Wisbech: Guild of the holy trinity

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2002.

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T D Atkinson. Ethel M Hampson. E T Long. C A F Meekings. Edward Miller. H B Wells. G M G Woodgate, 'Wisbech: Guild of the holy trinity', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds, (London, 2002) pp. 255-256. British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol4/pp255-256 [accessed 19 May 2024].

T D Atkinson. Ethel M Hampson. E T Long. C A F Meekings. Edward Miller. H B Wells. G M G Woodgate. "Wisbech: Guild of the holy trinity", in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds, (London, 2002) 255-256. British History Online, accessed May 19, 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol4/pp255-256.

Atkinson, T D. Hampson, Ethel M. Long, E T. Meekings, C A F. Miller, Edward. Wells, H B. Woodgate, G M G. "Wisbech: Guild of the holy trinity", A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 4, City of Ely; Ely, N. and S. Witchford and Wisbech Hundreds, (London, 2002). 255-256. British History Online. Web. 19 May 2024, https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/cambs/vol4/pp255-256.


The Guild of the Holy Trinity was much the most important of these institutions. It became indeed the main feature of Wisbech life in the later Middle Ages and was the direct ancestor of the Corporation. It is reputed to have originated in 1379, the year of the earliest surviving account. (fn. 1) Certain entries in the account, however, make it plain that the Guild had already existed for some time before.

The guild was incorporated in 1453 at the petition of its alderman, chaplain, four brethren and four sisters. The guildsmen were then licensed to found a chantry of chaplains to celebrate at the altar of Holy Trinity in Wisbech church and to grant to the chaplains lands in mortmain to the value of £40. (fn. 2)

In 1397 there were 67 guildsmen, paying 1s. 8d. each, and 14 novices, paying 3s. 8d. each. (fn. 3) The novices' subscriptions no doubt comprised entrance fees; in the next century (1489) there is one instance of the payment of such fees by instalments. (fn. 4) The total number of brethren is not entered regularly, but the membership, of men and women, seems to have remained fairly constant. Thus in 1453 33 'couples' each paid 18d., and in 1460 28 paid 16d. (fn. 5)

The officers of the guild, elected annually by a body of from 12 to 18 jurors or inquisitors (their title and numbers vary), were at first 6 in number. At the head of the guild was the alderman, empowered to prosecute for debts, to make leases of guild property with the consent of 12 of the 'most honest' members, and chief of the party in the church services on the annual feast day and at memorial services for dead members. (fn. 6) He had one of the three keys of the guild's chest, the other two being in possession of the chamberlains (hostiliarii), who preceded the alderman to and from church 'with their garlandds and typpe-stavyes in their handds'. (fn. 7) After the appointment of a bailiff they audited his accounts. The dean was responsible for warning the brethren of the death of one of their number, so that they could make offering for his soul, or in default 8lb. of wax. (fn. 8) He led prayers at the guild services and was responsible for the four tapers at the Trinity altar on the feast day; he was entitled to demand wax of newly admitted members for this purpose. (fn. 9) The clerk, though presumably an official from the time of the first recorded proceedings, is not mentioned by name until 1456, when he was ordered to repair the hall. (fn. 10) In 1513 he was required to translate the statutes into English, and in 1531 to read them out at the dinner on Trinity Sunday. He was also required to write up the bailiff's accounts, under penalty of 20s. (fn. 11) There were also two wardens (scabini), who received legacies, paid out benefits and bought the wax for the altar lights. In 1519 the 'skyven' had to provide a 'competent' breakfast for the alderman and brethren on the guild day, 'every one to have drynke if they wyll', and in 1525 to keep the revel and bring the money therefrom to the alderman the following Sunday. (fn. 12)

The number of officers increased with the importance of the guild. By 1472 there was a full-time priest, whose salary was £5 6s. 8d. (fn. 13) In 1514 it was ordained that five masses were to be said for each departed brother or sister. Three years later the guild employed at least three priests whose respective duties were set out in detail. The priests were expected to help in the ordinary services of the parish church, and were not to be absent from the town at night without permission from the alderman. A special morrow mass priest is mentioned in 1524. (fn. 14) In 1549 the priests or chaplains numbered four, one being schoolmaster. (fn. 15) Besides the fully ordained priests there was a chaplain, whose office in 1459 and 1461 was combined with that of sacrist and custodian of the altar; he was probably in minor orders only. In the latter year he was required to say vespers at the guild altar after the principal vespers in the quire of the church. (fn. 16) In 1469 he assisted the priest in praying for the souls of the departed, and received a salary of 6s. 4d., probably in addition to the 20d. he received from each member of the guild. (fn. 17) In 1497 it was ordained that eight chaplains should celebrate on certain days at the recently erected altar of the Holy Virgin. (fn. 18) A chantry was founded by the Holy Trinity Guild on the north side of the church in 1453, and endowed with land to the value of £40 a year for the support of its staff.

A bailiff is first mentioned in 1463, his duty being to manage the guild's real estate. (fn. 19) In 1470 he had a salary of 20s., altered in 1531 to 12d. 'on every charge that he schall doo'. In 1472 he was allowed to call in the alderman to help in distraining upon the property of debtors. (fn. 20) In 1483 £10 14s. 4d. was set aside out of issues and fines from the guild estates to pay the priests' salaries. (fn. 21) In 1524 it was laid down that the bailiff was not to make leases of more than one year's duration without the consent of the alderman and chamberlains. (fn. 22)

The hall of the guild is first mentioned in 1423, (fn. 23) but it was probably in existence before then, as it was repaired in that year. Its site is not certainly known. (fn. 24) By 1453 there were two stewards (senescalli) of the hall, probably identical with the marshals of the hall mentioned seven years later. (fn. 25) In 1506 the steward and server was to entertain 'all the pore people then ther present' to what was left over from the Trinity Sunday banquet. In 1515 it was enacted that no member of the guild in good health could have his portion of the banquet sent to his house, but he could send a deputy to the feast if unavoidably absent. (fn. 26)

At its dissolution the guild's officers comprised alderman, bailiff, two chamberlains, a steward and a server in the hall, two cupbearers, two almoners, a 'skyvener', a clerk, and four priests or chaplains. (fn. 27)

The annual festival began on the Friday before Trinity Sunday with a 'mornspeche' in the guildhall before 7 o'clock, after which the bailiff submitted his accounts and the ordinances of the guild were read out. (fn. 28) The first dinner on record, that of 1379, cost £1 8s. 8½d. in food and drink. On that occasion there was also paid 10s. to five minstrels, 5s. 8d. for apparel for ten dancers and 6s. 8d. to the brethren at Lynn for their care and labour. (fn. 29) The expenses were £2 5s. 3d. and £2 3s. 8d. in 1464 and 1465 respectively. (fn. 30) About this time it was laid down that the meal should consist of potage and a haunch of venison for the first course, a stroke of veal 'and no more' for the second, with pullets and chitterlings for supper, and 7 bushels of frumenty and 6 dozen of good beer. (fn. 31)

The guild possessed an image of the Holy Trinity at least as early as 1379, when £1 6s. 8d. was levied from members for its repair. (fn. 32) The first list of the guild's jewellery and plate is undated and unvalued; (fn. 33) it comprised a silver-gilt crown, a stag with a gilt head, a gold figure of Jesus, two Agnus Dei in silver, four crystals, a beryl and a branch of coral, and various crucifixes, rings, brooches, and beads. At the dissolution in 1549 the guild owned 192 oz. of plate, valued (at 4s. 8d. an ounce) at £44 16s. This included a silver-gilt cross, a pyx (silver parcel-gilt), a pair of silver saucers, a chalice (bought in 1460 for £3 12s. 4d.) and a pipe of silver for the cross-staff. (fn. 34)

The estates of the guild are important, as they were taken over by the Corporation' and remained more or less intact until the early 19th century. (fn. 35) In 1524 they amounted to 187 acres, let for £17 5s. a year. The most valuable block was 40 acres in Meadowgate Lane, Emneth, for which £3 a year was received. This was still Corporation property in Watson's time. (fn. 36) The total annual value of the guild's estates in 1549 was put at £28 3s. 2½d., (fn. 37) which is almost certainly an underestimate. A survey of about the same date shows 4 messuages and 466 acres in Wisbech and 2 messuages and 281 acres elsewhere, producing in all £55 3s. 8d. (fn. 38) -a rental comparable with that of some of the most valuable manors in the Isle, such as Doddington, Sutton, and Whittlesey St. Andrew. By 1614, when a schedule of Corporation property was prepared, some fresh purchases had been made and apparently also some old property relinquished. There were then 3 tenements and 341 acres in Wisbech and 2 and 277½ elsewhere. (fn. 39)

The guild was perhaps unpopular and its dissolution predictable as early as 1535, when John Zeugge, priest, and Robert Martyn were admitted members, provided they had no 'approbrious words' with the alderman for the time being and did not try to introduce 'any person spekyng ageyn us'. (fn. 40) The answers to the articles of the Commissioners for the dissolution show the guild in a favourable light; it supported a grammar school and many charitable objects in the town. (fn. 41) The chapel at Murrow is referred to at some length as one of these, but its connexion with the guild is not obvious.


  • 1. The guild records are very incomplete.
  • 2. Cal. Pat. 1452-61, 140.
  • 3. Corp. Rec. i, 1. The entrance fee was sometimes 3s. 4d. as in 1379 and in 1502 (3 admissions), but more usually 6s. 8d. as with 7 other admissions in 1502 and 4 in 1460 (Corp. Rec. i, 27, 59).
  • 4. Corp. Rec. i, 54.
  • 5. Ibid. 24, 27.
  • 6. Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 282.
  • 7. Ibid.
  • 8. Corp. Rec. i, 27.
  • 9. Ibid. 35, 42, 43.
  • 10. Ibid. i. 25.
  • 11. Ibid. i, 70, 89.
  • 12. Ibid. 80, 86.
  • 13. Ibid. 37. £4 6s. 8d. had been paid to a celebrant in 1379.
  • 14. Ibid. 71, 78, 85.
  • 15. Ibid. 106.
  • 16. Corp. Rec. i, 26, 28.
  • 17. Ibid. 22.
  • 18. Ibid. 34, 58.
  • 19. Ibid. 31, 33, 89.
  • 20. Ibid. 35, 37.
  • 21. Ibid. 48.
  • 22. Ibid. 71. The chamberlain was at the same time ordered to make a personal inspection of the estates every year.
  • 23. Ibid. 2.
  • 24. It may have stood in Hill Street (formerly Ship Lane), where was afterwards the first Town Hall and Grammar School; this building still exists. The late E. J. Rudsdale pointed out that underneath Oldham's chemist's shop, at the northwest corner of the Market Place next the New Inn, is a fine basement with a groined vault in three bays, dating from c. 1450. It must have served as the cellar of an important building, perhaps the Trinity Guild Hall.
  • 25. Corp. Rec. i, 24, 27.
  • 26. Ibid. 63, 72.
  • 27. Ibid. 103.
  • 28. Corp. Rec. i, 33. The bailiff also had to prepare an inventory of the jewels and ornaments of the guild, under the supervision of the alderman, to be rendered by Lammas each year.
  • 29. Ibid. 1.
  • 30. Ibid. 32, 33.
  • 31. Ibid. 27, 31.
  • 32. Ibid. 1. The repairs actually cost £1 5s. 3d.
  • 33. Ibid. 2.
  • 34. Ibid. 109-10. The proceeds helped to pay for the equipment of thirty-seven men for the suppression of Ket's rebellion (£28 9s. 8d.), various drainage improvements (£20 5s. 4d.), repairs to the church (£4 5s.), to the market cross (£4 3s. 4d.), and the paving of the Market Place (£17 2s. 2d.).
  • 35. Walker and Craddock, Hist. Wisb. 341-3.
  • 36. Watson, Hist. Wisb. 159.
  • 37. Cal. Pat. 1548-9, 339.
  • 38. S.C. 12/6/23. The 40 acres at Emneth were then let for £4 yearly.
  • 39. Copied into the back of Corp. Rec. v. The rentals are not stated for every holding.
  • 40. Corp. Rec. i, 94.
  • 41. Ibid. 106-8.