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Chantry is the Englishmarker term for the establishment of an institutional chapel on private land or within a greater church, where a priest would celebrate Mass. The same term is also used for the endowment itself. The word derives from the Latin cantaria, meaning 'licence to sing mass'. The Frenchmarker term for this commemorative institution is a chapellenie.

Mass for the Dead

The practice of saying masses for the good of the soul of a deceased person is attested as early as the eighth century. The most common form of this was the anniversarium or missa annualis, a mass said annually on the date of the death of a person. There was an idea that multiplying masses increased their efficacy. At the Council of Attignymarker (765) around forty abbots and bishops entered into an agreement to say masses and recite the psalter for the good of the souls of deceased members of their 'confraternity'. There are numerous instances in ninth-century Francia and England of confraternity agreements between monasteries or greater churches by which each would offer prayer for the dead members of the other's communities. The benefits of these associations were being extended by great churches to lay folk in Italy, France and England before the year 1000. From this it was a short step for kings and great magnates to insert a requirement for prayer for their souls to be said in the monasteries they founded on their estates.

The Origin of Chantries

Current theories (Colvin) locate the origins of the chantry in the massive expansion of regular monasteries in the eleventh century. The abbey of Clunymarker and its hundreds of daughter houses were central to this. The Cluniacmarker order emphasised an elaborate liturgy as the centre of its common life. It developed an unrivalled liturgy for the dead and offered its benefits to its patrons. By the 1150s the order was so weighed down with the demands for multiple masses for the dead that Peter the Venerable placed a moratorium on further endowments. Other monastic orders also benefitted from this movement, and likewise found themselves weighed down by the burden of commemoration. This can be seen at the Cistercian house of Bordesleymarker (Worcestershire), a royal abbey. In the mid twelfth century it offered the services of two priest monks, presumably to say mass, for the soul of Robert de Stafford. Between 1162 and 1173 it offered the services of a further six monks for the souls of Earl Hugh of Chester and his family. This sort of specialisation of prayer towards particular individuals was a step towards the institutional chantry.

Another theory (Crouch) points to the parallel development of communities or colleges of secular priests or canons as an influence on the evolution of the chantry. These were not monastic foundations, though they had a common life. But like the monasteries they too offered specialised prayer for the dead. An example is the collegiate church of Marwellmarker (Hampshire) founded by Bishop Henry of Winchester in the early 1160s. The priests of the college were to pray for the souls of the bishops of Winchester and kings of England.

All these ideas suggested the next logical development, which was for a perpetual mass for the dead to be delegated to one altar and one secular priest within a greater church.

The Family of Henry II of England and the Chantry

A particular impetus in the development of the chantry is the direction of the religious patronage of the family of King Henry II of England. Henry himself had founded at least one daily mass for his own soul, in the endowment of the estate of Lingoed (Gwent) on the abbey of Dore (Herefordshire) for the services of four monk-priests in perpetuity. In 1183 the king lost his eldest son, Henry the Young King of England and in 1185 his third son, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, was trampled to death in a tournament near Paris. These premature deaths were commemorated by the first foundations resembling the classic institutional chantry. Altars and priests were endowed in perpetuity for the soul of the Young Henry in Rouen cathedral. Philip II of France likewise endowed priests for the soul of Duke Geoffrey at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. John count of Mortain, the youngest son of Henry II, himself created chantry-like foundations. In 1192 he granted the collegiate church of Bakewellmarker (Derbyshire) to create a prebend at Lichfield cathedral, whose holder was to celebrate mass perpetually for his soul. This would indicate that the idea of the institutional chantry was developed within royal circles in England and France in the 1180s. The first candidate to be considered as such was the perpetual mass endowed by the London sheriff and patrician, Richard fitz Reiner, at the chapel his manor of Broad Colney (Hertfordshire) by the terms of his last testament in 1191, a project brought to completion in 1212. Richard was a man in close association with the Angevin court, and he may well have adopted its religious practice.

Chantry Provision in Later Medieval England

Recent analysis of commemoration practices as revealed by later medieval wills emphasise that the chantry might come in many forms. A perpetual chantry might consist of one or several priests, in an independent free-standing chapel (such as the surviving one at Noseleymarker, Leicestershire) or in an aisle of a greater church. If chantries were communities they were sometimes headed by a warden or archpriest. Such chantries generally had constitutions laying out in some detail the terms on which priests might be appointed and how they were to be supervised. The perpetual chantry was the most prestigious and expensive option for the wealthy burgess or aristocrat. A lesser option was the endowment of a fixed term chantry, to fund masses by one or two priests at a side altar. Terms of anything from one to ten years are encountered. These economical fixed-term chantries are more usually found in wills than the perpetual sort.

Abolition of Chantries Acts, 1545 and 1547

When Henry VIII initiated the Reformation in England, Parliament passed an Act in 1545 that chantries were, in fact, misapplied funds and misappropriated lands. The Act stated that all chantries and their properties would belong to the King himself for as long as he should live. Along with the dispersal of the monasteries, this was designed to help Henry relieve the monetary pressures of the war with Francemarker. However, few chantries were closed or given over to Henry, as Henry did not live far beyond the passing of the act. His successor, Edward VI, had a new Act issued in 1547, completely suppressing 2,374 chantries and guild chapels and launched inquiries into any possessions they might have. Although the money was supposed to go to "charitable" ends and the "public good," most of it seems to have gone to Edward VI's advisors. However, the Act provided that the crown had to guarantee a pension to all chantry priests so displaced.

The most significant effect of the chantries, and the most significant loss that resulted from their suppression, was educational. Chantries had provided education to their communities. Since chantry priests were not ordinaries and did not offer public mass, they could serve their communities in other ways. When Edward VI closed the chantries, the amount of education available to the poor and the rural residents was greatly diminished. Some of the chantries, however, were converted into the grammar schools that are now called "Edwardian."

Royal Peculiars were not covered by any of the above Acts of Parliament, so were not formally abolished. Most declined, and the remaining jurisdiction of almost all was abolished in the nineteenth century. Some royal peculiars survive, including Westminster Abbeymarker and St George's Chapel, Windsormarker Castle.


  • D. Sicard, 'La liturgie de la mort dans l'église latine des origines à la réforme carolingienne', Liturgiewissenschaftliche Quellen und Forschungen, 63 (1978), 174-202
  • C. Treffort, L'église carolingienne et la mort (Lyon, 1996)
  • H.A. Colvin, 'The Origins of the Chantry,' Journal of Medieval History, 26 (2000), 163-73
  • D. Crouch, 'The Origins of the Chantry: Some Further Anglo-Norman Evidence,' Journal of Medieval History, 27 (2001), 159-80
  • K.L. Wood-Legh, Perpetual Chantries in Britain (Cambridge, 1965)
  • C. Burgess, 'By Quick and by Dead: Wills and Pious Provision in Late Medieval Bristol,' English Historical Review 102 (1987), 837-58
  • E. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (New Haven, 1993)
  • N. Chantry, The House of Odsal
  • Roffey, S. The Medieval Chantry Chapel: an archaeological approach (Woodbridge: Boydell 2007)

External links

  • London and Middlesex Chantry Certificate: the certificate of the royal commissioners, made in preparation for the dissolution. Originally published by the London Record Society, here included as part of British History Online.

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