A Day in the Life of a Chantry Priest

In last week’s article “Accipe Calamum Administrativum” the author hinted at the rich variety of medieval clerical life, a large web composed of diverse orders of clergy, monks and canons, diocesan and religious, foundations and their patrons, etc.

Now we zoom in a bit on one sort of medieval clerical life that all but disappeared in later days: the chantry. A chantry was a foundation endowed for the sole purpose of saying Masses for the benefit of the patron. They usually lived a common life, but were not technically monks or canons.

Such foundations were a normal feature of medieval life: something like the equivalent of a rich family endowing a charitable foundation today, except this one is staffed only by clerics, and their only job was simply to sing and offer Mass. Hence the name “chantry,” i.e a “chantery,” a place of chanting.

Below is an article from British History Online about an English foundation called the College of St. Elizabeth, a chantry established in 1301 by Bishop John of Pointose and dedicated to St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Its seven chaplains and choristers were hired for the sole purpose, which they faithfully carried out day in and day out, of singing the Divine Offices for the intentions of the founder.

The clerics of the College of St. Elizabeth sang the entire proper office of the day in addition to the Little Office of Our Lady, the Office of the Dead, a solemn Mass of Our Lady, the Mass of St. Elizabeth, three Votive Masses, and the Solemn Mass of the day. A full-time job! Even if the Offices of Our Lady and the Dead were monotoned rather than fully sung, one nonetheless marvels at how much time these officially secular priests spent in liturgical prayer.

Tonsure.pngAlso noteworthy is the presence of “young shavelings” who attended the the chaplains and sung in church. This was how apprentices to the priesthood were trained before seminaries were established in the wake of the Council of Trent.

Alas, the College of St Elizabeth was dissolved under the Act of 1539 during the tyranny of Henry VIII. Its buildings were sold to Winchester College in 1547, and they were demolished soon thereafter.


The College of St Elizabeth, Winchester

hero-wolvesey-remains
The ruins of Wolvesey Castle, where the bishops of Winchester dwelled until it was destroyed by the Parliamentarians in 1646. The College of St Elizabeth was located near the castle gate.

Near to the gate of his castle at Wolvesey, Bishop Pontoise built, in 1301, the college of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. The foundation consisted of a number of secular clergy and choristers living under the rule of a provost, with so clearly an expressed object that it was in reality a chantry on a large scale. In the episcopal registers and other documents, it is most usually described as the chapel of St. Elizabeth, but frequently as a college and sometimes as a chantry.

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The seal of John of Pontoise, Bishop of Winchester (1282-1304), who built the College of St Elizabeth.

By the foundation charter, the bishop established three altars in the great chapel. The dedication of the high altar was to the honour of St. Elizabeth; the second to the honour of St. Stephen and St. Laurence; and the third to the honour of St. Edmund and St. Thomas of Canterbury. To serve these altars and to maintain a stately ritual, the foundation provided for the establishment of seven chaplains, one of whom was to be provost, three were to be in deacons’ and three in sub-deacons’ orders. All were to be appointed, as vacancies occurred, by the bishop; they were to live together and have a common table; to be satisfied with one dish and pittances on week days and two dishes on Sundays and double feasts; to dress humbly, and to wear in chapel surplices and black copes; to receive annually in addition to their board for clothes and other necessaries: the provost 6 marks, the chaplains 40s. and the clerks 20s.; to have a common dorter for the clerks save in sickness; each chaplain to have a young shaveling, between the age of ten and eighteen, to wait on him, and to sing in surplice in church; and the choristers to dine together in hall at a separate table.

Their clerical duties were to rise each day at daybreak and say together (submissa voce aperte et distincte) mattins of our Lady, and afterwards to chant antiphonally mattins of the days; after mattins to celebrate solemn Lady mass after the use of Sarum; next to intone the proper day hours, followed by the hours of our Lady in a low voice; immediately afterwards, the mass of St. Elizabeth was to be sung, followed by the saying of three masses at the three altars, two for the departed and one of the Holy Spirit; and about nine o’clock (fn. 2) high mass was to be solemnly sung. Each chaplain was to say at each mass six special collects (1) for the founder, (2) for the then Bishop of Winchester, (3) for all the departed bishops of the diocese, (4) for the king and queen and their children, (5) for kings and queens and all faithful departed, and (6) a general collect for the quick and dead, but especially for the prior and convent of St. Swithun’s. Before evensong, all the chaplains and clerks were to say, in low but distinct voice, Placebo and Dirige; afterwards to say evensong of our Lady, and to sing evensong of the day, to be followed by compline of our Lady and compline of the day. Everything was to be according to the use of Sarum; the provost and chaplain were to appoint one of their number as precentor, to order the masses and services.

The provost, in the presence of the chaplains and the treasurer of Wolvesey, was yearly at Winchester to deliver a statement of account, and a report as to the condition of the chapel and house. No one was to be absent from masses or hours save by special leave. No chaplain or clerk was to be admitted, unless first examined in letters and singing, and in knowledge of the divine offices. Women were not to enter any part of the house, save the chapel and hall. Each chaplain and clerk on admission was to swear to be faithful to the statutes and rules, and to continue in personal residence.

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