A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2003.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
Although Chester had few parish churches for a town of its size, it was home to several religious communities which played a correspondingly large role in town life. Their precincts were extensive, and their inmates formed sizeable and occasionally troublesome groups within the population. (fn. 1) The grandest religious house in the city by far remained the abbey of St. Werburgh, which continued until the Dissolution to enjoy an income ranking among the top twenty or so English Benedictine monasteries. (fn. 2) The annexation of the earldom brought it for the first time into close contact with the Crown, and thereafter the abbot entertained important guests and often took custody of money and treasure en route to Westminster from Ireland. (fn. 3) By the 1290s it also provided corrodies for royal servants. In the 13th century, despite difficulties during the Barons' Wars, when its property and privileges were attacked, it enjoyed a period of stability, and an ambitious building programme was initiated. (fn. 4) After the long and successful abbacy of Simon Whitchurch (1265-91), in the early 14th century the abbey suffered internal dissension and financial mismanagement; the troubles grew worse after the 1340s when Abbot William Bebington obtained exemption from episcopal control for his servants and for the abbey's parish of St. Oswald, and culminated in the deposition of the next abbot, Richard Sainsbury, in 1362. (fn. 5) The mid 14th century was nevertheless marked by great progress with the conventual buildings, and by the writing of Ranulph Higden's world history, the Polychronicon, the only scholarly work of the first rank produced by the community. (fn. 6) By 1364, however, Higden was dead and the greatest period of building was over. Apart from the installation of the magnificent choir stalls in the 1380s, perhaps through the patronage of Richard II, little was done to the fabric until the late 15th century, and the community appears to have been impoverished and often riven by internal strife. (fn. 7)
The abbey's impact upon the life of the citizens was considerable and diverse. It held the advowsons of three city churches, St. Mary, St. Peter, and St. Olave, and in the early 13th century appropriated a fourth, that of its own parish, St. Oswald. (fn. 8) Its privileges bore most heavily upon Cestrians in the early 1390s when it finally succeeded in its long-standing ambition to appropriate the rich living of St. Mary's and united it with the impoverished rectory of St. Olave's. In 1397 Abbot Henry Sutton obtained papal licences to suppress the vicarages of St. Mary's and St. Oswald's, leaving both large parishes in the cure of ill-paid stipendiary chaplains. The changes were opposed by the bishop of Lichfield and in 1402 were reversed by the archbishop of Canterbury. (fn. 9)
As the greatest landowner in the city, with extensive jurisdictional privileges and exemptions from toll, the abbey's relations with the citizens were never easy. During the 13th century, however, it received numerous small grants of property in and around Chester. In 1278, for example, the late mayor, John Arneway, left property in Blacon, Crabwall, and the city in return for his burial in St. Werburgh's and for the maintenance in perpetuity of two chaplains to celebrate daily masses for his own and his wife's souls at the altar of St. Leonard in the abbey church and at St. Bridget's. (fn. 10) Eventually, however, the abbey's rights, especially its trading monopoly during St. Werburgh's fair, became a source of friction, and by a settlement made in 1284 they were eroded. (fn. 11) There were also difficulties about the abbey manor. In the 1280s and 1290s the citizens unsuccessfully contested the abbot's right to hold a manor court at St. Thomas's chapel outside the Northgate, and tried to prevent him from treating a road from St. John's hospital to the anchorage at Portpool as his private property. There were also complaints that he had blocked the road to the stone cross outside the Northgate and encroached on the highway by building a bakehouse. (fn. 12) In the early 14th century there was further friction over the exemption of the abbey and its tenants from tolls, (fn. 13) and in 1323 the abbot was forced to back down over access through the city wall to the monastic Kaleyards. (fn. 14)
With the onset of conflict in the late 13th century the citizens' generosity seems to have dried up; (fn. 15) for the following two centuries few if any chose to be buried or commemorated in the abbey, and the only chantries established there were for the community's own abbots and monks. (fn. 16) Unloved by the citizens, the abbey became a focus for disorder. In 1394, for example, there was an affray involving Baldwin Radington, controller of the royal household, (fn. 17) and in the 15th century monks and servants of the abbey were involved in brawls on several occasions. Abbot Richard Oldham (1455-85) had a particularly turbulent career: imprisoned in the castle in 1461, he was bound over in 1478 to keep the peace towards the mayor, John Southworth, and again, with a large group of the city's tradesmen, in 1480. (fn. 18)
In the late 15th century there was a revival in the fortunes and discipline of the monastery under Abbots Simon Ripley (1485-93) and John Birkenshaw (1493- 1524). The abbey church was completed and St. Oswald's was rebuilt. (fn. 19) Leading citizens, including the former mayors John Southworth and Ralph Davenport (d. 1506), once again chose to be buried there, and by c. 1530 there was a school for local boys. (fn. 20) Even so, the abbey continued to be worsted in its conflicts with the citizens. The most telling evidence of its weakness was the curtailment of the abbot's jurisdiction over the Michaelmas fair in 1485. (fn. 21)
No other religious community in Chester could rival the wealth and influence of St. Werburgh's. Indeed, all had financial problems. The nunnery, for example, never well endowed, in 1331 had barely sufficient income to support its inmates, and in the earlier 15th century was regularly exempted from taxation because of poverty. In lieu of proper endowment it had been granted various annuities and privileges, some of which represented potential sources of conflict with the citizens. Particularly controversial was the exemption of its tenants from tolls and other local levies. That privilege, first granted by the founder in the mid 12th century, was rendered even more distasteful by grants of 1303 and 1358 which freed the nuns' tenants from all obligations to the city, including jury service; (fn. 22) in the 1350s matters reached a climax when the prioress, Helewise, was indicted in the portmote for setting up an unlicensed court for her tenants. (fn. 23) Even so the nunnery appears to have been held in some affection by the citizens. The prioress, generally a member of the local gentry, entertained their women and children at her table, and the nuns ran a school. (fn. 24) Unlike the monks they continued to receive grants throughout the period. (fn. 25) Chantries were established at the nunnery by Cecily Compton in 1353 and the widow of Robert Paris, chamberlain of Chester, in 1379. (fn. 26) By the late 15th century the nuns had houses and tenements bringing annual rents of some £25, scattered throughout the city. (fn. 27) Their local standing was reflected in the prioress's participation in the foundation of St. Ursula's hospital for needy members of the corporation in 1509, when she was given the right to nominate to vacancies unfilled by the city authorities. (fn. 28) By then, with the revival of the city's economy, the number of bequests to the nuns was growing, and c. 1520 they embarked upon a new cloister. (fn. 29) Nevertheless, no citizens' burials were recorded in the church or its precincts until 1535. (fn. 30)
In the 13th century three friaries were permanently established in the town. The Dominicans, first to arrive, probably in the 1230s, were quickly followed in 1238 by the Franciscans, and some time before 1277 by the Carmelites. For a brief period in the late 13th century there was also a community of Friars of the Sack. All the friaries received some royal support during the 13th century, and the Franciscans regarded themselves as a royal foundation. (fn. 31) None was ever rich. The three main communities were all apparently popular with the citizens, many of whom entered into confraternity with them, (fn. 32) and from the mid 14th century they attracted numerous small bequests. (fn. 33) By the 15th century they also enjoyed close relations with certain of the craft guilds and other groupings, notably the Carmelites with the Carpenters, and the Franciscans with the merchants and sailors. (fn. 34)
The friars' churches were favoured places of burial. The Carmelites appear to have attracted most support and by the Dissolution had become the largest and least impoverished of the three. They received the body of the executed rebel Sir Peter Legh in 1399, and their church housed the tombs of members of prominent families, including John Hope (d. 1439), Roger Smith (d. 1508), and John Hawarden (d. 1496). Fewer burials were recorded at the churches of the Franciscans and Dominicans, whose popularity was probably greater among the less well off. (fn. 35)
By the later 15th century the friars were frequently involved in disorder in the town. The Carmelites were especially unruly. In 1454, for example, three of their brethren were charged with wandering armed through the city to the terror of the populace, (fn. 36) and in 1462 another was bound over for feuding with a monk of St. Werburgh's. (fn. 37) Most scandalously of all, throughout the 1490s the entire community, including the prior, appears to have taken part in a succession of brawls and internal disputes. (fn. 38) The other friaries were not immune from such problems. In 1454 the prior of the Dominicans and several of his brethren attacked a servant of Abbot Richard Oldham, who as bishop of Man had held ordinations in their church in 1452. (fn. 39) The feud with Oldham evidently continued, and members of the community, including another prior, were bound over to keep the peace in 1459, 1462, and 1463. (fn. 40) In 1464 one of the friars was accused of murdering a baker outside the friary gate, and the prior of abetting him. (fn. 41) In the 1490s the prior was involved in an affray against the prior of the Carmelites, and in 1510 or 1511 one of his successors was accused of assault. (fn. 42) Even the Greyfriars had their share of trouble: their prior was attacked in 1427, (fn. 43) and one friar was accused of assaulting another and a second man in 1502 or 1503. (fn. 44)
Building activity by the lesser religious houses largely followed the same rhythms as St. Werburgh's. Much work was done during the 13th and earlier 14th century, and all the friaries were enlarged within a century or so of their foundation, the Carmelites in particular greatly extending both precinct and buildings in the 1350s. Thereafter, except perhaps at the Blackfriars, there appears to have been little further activity until the late 15th century, when the Dominicans started to reconstruct their church and the Carmelites built a steeple. Work continued until the 1520s or later; the Dominicans, for example, planned a new nave and rebuilt their frater. (fn. 45)
The hospitals of St. John and St. Giles continued to receive favours from the earl and the citizens in the 13th century, though neither was exceptionally successful or well endowed. St. John's, the richer, owned much property both locally and further afield, (fn. 46) but its good beginnings were largely vitiated by the improvidence of its wardens; in 1316 the prior of Birkenhead, into whose hands care of the hospital had passed, complained of numerous improper alienations of lands and rents. Similar abuses appear to have taken place in the mid 14th century and again in the late 15th and early 16th. (fn. 47) Compounded by resentment that the hospital sheltered paupers not native to the city, they evidently ensured that it received few new benefactions. (fn. 48) Confidence was so low in 1509 that the city corporation used a bequest of Roger Smith, a former sheriff, to establish a new hospital, St. Ursula's, to care for those among its own members who fell on hard times. St. Ursula's did not prosper, and from 1547 was reduced to the status of almshouses. (fn. 49)
The other older hospital, the leper house of St. Giles, was never well endowed. Apart from its site in Boughton its most important possession appears to have been a bakehouse in Bakers' Row in Eastgate Street. (fn. 50) Its privileges, which included the right to levy a toll on all provisions brought for sale in Chester market, involved it in extensive litigation during the 14th century, especially with the tenants of St. Werburgh's. In 1537 the city authorities were sufficiently hostile to point out that whereas the grant of the market toll had been to support the sick, the inmates were in general 'mighty whole and sound persons, able to labour'. The hospital was threatened with the loss of its privileges unless admissions were confined to the sick. (fn. 51)
The religious community which enjoyed closest relations with the citizens was the collegiate church of St. John. Staffed by a dean and seven canons whose liturgical duties were generally performed by ill-paid vicars choral, from the 13th century it was the citizens' favoured church for burial and chantries. (fn. 52) Burials were encouraged by the establishment of the fraternity of St. Anne; (fn. 53) in 1396, for example, one of the latter's benefactors, the former sheriff John Hatton, made provision to be laid beside his first wife Agnes in the Lady chapel and for four years of requiems. (fn. 54) The church seems to have enjoyed particular popularity as a place of burial in the early 16th century, when interments included those of the wealthy rector of Holy Trinity, Henry Rainford (d. 1505), (fn. 55) Nicholas Deykin (d. 1518) and his wife, (fn. 56) Richard Broster, a former sheriff (d. 1523), and his wife, (fn. 57) and Ranulph Pole, rector of Hawarden (d. 1538). (fn. 58) For a while the college also maintained contacts with the citizens through its schools. In 1353 there was a grammar school and a music school, the latter held in the White chapel in the graveyard. (fn. 59) A grammar school, presumably the same, was in the care of a clerk named John Whitby in 1368, (fn. 60) but both institutions evidently disappeared long before the dissolution of the college. (fn. 61)
St. John's, which was never rich and owned comparatively little property in the city, nevertheless built ambitiously in the later Middle Ages. The major work, the extension of the eastern chapels, was perhaps connected with the establishment of the Thornton chantry in 1348. An elaborate north-western tower was added in the early 16th century. (fn. 62) The church remained in the patronage of the bishop throughout the Middle Ages. Although it claimed exemption from the archdeacon of Chester, until 1541 it continued as the main centre of diocesan administration within the city. (fn. 63) It was there that the bishop on occasion conducted ordinations (fn. 64) and that the archdeacon, or more usually his official, held court. (fn. 65) Members of the chapter from time to time held the offices of archdeacon and official, (fn. 66) and under Bishop Robert Stretton (1358-85) penitentiaries for the archdeaconry or county were frequently chosen from the clergy or the hermits attached to the college. (fn. 67)
By the early 13th century the city had received its full, if comparatively modest, complement of nine parish churches. (fn. 68) Besides St. John's and the monks' parish of St. Oswald, they comprised the churches of St. Mary on the Hill, Holy Trinity, St. Peter, St. Michael, St. Martin, St. Bridget, and St. Olave. By the 1250s there was also a chapel dedicated to St. Chad in the Crofts, though it is uncertain whether it was ever parochial. The mother churches' monopoly over burial rights appears to have persisted until relatively late, and there were evidently no graveyards at the other churches until the 14th century. The first seems to have been at St. Mary's, the only church apart from St. Oswald's to have a large parish outside the city liberties. Few of the livings were adequately endowed. The richest was St. Mary's, a church closely associated with the castle and which retained its independence throughout the Middle Ages, despite repeated attempts to appropriate it by the monks of St. Werburgh's. Though the rector was often an absentee, he had a chaplain and the church possessed abundant ornaments and vestments. It also attracted bequests from eminent citizens, several of whom were buried there.
Another rich living, St. Oswald's, was appropriated by the monks in the 13th century and was served by a perpetual vicar. Originally meeting within the abbey church at the altar of St. Oswald, its parishioners acquired a separate building only c. 1348. Like the abbey it seems to have been held in little affection by local people, though by the later 15th century it had become the special responsibility of the corporation: in 1488 Abbot Simon Ripley negotiated with the mayor, sheriffs, and leading members of the Assembly for help in reconstructing it. Two other churches, St. Peter's and Holy Trinity, survived as rectories. Never well endowed, they were usually staffed by chaplains. Both were the scene of a few grand burials or chantries; burials in Holy Trinity, for example, included the mayors John Whitmore (d. 1374) and John Armourer (d. 1396), (fn. 69) and in St. Peter's Alderman Thomas Middleton (d. 1535). (fn. 70)
The other four churches were poor. All were served by chaplains, St. Martin's and St. Bridget's having been appropriated to St. John's in the 14th century, and St. Michael's and St. Olave's apparently lacking sufficient income to support a rector. None appears to have attracted much interest from the more well-to-do of the city, apart from the occasional burial or minor bequest towards buildings and furnishings. St. Michael's, with two known burials and a chantry served by two chaplains, was perhaps the most favoured. (fn. 71)
The pattern of building at the parochial level was closely related to that in the religious communities. At St. Peter's, for example, there was work connected with that at St. Werburgh's in the early 14th century. Activity peaked in the late 15th and early 16th century: St. Mary's was largely rebuilt, St. Nicholas's chapel, serving as the parish church of St. Oswald's, was greatly enlarged in 1488, and St. Michael's acquired a new chancel. In the 1530s St. Peter's was doubled in size, a work assisted by Fulk Dutton, a draper who owned the buildings demolished for the extension.
In late medieval Chester the clergy formed a significant proportion of the population. In the earlier part of the period they were dominated by the monastic communities, (fn. 72) but by the later 14th century there were fewer religious and more minor posts for seculars, as chaplains serving fraternities, chantries, and private individuals. The impact of the secular clergy was reinforced by the presence of the archidiaconal court and the representatives or officials of the largely absentee archdeacons. (fn. 73) The city was, moreover, the centre of a rural deanery, under an official styled the 'dean of Christianity'. (fn. 74)
The richer benefices tended to be held by absentees. The canons of St. John's in particular had little incentive to reside, since the commons which they received were comparatively low. They were often civil servants or ecclesiastical administrators, especially before the steep decline in the value of their prebends in the early 15th century. Since they were collated by the bishop, many were also canons at Lichfield. (fn. 75) The dean, whose benefice, the richest in the city, was also in the bishop's gift, more often resided, partly no doubt because his archidiaconal jurisdiction over the college and its appropriated churches was regarded as incompatible with pluralism. Nevertheless, some deans were absentee, and in the early 15th century, after the losses sustained by the church in the wars with the Welsh, their pluralism was regularized by papal dispensations. (fn. 76)
After the deanery the richest benefice in the city was the rectory of St. Mary's, the incumbents of which were also often absentee. They included royal clerks and ecclesiastical administrators, partly because the living belonged to the abbot of St. Werburgh's. (fn. 77) The only other relatively wealthy living, that of the petty canon or senior cantarist at St. John's, remained in the gift of a local family, the descendants of its founder, and was generally held by resident members of the local gentry. (fn. 78)
The occupants of the lesser benefices, more often resident, probably made greatest impact upon the life of the city. Occasionally, they included men of wealth, such as Alexander le Bel, a kinsman of former mayor John Arneway, who held Holy Trinity in the early 14th century, or Robert of Bredon, farmer of the Dee Mills and rector of St. Peter's from 1350 to 1377. (fn. 79) In general, however, they seem to have had modest backgrounds. Much of the daily pastoral work was performed not by the beneficed clergy but by a miscellaneous group of chaplains, whose numbers proliferated in the later Middle Ages. They included the vicars choral at St. John's, and chaplains to the hospitals, chantries, confraternities, and castle. (fn. 80) Many of the richer citizens had oratories in their houses, licensed by the diocesan, and some apparently also maintained chaplains. (fn. 81) The duties of such clerics were various: the vicars choral at St. John's, for example, were employed primarily to fulfil the choir duties of the absent canons, but they also served the appropriated parishes of St. Bridget and St. Martin and undertook chantry commissions from laymen. (fn. 82) In addition there were hermitages attached to St. John's and other churches, including St. Martin's and St. Chad's. At St. John's the eremitic tradition extended from the 12th century to the mid 14th or later, (fn. 83) and included figures of some local importance such as John of Chorlton, established in a cell beside the collegiate church in 1363, and appointed penitentiary for the archdeaconry of Chester for two years in 1366 and for Cheshire during the bishop's pleasure in 1369. (fn. 84) A further hermitage, established by John Spicer before 1358, was situated by the bridge at Chester, and was probably identical with that of St. James in Handbridge, whose occupant, John Benet, was in 1450 accused of sheltering malefactors and keeping a brothel. (fn. 85)
Chester contained a number of images regarded with especial veneration, including those of Our Lady variously at the abbey, the nunnery, Blackfriars, and St. Mary on the Hill; of St. Catherine and St. Stephen at St. Mary's; and of St. Michael at St. Michael's. (fn. 86) More significant cult objects included the girdle of St. Thomas Becket at the nunnery, the remains of St. Werburg at the abbey, and the Holy Rood at St. John's. Nothing is known of the nuns' relic beyond the fact of its existence in 1536; (fn. 87) the two major cults were those of St. Werburg and the Holy Rood. That of St. Werburg, earlier and initially more important, appears to have fluctuated with the fortunes of its host community. By the 13th century it was in decline. Despite the lavish rebuilding of the saint's shrine c. 1340, there is little to suggest that she was then the object of interest within the city, apart from a procession held in her honour by an Abbot Thomas, probably Birchills (1291-1323). (fn. 88) Possibly she exerted more attraction in the wider world: late medieval pilgrim badges adorned with geese and found in London may have alluded to a celebrated miracle performed by St. Werburg, and were perhaps tokens acquired at her shrine in Chester. (fn. 89) The cult locally revived a little in the late 15th and early 16th century, when bequests were left for tapers before the shrine, (fn. 90) and the Chester monk Henry Bradshaw compiled a vernacular verse Life, culled from ancient sources in the monastic library. (fn. 91) A further relic, the saint's supposed girdle, was said in 1536 to be in great request for comforting women at childbirth. (fn. 92)
From the late 13th century the most significant relic in Chester was the Holy Rood at St. John's, a silver-gilt crucifix containing wood from the True Cross. Its origins are uncertain. Perhaps it was brought from the East by Earl Ranulph III, who was on Crusade in 1219-20. (fn. 93) On the other hand it may have been associated with the cult of King Harold, boosted in 1332 by the discovery within the church of his alleged remains, still fragrant and clad in leather hose, golden spurs, and crown. Harold's links with the cult of the Holy Rood and in particular with the miracle-working crucifix of Waltham (Essex), perhaps suggested the introduction of an analogous devotion into Chester. (fn. 94)
The relic was first mentioned in 1256 or 1257, when Fulk of Orby left a mark of silver a year for lights in its honour. Its reputation increased steadily in the later 13th and early 14th century, and for a while St. John's was known as the church of the Holy Cross. (fn. 95) By the early 14th century at least one of the ships which plied from the city, the property of William (III) of Doncaster, was known as the Holy Cross of Chester, (fn. 96) and women kept vigil before the Rood. (fn. 97) The relic's fame extended well beyond the city. In the 14th century the oath 'by the rood of Chester' was evidently commonplace, being mentioned in both William Langland's great poem the Vision of Piers the Ploughman and the less famous Richard the Redeless. (fn. 98) The Rood was especially venerated in Wales; in 1278, for example, certain Welshmen swore on it not to bear arms against the king, and in the later 14th century it was the subject of several odes by the poet Gruffudd ap Maredudd (fl. 1352-82), who seems himself to have made a pilgrimage to the relic. (fn. 99) Its reputation was even carried abroad to Gascony by Cheshire men; in 1411, for example, Henry Champayne, a burgess of Libourne (Gironde), presumably inspired by the cult at St. John's, bequeathed to the city of Chester a gilt shrine containing a piece of the Holy Cross, though it is uncertain whether it ever reached Chester. (fn. 100)
At their height, offerings to the Rood amounted to perhaps £70 a year and constituted by far the biggest item in the revenues of the collegiate church; (fn. 101) they presumably helped to fund the four canonries which by the early 15th century were termed the prebends of the Holy Cross. (fn. 102) The high tide of the relic's popularity had perhaps been reached before the mid 14th century, when offerings were in decline. (fn. 103) Nevertheless, money, treasure, and candles continued to be left to the Rood, pilgrimages were made, and requiems were offered at its altar until its removal in the 1530s. (fn. 104)
GUILDS, CONFRATERNITIES, AND CHANTRIES
Chester had relatively few religious guilds and their impact upon city life was correspondingly limited. In the early 14th century the guild of St. Mary comprised some 48 members of the civic élite, but its purpose is unknown and it was probably short-lived. Thereafter the city never had more than three confraternities. The earliest and most important was that of St. Anne, probably founded in 1361, when its members successfully petitioned the Black Prince for a licence to hold lands and rents in Chester to maintain a chantry and two chaplains in St. John's church. (fn. 105) It received few gifts in the later 14th century, (fn. 106) but in 1393 its refoundation by John Woodhouse, dean of St. John's, led to numerous grants of land in the city and its environs. The new arrangements provided for two wardens and two chantry priests, and originally for endowments worth up to £20 a year. By the later 15th century, although new endowments had long since ceased, income had risen to almost £40, and the fraternity had property all over the city. (fn. 107)
The fraternity was open to both men and women, and its members seem usually to have comprised twenty-five or thirty of the city's governing élite. The wardens or masters were often apparently drawn from the clergy of St. John's; between 1396 and 1420, for example, they included Ranulph Scolehall, chaplain of the Orby chantry, who was presumably a relative of John Scolehall, escheator of Cheshire 1365-70. (fn. 108) The fraternity's chantry seems originally to have been within the collegiate church, but later, presumably after the refoundation, a separate building was established in the precinct east of St. John's. (fn. 109)
A second religious guild, that of St. George, was housed in St. Peter's church, probably in the south aisle. (fn. 110) First mentioned in 1462, when it was governed by four masters or wardens, it too was open to both men and women, with two chaplains apparently required to pray for the souls of benefactors at St. George's altar. (fn. 111) Its property within the city, which included shops in Watergate Street near the church, was sufficient to require two rent collectors. (fn. 112) In 1489 Nicholas Southworth, son of a former mayor and clerk to the kitchen of Edward IV, gave it the large sum of £40 for ornaments. (fn. 113) In the 1530s the guild's chaplain occupied a chamber 'over the door' of St. Peter's, and in 1548 it had property bringing in annually some £12. (fn. 114) The guild, like the church which housed it, had close links with the city government, and in the early 16th century its stewards were listed in the Mayor's Books after the civic dignitaries. (fn. 115) It was still receiving bequests from aldermen in 1535. (fn. 116)
A third fraternity, that of St. Ursula, was established in 1509 to support Roger Smith's hospital, chapel, and chantry. Also open to both sexes, it was governed by two wardens or masters and maintained a chaplain to provide services for the inmates of the hospital and to pray for the souls of the founder, his kin, and all departed members of the fraternity. It was never popular with the citizens and may have lapsed before the Dissolution. (fn. 117)
The city had numerous chantries, established by citizens and members of the local gentry. The fully developed perpetual foundation was never very popular, and many were temporary. (fn. 118) The principal focus of chantry endowments was St. John's. The tradition there began with the foundation of a perpetual chantry by Philip of Orby (d. 1229), served by two cantarists of whom the senior, the petty canon, enjoyed a benefice ultimately worth more than the full canonries. He was bound to be resident and was probably often the senior clergyman at St. John's. A further chantry was established there in 1349 by Sir Peter Rutter of Thornton le Moors. It was served by two chaplains chosen by the dean. Later foundations, often temporary, were encouraged by the existence of a body of chaplains and vicars choral available to perform the necessary duties. Their consolidated endowments were known later as the obit lands.
Elsewhere in the city, a few perpetual chantries were established in the conventual churches. At St. Werburgh's the most notable foundations were all 13thcentury: the king's for Earl Ranulph III, established in 1238, and those honouring the mayor John Arneway (c. 1270) and Sir Philip Burnel of Malpas (1281). (fn. 119) The nunnery and the friaries enjoyed longer-lasting patronage; perpetual chantries were established, for example, at the nunnery in the later 14th century, (fn. 120) at the Greyfriars by the priest John of Barrow in 1294, (fn. 121) and at the Carmelites by Sir Gilbert Haydock in 1348. (fn. 122) Analogous, if less formal, arrangements for daily commemoration at the conventual mass were made in 1367 by Thomas Stathom and his wife at the Carmelites and in 1467 by Sir William Tarbock and his wife at the Dominicans. (fn. 123) At the Dissolution three chantries survived at St. Werburgh's and there were two chantry priests at the nunnery; provision at the friaries was not recorded. (fn. 124)
Among the parish churches the most lavish chantry foundation was that made in 1433 at St. Mary's by William Troutbeck, serjeant of the Bridgegate, complete with its own sumptuous chapel. (fn. 125) Apart from Arneway's foundation at St. Bridget's in the 1270s, and that founded by the chamberlain in the castle chapel of St. Mary de Castro in the 1530s, there was little else of note. (fn. 126) The most ambitious scheme appears never to have been realized. In 1369 Sir John Delves bequeathed the profits of seven manors to establish a chantry for himself and his family in Handbridge; nothing more, however, is heard of it. (fn. 127) In 1548 the chantry commissioners recorded chantries at St. Mary's and the castle chapel, and stipendiaries at St. Mary's, St. Michael's, Holy Trinity, and St. Bridget's. (fn. 128)
The craft guilds, established by the early 15th century, provided a further means of lay involvement in the life of the church, in particular through their role in religious processions and drama. Above all they had a crucial role in staging the mystery plays. First recorded in 1422, the plays were initially associated with a procession from St. Mary's to St. John's on the feast of Corpus Christi. By the early 16th century they had been transferred to Whitsun, a move which seems to have been associated with growing civic control. The Whitsun plays, which by the 1520s were spread over three days, were performed less regularly than the annual Corpus Christi production, and it is possible that a play was still performed on the feast day of Corpus Christi under the patronage of the Chester clergy, although if so it did not survive the Edwardian reforms. (fn. 129)
There was no lack of vitality in the church in Chester in the earlier 16th century: building, supported by local people, was in progress at several religious houses up to the 1520s and in at least one parish church as late as the 1530s; and the city's principal relics, above all the Holy Rood, continued to attract veneration and oblations until their removal. The first signs of a failure of confidence came in the 1530s with changes in royal attitudes and the advent of a reforming mayor, Henry Gee. (fn. 130) Investment in the city's religious communities came to a standstill. The reconstruction of St. Werburgh's petered out c. 1530, and by the mid 1530s the warden and priors of the friaries were granting away their property on very long leases, presumably expecting dissolution. (fn. 131) The initial moves took place in 1536 when the royal commissioners Richard Layton and Rowland Lee, bishop of Lichfield, recorded incontinency among the inmates of St. Werburgh's, the nunnery, and St. John's, and noted the relics of St. Werburg and St. Thomas Becket. (fn. 132) They made no reference to the Holy Rood at St. John's, which may already have been removed by Bishop Lee himself. (fn. 133) Their visit was followed by the surrender of the three friaries to Richard Ingworth, bishop of Dover, in 1538. (fn. 134) As a house with an annual income under £200 the nunnery should also have been dissolved, but in 1537 the prioress had paid £160 for exemption. It survived until 1540, when both it and St. Werburgh's were suppressed. (fn. 135) There was evidently no resistance at any of the monastic houses.
Of the city's remaining religious corporations, the college of St. John was clearly under threat from the late 1530s and by the early 1540s was disposing of its property in a succession of long leases. The removal of the Holy Rood c. 1536 occasioned such a loss in offerings that the number of clergy had to be reduced, a change especially affecting the petty canons' chantry, which was apparently discontinued in 1543. (fn. 136) The college itself and the city's remaining chantries and confraternities were all suppressed in 1547. (fn. 137) Only the hospitals escaped. (fn. 138)
At St. Werburgh's change proceeded relatively slowly. In 1541 the abbey was refounded as the cathedral church of the new see of Chester, and the entire precinct was handed over to the newly constituted dean and chapter. (fn. 139) In the short term there was much continuity. Though the dedication was changed, to Christ and the Blessed Virgin, and some eighteen months elapsed between dissolution and resurrection, the break was more apparent than real. At the dissolution the monastery contained c. 28 monks, of whom 10 were made members of the new cathedral establishment; of the senior clergy of the latter only three were not ex-monks of St. Werburgh's. The dean and former abbot, Thomas Clarke, continued to occupy his old lodgings, and the organist and choirmaster was the former master of the monastic school.
The principal building in the precinct, the former abbey church, was still unfinished at the dissolution. In 1539, when the monastery clearly had little time left, the parishioners of St. Oswald's had been moved into the large and recently completed south transept, perhaps an attempt by the monks to preserve their threatened church, but more likely due to the desire of the parishioners, in particular the civic authorities, to obtain grander premises. (fn. 140) Presumably services continued in the south transept throughout 1540 and 1541. The interior fittings were probably not much disturbed, since the high altar in the choir was still in place in 1541, when the dying Dean Clarke ordered that his body was to be interred in front of it. The only major structure inside the building likely to have been dismantled is the shrine of St. Werburg. (fn. 141)
The new cathedral had an establishment headed by a dean and six prebendaries, with a large inferior staff. (fn. 142) Draft statutes issued in 1544 were never formally confirmed, but achieved authority on the basis of custom and tradition. The dean and prebendaries, provided their income did not fall below a certain level, were expected to keep separate houses within the precinct, but the minor canons, choirmaster, conducts, and schoolmasters were supposed to eat together in a common hall, under the presidency of the precentor, a requirement evidently observed until 1600 or later.
The community at the new cathedral preserved many of the functions of the abbey, reciting the ancient offices and fulfilling its predecessor's eleemosynary and educative role. The old ceremonies were retained until 1547: money was spent on observing Corpus Christi Day and on censers, the sacrament house, and the canopy under which on certain feast days the Host was carried in procession. The preservation of a relatively undisturbed semi-monastic regime probably owed much to the first two deans, Clarke and his successor, Henry Man (1541-7), both former monks. By 1544, however, the character of the chapter was changing; only two of the original appointments remained and the newcomers were probably not from a monastic background. William Cliffe, appointed dean in 1547, came from York Minster, a cathedral of the old foundation, and was a conformer who contrived to achieve promotion under Henry VIII and Edward VI and to retain his preferments under Mary. Changes were introduced in 1548, when the dean and chapter sold a cross and two silver censers. In 1550 stones were carried away from the altars, and shortly afterwards the great high altar was 'laid' (perhaps meaning buried) and replaced by a wooden holy table. In 1553, when the royal commissioners visited Chester, the cathedral's ornaments seem already to have been depleted, and after their departure the church must have seemed bare indeed.
At other religious houses in the city there was more disruption. The sites of the nunnery and friaries were all sold in the 1540s. The nunnery and part of the Whitefriars were converted to residential use; the Blackfriars and Greyfriars were left to decay. The physical appearance of the extensive monastic precincts in the west of the city was thereby much altered. (fn. 143) At St. John's, too, there was much disruption. When the college was dissolved in 1547 the whole eastern limb was appropriated by the king. Although revenues were set aside to support a vicar and curate, and the nave survived as a parish church, the east end and the subordinate chapels, oratories, and hermitages were abandoned and the ornaments and vestments were largely dispersed. (fn. 144)
In the parishes there was apparently little protestant activity before 1547, and Catholic worship seems to have continued until comparatively late in all the richest churches. St. Oswald's, for example, received a bequest of a mass vestment for the parochial altar as late as 1543. (fn. 145) At St. Peter's, a bequest was made for a window in the new aisle in 1539, and in 1541 Robert Goulburne directed that he was to be buried near the choir door, 'before the Blessed Sacrament'. (fn. 146) At Holy Trinity in 1539 Ralph Rogers remitted to the parishioners his outlay on the 'making of the cross', and at St. Mary's money was left to maintain services at the altars of St. Mary and St. Catherine in 1547. (fn. 147) The last two churches retained their comparatively abundant ornaments intact until 1547, but thereafter they were swiftly removed. The process began at St. Mary's, where in 1547 the rood was taken down and the church was whitewashed, presumably to obliterate sacred pictures. The appurtenances of the new rite, a Prayer Book, two psalters, and the Paraphrases, were introduced in 1549, and in 1550 the altars and holy water stoup were removed and the parson married. At Holy Trinity the altars and tabernacle were removed in 1549, and in 1551 there were sales of vestments and ornaments. In 1553 the royal commissioners found little of value in the city's churches, except for St. Mary's, where, despite half-hearted attempts by parishioners to keep back some of the more precious possessions, almost everything was dispersed. (fn. 148)