Chantry is the English term for a fund established to pay for a priest to celebrate sung Masses for a specified purpose, generally for the soul of the deceased donor. Chantries were endowed with lands given by donors, the income from which maintained the chantry priest. A chantry chapel is a building on private land or a dedicated area within a greater church, set aside or built especially for and dedicated to the performance of the chantry duties by the priest. A chantry may have only an altar, rather than a chapel, within a larger church, generally dedicated to the donor's favourite saint. Many altars became richly endowed, often with gold furnishings and valuable vestments.


Mass for the dead

The practice of saying Christian masses to benefit the soul of a deceased person is attested as early as the eighth century. The most common form was the anniversarium or missa annualis, a mass said annually on the date of the person's death. People believed that more numerous masses increased their efficacy. 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 Francia 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 which they founded on their estates.


The word derives, via Old French chanter, from the Latin cantare (to sing)[1] and its mediaeval derivative, cantaria (meaning 'licence to sing mass'). The French term for this commemorative institution is chapellenie (chaplaincy).[2]

Origin of chantries

Current theories (Colvin) locate the origins of the chantry in the rapid expansion of regular monasteries in the eleventh 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

William Wyggeston's chantry house, built circa 1511, in Leicester: the building housed two priests, who served at a chantry chapel in the nearby St Mary de Castro church. It was sold as a private dwelling after the dissolution of the chantries.

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 Henry relieve the monetary pressures of the war with France. Because Henry did not live long after the act's passage, few chantries were closed or given over to him. His successor, Edward VI, had a new Act issued 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 monies to go to "charitable" ends and the "public good," most of it appeared to have gone to Edward VI's advisors. 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 under its implementation.

Historians believe that the most significant effect of the chantries, and the most significant loss resulting from their suppression, was educational. The priests associated with chantries had provided education to their communities. 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; afterward such citizens suffered greatly diminished access to education for their children. Some of the chantries were converted into the grammar schools now called "Edwardian."

Royal Peculiars were not covered by any of the above Acts of Parliament, so were not formally abolished. Most declined over time. The jurisdiction of almost all was abolished in the nineteenth century. Some royal peculiars survive, including Westminster Abbey and St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle.


  1. ^ J.R.V. & J.F. Charles Marchant, Cassell's Latin Dictionary, revised edition, 1892
  2. ^ The New Cassell's French Dictionary, ed. Denis Girard, et al., revised edition, New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1973, p. 144
  • 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)

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