In a recent blog we looked at what may seem the rather strange and alien world of medieval indulgences, defined as pardons given for relief from the punishment or penance due for sins confessed. Popes Gregory and Boniface were mentioned, and a range of indulgences for varying periods of time, up to no less than 14,000 years in one instance!
Bishops also had power to grant indulgences in a more limited way. Their powers had been defined by Pope Innocent III in 1215 as the ability to grant one year’s indulgence at the dedication of a church and forty days on other occasions. And so we might now ask, did the bishops of Worcester ever grant indulgences?
The Cathedral Library has evidence that they did on at least three separate occasions. One document is catalogued B464 in the Library’s collection of Leases and Charters. It is dated March 1st 1256, written and sealed by Bishop Walter de Cantilupe to the faithful of the Diocese, granting twenty days indulgence to all who financially support the building work needed by Hereford Cathedral, probably the rebuilding of the north transept, begun by Bishop Peter of Aigueblanche.
This is written in a thirteenth-century style known as Cursiva Anglicana. The need for support is set out in the first two lines of Latin text:
The reward follows on the fourth, fifth and sixth lines, not the maximum time available to a bishop, but half of it, twenty days indulgence:
It is clear from the wording that this indulgence applies to penance that has been imposed on individuals after confession and forgiveness of their sins.
The other two documents are found in the famous White Book of Worcester, so-called because of its original light sycamore boarded cover, which contained a register of charters, deeds and letters arranged in chronological order from 1301 onwards.
Folio XVI of the White Book includes this passage written at the command of William Gainsborough, Bishop of Worcester between 1302 and 1307:
This Latin text is not easy to decipher but we are fortunate to have a translation provided by the indefatigable Canon Wilson in his Worcester Liber Albus: Glimpses Of Life In A Great Benedictine Monastery:
The Angelic Salutation referred to the words of Gabriel to Mary: “Hail full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women.” These words became in time the Hail Mary prayer, often said together with the Lord’s Prayer. Little is known of Matilda Hervers de Wyke, other than that she was a relative of John de Wyke, then Prior of Worcester.
This time the full forty days indulgence is given to those who perform the required prayers. Again the words are clear that it is a relaxation of penance imposed after confession of sins, and that though the prayers are for the dead, the forty days’ indulgence is for the benefit of the living.
The third indulgence is also recorded in the White Book, this time on Folio XI.
Once again we are able to make good use of Canon Wilson’s translation, which includes a wish “to revive the old-established Confraria (Brotherhood or Fraternity) of the mother church of Worcester.” Fraternities were important organisations linking the laity to the churches and providing a source of contributions to their upkeep in the form of annual payments and death-bed legacies. Regular rewards were available in return, and among these were indulgences:
Apparently there was at this time an urgent need for funds for building work, not on the Cathedral church but on the monks’ dormitory which had been neglected for some time and was threatening to fall into ruin. A further point of interest is that this call to the faithful was made in 1302 by Prior John de Wyke during the months when no bishop was in place – the Sede Vacante time, when the Prior could assume some of a bishop’s powers.
But there is also something that could cause confusion. The donors are promised both remission of penance imposed after confession and indulgences as well, perhaps intended to mean that after death 1028 days of punishment in Purgatory would also be remitted!
The Worcester Liber Albus, Glimpses Of Life In A Great Benedictine Monastery In The Fourteenth Century, James M Wilson D. D. (London, 1920)