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A chantry (also obiit, although this may refer to the mass or masses themselves) is a monetary trust fund established for the purpose of employing one or more Catholic priests to sing a stipulated number of masses during a stipulated period of time for the spiritual benefit of a deceased person, generally the donor, hoped to (at least) be in the state of purgatory. Before the Reformation, chantries were commonly established in England and were endowed with lands, rents and other assets given by donors, often in their wills. The income from these maintained the chantry priest.
A chantry chapel is a building on private land or a dedicated area within a parish church or cathedral, set aside or built especially for and dedicated to the performance of the chantry duties by the priest. A chantry may occupy as premises only an altar, for example in the side aisle of a church, rather than an enclosed chapel within a larger church, generally dedicated to the donor's favourite saint. Many such chantry altars became richly endowed, often with gold furnishings and valuable vestments. Over the centuries chantries increased their wealth, often by attracting new donors, and chantry priests were in many cases able to enjoy great wealth. In some instances this led to corruption of the consecrated life expected of clerics. This evident corruption was one of the factors that led Henry VIII to order the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England. At that time, chantries were abolished and their assets were sold or granted to persons at the discretion of King Henry VIII and his son King Edward VI, via the Court of Augmentations. Many Tudor businessmen, such as Thomas Bell (1486-1566) of Gloucester, thus acquired chantries as financial investments producing income streams derived from rents, or sold the assets at a profit.
Mass for the dead
The Roman Catholic practice of saying masses to benefit the soul of a deceased person is attested as early as the 8th century. The most common form was the anniversarium or missa annualis, a mass said annually on the date of the person's death. Catholics believe that the more prayer the better, including the offering of the Mass. At the Council of Attigny (765), about 40 abbots and bishops agreed to say masses and recite the psalter for the souls of deceased members of their 'confraternity'. Ninth-century France and England had records of numerous confraternity agreements between monasteries or greater churches, by which each would offer prayers for the dead members of the other's communities. Before the year 1000 in Italy, France and England, great churches extended the benefits of such associations to lay folk. Kings and great magnates asked that prayers for their souls be said in the monasteries they founded on their estates.
The word "chantry" derives, via Old French chanter, from the Latin cantare (to sing) and its mediaeval derivative, cantaria (meaning "licence to sing mass"). The French term for this commemorative institution is chapellenie (chaplaincy). The Latin word "obiit", used in English as a noun with the same meaning as a chantry, means literally "he is dead" from the verb obeo, from the verb eo "to go" plus the preposition ob "away", thus to die.
Origin of chantries
Current theories (Colvin) locate the origins of the chantry in the rapid expansion of regular monasteries in the 11th century. The abbey of Cluny and its hundreds of daughter houses were central to this. The Cluniac 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 had so many 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, but similarly became burdened by commemoration. The history of the Cistercian house of Bordesley (Worcestershire), a royal abbey, demonstrates this. In the mid-12th 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 an additional six monks for the souls of Earl Hugh of Chester and his family. This sort of dedication of prayers 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. Such communities were not monastic foundations, although members shared a common life. Like the monasteries, they offered dedicated prayers for the dead. An example is the collegiate church of Marwell (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. Gradually perpetual masses for the dead were delegated to one altar and one secular priest within a greater church.
Henry II of England and the chantry
The family of King Henry II of England contributed greatly to religious patronage. Henry founded at least one daily mass for his soul in the endowment of the estate of Lingoed (Gwent) of Dore Abbey (Herefordshire); he endowed the services in perpetuity of four monk-priests. In 1183 the king lost his eldest son, Henry the Young King of England. In 1185 his third son, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, died in a tournament near Paris. Henry II commemorated his sons by founding what resembled the classic institutional chantry. He endowed altars and priests at Rouen Cathedral in perpetuity for the soul of the Young Henry. Philip II of France endowed priests at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris for the soul of Duke Geoffrey. John Count of Mortain, the youngest son of Henry II, also created chantry-like foundations. In 1192 he granted the collegiate church of Bakewell (Derbyshire) to create a prebend at Lichfield Cathedral. The holder was to celebrate mass perpetually for John's soul. The concept of the institutional chantry thus developed in the 1180s within English and French royal circles, who were wealthy enough to endow them.
Beyond them, the first perpetual mass was endowed by the London sheriff and patrician, Richard fitz Reiner, at the chapel of his manor of Broad Colney (Hertfordshire). He established it by the terms of his last testament in 1191, and the chantry was completed in 1212. In close association with the Angevin court, Richard may have adopted its religious practice.
Chantry provision in later Medieval England
Analysis of later medieval wills has shown that the chantry appeared 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 Noseley, Leicestershire) or in an aisle of a greater church. If chantries were in religious communities, they were sometimes headed by a warden or archpriest. Such chantries generally had constitutions directing the terms by 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. Historians have found terms ranging from one to ten years to be more common 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 defined chantries as representing misapplied funds and misappropriated lands. The Act stated that all chantries and their properties would belong to the King for as long as he should live. Along with the dispersal of the monasteries, the Act was designed to help cover the cost of the war with France. Because Henry did not live long after the Act was passed, few chantries were closed or given over to him. His successor, Edward VI, had a new Act passed in 1547, which completely suppressed 2,374 chantries and guild chapels; it also authorized inquiries to determine all of their possessions. Although the act called for the money to go to "charitable" ends and the "public good," most of it appears to have gone to Edward VI's advisers. The Crown sold many chantries to private citizens: for example, in 1548 Thomas Bell (Mayor of Gloucester) purchased at least five in his city. The Act provided that the Crown had to guarantee a pension to all chantry priests displaced by its implementation.
An example of the fate of an abolished chantry is St Anne's Chapel in Barnstaple, Devon, the assets of which were acquired by the Mayor of Barnstaple and others in 1585, some time after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The deed of feoffment dated 1 November 1585 exists in the George Grant Francis collection in Cardiff, summarised as follows:
"i) Robert Appley the elder, Robert Cade, Hugh Brasyer and Richard Wetheridge of Barnestaple to: ii) William Plamer, mayor of Barnestaple, Richard Dodderidge, Roger Cade, Symon Monngey, Robert Appley the younger, Robert Pronze (Prouse?), Roger Beaple, George Pyne, gent., Jacob Wescombe, Gilbert Hareys, Robert Marlen, Thomas Mathewe, James Beaple, George Baker, James Downe, William Bayly, John Collybeare, Robert Collybeare and John Knyll of Barnestaple; 1 Chancery and Chapel of St Anne lately dissolved in Barnestaple with 1 house with land belonging to the late Chancery and Chapel; also 1 house and land in Barnestaple which John Littlestone of Barnestaple, merchant and John Buddle, potter granted to (i)."
One of the most significant effect of the chantries, and the most significant loss resulting from their suppression, was educational. The chantry priests had provided education. Since they were not ordinaries and did not offer public masses, they could serve their communities in other ways. When Edward VI closed the chantries, priests were displaced who had taught the poor and rural residents; afterwards such people suffered greatly diminished access to education for their children. Some of the chantries were converted into the grammar schools named after King Edward.
Royal Peculiars were not covered by any of the above Acts of Parliament, so were not abolished. Most declined over time. The jurisdiction of almost all was abolished in the 19th century. Some royal peculiars survive, including Westminster Abbey and St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle.
- J.R.V. & J.F. Charles Marchant, Cassell's Latin Dictionary, revised edition, 1892
- The New Cassell's French Dictionary, ed. Denis Girard, et al., revised edition, New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1973, p. 144
- Cassell's Latin Dictionary
- RISW GGF 1/122 Feoffment, dated 1 Nov. 1585; [1 parchment, 4 papers, 3 seals, in English, originally A10 or Box IX/i 
- D. Sicard, "La liturgie de la mort dans l'église latine des origines à la réforme carolingienne", in 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)
- "London and Middlesex Chantry Certificate", certificate of the royal commissioners, in preparation for the dissolution; London Record Society; here hosted by British History Online.