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The parish of

Kings Norton

Part of the Church of England

Mediæval Chantries

Hidden behind the altar in the south aisle of St Nicolas', beneath the window of the Virgin and Child, in the former chantry chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary, there is what appears to be a gravestone set into the floor. It is badly worn now, but we know, from a sketch made in 1826 by the antiquary Dr Peter Prattinton, that it commemorates Humphrey Toye, a chantry priest of Kings Norton, who died in 1514.

It is the only evidence still visible of a practice which was part of the rhythm of church life for centuries but which has now been largely forgotten. This page tells the fascinating story that lies behind Humphrey Toye's memorial and explains the history of the mediæval chantry.

Purgatory : God's Waiting Room

The Roman Catholic practice of saying Mass to speed a the soul of someone who has died through Purgatory and into Heaven can be traced back to the 8th century.

St Nicolas' was a Roman Catholic church until the Reformation in the 16th century. Its priests and congregations would therefore have been taught that, after death, the soul travels to one of three places, Heaven, Purgatory or Hell. Purgatory was seen as a kind of waiting room where the soul had to undergo purification until it was fit for Heaven.

No-one knew who went there or for how long, but it was believed that the time spent in Purgatory could be shortened by the prayers of the church and, in particular, by the saying of Masses in which the dead person was named and prayed for, "assuming they are in Purgatory, while hoping they are in Heaven and not damned". The more Masses were said for a person's soul, the more effective they were believed to be.

Monastic Origins

In the 11th century, there was a huge expansion in the number of monasteries in Western Europe. Over time, many of them developed the practice of offering the services of priests to say Mass for the repose of a soul in exchange for endowments. They were the victims of their own success, or perhaps, in some cases, of their greed. By the 12th century, many monastic houses had been so overwhelmed by the demand for Masses that they were struggling to cope.

There is a good example of this practice within a few miles of Kings Norton. The ruins of Bordesley Abbey, a Cistertian monastery, now find themselves at the point where the A441 from Birmingham enters Redditch from the north. In the mid-12th century, Bordesley volunteered the services of two priest-monks to say Mass for the soul of Robert de Stafford. Between 1162 and 1173 it provided a further six monks for the souls of Earl Hugh of Chester and his family.

This custom of offering prayer for the souls of wealthy individuals led, eventually, to the setting up of altars, or chantries, within parish churches at which a chantry priest would say, or chant, Mass for the dead.

The Late Middle Ages

By the late Middle Ages, there were several different kinds of chantry. Sometimes they consisted of one or more priests who would say Mass either in a purpose-built chapel or in the aisle of a bigger church, as would have been the case at St Nicolas'. Alternatively, they might take the form of a community of priests which specialised in Masses for the dead.

Chantries were marketed as either perpetual or fixed-term. A very wealthy benefactor might establish a perpetual chantry to ensure that Mass would be said for his soul every day forever. Those with more modest means might choose, instead, to endow a chantry for a period of a year or more, funding a priest or two to say Mass at the side altar of a church. This is probably what happened in Kings Norton.

The End of an Era

Under Henry VIII, Parliament passed an Act in 1545 stating that all chantries and their properties would belong to the King himself, though they would continue to fulfil their functions. Henry, however, did not live long enough to enjoy the benefits of this decision. His successor, the young Edward VI, a Protestant who had no time for what he saw as Roman Catholic superstition, was more brutal. He had a new Act passed in 1547, which completely abolished the 2,374 remaining chantries and guild chapels.

King Edward's Grammar Schools

The impact of this on a church which had come to accept Masses for the dead as part of the natural order is not difficult to imagine. But there were social consequences too. Chantry priests had not been parish priests. Their job had simply been to pray for the dead. Alongside this, many of them had found the time to devote themselves to the education of local children. A number of chantries had provided free schooling. When they were abolished, some were converted into grammar schools; and some of these, because they came into being as a direct result of a decision taken by Edward VI, now carry the name King Edward's.

The Chantry Chapels of St Nicolas'

The authors of King's Norton : A History, George Demidowicz and Stephen Price, record that, in 1344, "William Paas, a chaplain, was permitted to assign some land in King's Norton to a certain other chaplain to celebrate divine service at the Altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the church of Kings Norton." Seven men contributed 32 acres to create what may have been the first chantry in the village.

Sometime in the Middle Ages, St Nicolas' acquired three chantry altars and, along with them, three chantry priests to sing Mass, one at each altar. They continued to be financed by gifts of land, often bequeathed in the wills of local residents. By the mid-16th century, the estate from which the chantry priests of St Nicolas' derived their income was one of the largest in the area. One of the chantry priests became involved in the education of the village children and created the first school in Kings Norton. Under one of its school masters, a priest called Henry Saunders, it survived King Edward's dissolution in 1547. The children were probably taught in the church itself until the construction of what we now know as the Old Grammar School in the middle of the 17th century.

The Priest Chambers

For obvious reasons, chantry priests needed to live near the church. Records show that, just before the dissolution of the chantries, three priests were living in three "chambers" somewhere close to St Nicolas'. The authors of King's Norton : A History speculate that these may have been conjoined properties situated on or near the site of the present Old Grammar School. They suggest, too, that the mediæval upper part of the Old Grammar School may even be a survivor of their original accommodation.

We are indebted to George Demidowicz and Stephen Price for the fruits of their research into Kings Norton's history and cannot recommend their book too highly. Copies are available at £20 from Saint Nicolas' Place on The Green.