from John Pownte's 40 shillings (6 month's pay for a labourer) on minimising your stay in purgatory. The emphasis now is on purification not suffering in purgatory. Were the people of the Pre-Reformation world exceptionally pious or taken in by a money-making practice by the church as suggested by Martin Luther in his 27th thesis:

As soon as the money clinks (German klingt) into the money chest, the soul springs (springt) out of purgatory'?


Dr Ken Sneath